Loyal readers will be looking at the title and saying to themselves “That’s not what I was expecting!” And they’d be right. Originally, I planned on writing about some Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance films. But when I went to watch my films, I discovered they had already expired from FilmStruck. So I had to call an audible. But luckily, when FilmStruck closes a door, they open another larger door. They added a ton of Cary Grant movies, several obscure, and most of which I hadn’t seen, so I selected from them. This week’s films are:
H.C. Potter – Mr. Lucky (1943)
Irving Reis – The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
I had never seen either of these films, and had never even heard of one, but I love discovering obscure films, so even though I missed my shot at the song and dance films so I was really looking forward to these.
Let’s get into it.
Mr. Lucky (1943)
A gambler, Joe, is getting ready to make his big score with a casino ship when he’s drafted for the Army. Rather than report, he steals the identity of a recently dead man who has washed out, ensuring that he won’t be caught for draft-dodging. To raise the money to get the boat going, he gets involved with the War Relief charity, who needs $100,000 to complete their major mission to send supplies to Europe. He plans to run their event, stealing the money. But will Joe be able to get out of it when it turns out the identity he stole is out on a parole violation? And will the women running the charity figure out his scheme before he gets away?
The film stars Cary Grant and a lot of other actors that aren’t well remembered, but some recognizable character actors, including Gladys Cooper who we’ve seen before, and Paul Stewart. It’s directed by H.C Potter, who I’ve never heard of, but had a nice little career as a director. But of course we’re watching this film for Cary Grant. As far as positioning this within his career, he had already been in a lot of his better known roles, like His Girl Friday, Suspicion, The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, and a lot of others. Of course, his most famous role in North By Northwest was still a long way away, but he was definitely a major star at this point.
And he’s brilliant, as he usually is. Cary Grant always jumps off the screen, but in a film with a lot of lesser known actors, he’s an even stronger presence. His character has a lot of the Grant charm, but he’s also playing a draft-dodging gambler so he’s a major anti-hero.
One thing that really jumps out about this film is the general tone. This is a film made in the middle of World War II, an era where films were generally hyper-patriotic. But this film starts with several characters getting their draft notices, and then all making plans on how to get out of it. They then discover that one draft card is a 4-F, meaning they won’t be drafted. The card is for a man that has recently died on the ship, Joe Bascopulo. The two leaders of the gang, Joe, played by Grant, and Zepp, played by Paul Stewart, both claim it, agreeing to shoot dice to see who gets it. Joe wins and makes an enemy out of Zepp, who upon visiting the draft board, discovers his blood pressure is too high to enlist.
The idea of a movie about characters who are willing to do just about anything to avoid serving their country is just so strange to me considering how every film from that era seemed to be either about how patriotic everyone was, or at the very least had a subtext of patriotism. The main characters in this film have no patriotism at all. The look on Zepp’s face when he discovers they won’t take him is a joy I rarely see played on film.
Furthermore, Joe is trying to launch his gambling boat, and needs 50 thousand dollars to cover bets. After striking out with his normal haunts, he discovers a charity called War Relief is raising 100 thousand dollars to send a supply ship to Europe. He immediately decides he can use them to get what he wants.
So we have a draft-dodging identity thief who is now working to steal a charity blind. It takes a special actor to make that kind of character work, but Cary Grant is more than up to the challenge. He heads into the charity, and starts sweet-talking the director, convincing her almost immediately that a gambling night will raise all the money they need to launch their ship. The director is ready to agree until Dorothy enters. Dorothy is played by Laraine Day who is not someone I recognized, but she does a fair job in the film.
Her character unfortunately isn’t very well-written. She plays the foil until the moment the film needs her to fall madly, pathetically in love with Joe. Still, she gets a few interesting moments in. When Joe realizes she won’t budge, he decides to join the organization as a volunteer, and is immediately placed on knitting duty.
This is a strange part of the film. It seems like Dorothy and the film are trying to emasculate Joe, and initially Joe is horrified by the idea as a pleasant woman teaches him different knitting methods. But the knitting becomes a regular joke in the film that kind of goes past expected gender norms. Joe calls his driver Crunk in and makes him learn as well. Crunk shows the initial hesitation and outrage that Joe does, but in the next scene, Crunk is showing the other men in the gang how to knit. Even later in the film, Joe walks by a tea cozy, and admires it, asking the owner technical questions about how it was knitted.
It doesn’t sound like much, but for a film from the 40s this is pretty progressive. It doesn’t play like Joe or Crunk are supposed to be humiliated and emasculated, it plays like these two men have discovered something fun that other men have been missing out on for years. Something highly technical and rewarding.
The other thing the film introduces is rhyming slang, where in a word is substituted for a rhyming word in it’s place. Americans are probably most familiar with Cockney rhyming slang, but here it’s introduced as Australian rhyming slang. The film spends a long time explaining it, and it’s peppered in throughout the film, mainly being used as a way for Dorothy to warn Joe when the police arrive to arrest his alter-ego. But it’s also used as callbacks in a lot of different ways.
The film proceeds with Joe eventually convincing the War Relief charity to go with his gambling night idea. He also starts getting deeper into his alter-ego, trying to figure out what kind of danger he’s in from the law, and discovering a letter from the other Joe’s mother in Greek.
The film turns on Joe taking the letter to a Greek church, and having the priest read it to him. The letter tells the story of the Nazi forces coming into the village, killing all the men, including Joe’s brothers. It’s a heart breaking scene, and we can see it on Joe’s face that he’s realizing how dire the situation is. It completely changes the tone of the film, and Joe’s character. In the next scene, the gambling night has started, and Joe decides to give the charity all the money they make.
However, Zepp has been hanging around, and becomes the villain in this section of the film, making all the men turn against Joe, and trying to rob the charity. There’s a decent action and turnabout scene here, and Joe gets the money and gets it back to the charity before disappearing. There’s a bit more here involving Dorothy pining over Joe, and a reunification scene, but not much worth discussing.
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (1947)
A judge, Margaret Turner takes care of her 17 year old sister, Susan. An artist named Dick Nugent gives a talk at Susan’s school and she’s immediately smitten. She takes a harmless suggestion that she could model for him too far, and sneaks into his apartment late at night, where she’s caught with Nugent by her sister and the assistant district attorney. Margaret thinks that if they send Nugent to jail, Susan will see him as a martyr, so she suggests that Nugent be forced to spend time with Susan until she naturally loses interest in him. Thus begins a screwball adventure where Nugent tries to get the young girl to ignore him and Susan is convinced that she’s beginning the rest of her life with her new boyfriend.
The film is directed by Irving Reis, who’s best known for a series of detective films featuring a character called “The Falcon”. Although I had never heard of these films previous to looking at his IMDb, it seems to be the most notable thing there. Unlike the previous film, which starred Cary Grant and a lot of character actors, this film has some star power. In addition to Grant, it also stars the brilliant Myrna Loy, who we’ve seen a couple of times before, along with a teenage Shirley Temple, past her heyday, but still a pro.
The film gives us about 10-15 minutes of setup before we even see Cary Grant. We start with the home life of the Turner’s, setting up their roles and relationship. Grant is introduced as Nugent, a defendant in Judge Turner’s courtroom. He’s apparently been in the middle of a club brawl, which involved a couple of women fighting over him. It sets Nugent up as a real ladies man. Judge Turner dismisses the case, and sends everyone on their way.
Susan Turner is set up as a flighty teenager, only concerned with her little problems. This is pretty much her entire character arc. When she attends a lecture about art given by Nugent, she immediately becomes smitten. There’s a great bit of business here where we see Nugent through Susan’s eyes, and he appears in a shining suit of armor. Susan finagles her way into an interview with Nugent where all her questions seem to be about his relationship status.
Shirley Temple plays the lovestruck teenager perfectly. Every time the camera catches her, she’s completely enamored of Nugent. Her character is a bit one-note, but it works for the film. We understand at least why she sneaks into his apartment to wait for him, assuming that he wants her to be his model for a painting on young America. Margaret and Tommy, the assistant district attorney who works with her, and seems to think he’s dating Margaret begin looking for Susan, and track her to Nugent’s apartment. Just in time for him to get home and get comfortable before the two break in, catching him in a compromising situation.
The film does a great thing here, and it’s ensuring that Nugent never once shows the slightest bit of interest in Susan. The film could have gone in a very bad direction if he had done any kind of adult flirting or innuendo, even unintentionally, but Grant is too good an actor for that. In every scene, he’s deeply uncomfortable, or completely uninterested.
This brings us to the central conceit of the film, wherein Nugent is ordered to spend time with Susan until she loses interest in him. The idea is brought up initially by Matt, the court psychiatrist who is also Margaret’s uncle. He suggests that Susan might martyr Nugent if he’s sent to jail over her love, and dedicate her life to him. Margaret takes it as her own, and suggests it to the judge, who agrees. Nugent is of course, horrified, but has no choice but to go along with it or face jail time.
This is a story that would be very different if made in a modern era. Here it’s treated as light-hearted fun as Nugent tries to push Susan away gently, trying to figure out different strategies to be unappealing. In a modern film, a grown man having a teenage girl pursue him would be a pretty dark theme. It brings to mind a story like Lolita. I don’t think a modern filmmaker would be able to make a lighthearted version of this and be taken seriously. But this film makes it work, mainly because of the era, but largely because of the charm of Cary Grant. There are maybe a few actors of the era who could have pulled this off, but Grant really nails it.
His first move is to try to get Susan interested in her high school boyfriend, Jerry. He talks up Jerry at the basketball game he’s playing at, and invites him to the ice cream parlor after the game. But this backfires on him, as Susan and Jerry very amicably break up.
His next move is when things get fun. He decides that rather than be the sophisticated grownup that Susan is smitten with, he will act like the teenager that she’s normally surrounded by. He borrows Jerry’s jalopy, messes up his clothes, and starts reveling in his recaptured youth. Seeing Cary Grant act like a teenager, matching Shirley Temple move for move is true, unadulterated joy. He goes with the whole family to a picnic with various events. He starts competing in the events, trying to win against Tommy the ADA. He ends up losing event after event and gets competitive, finally winning the final event.
At first, I was pretty confused at how a man clearly in his 40s could beat a bunch of high school students at an athletic competition, until later it’s revealed that Susan paid the younger men to ensure Nugent would win.
But ironically, seeing Nugent win at the competition catches the eye of Margaret. She sees him the suit of armor the same way Susan saw him earlier. Margaret decides to let Nugent off the hook, and take him for herself. Nugent has also started to fall for Margaret.
Of course, Susan is not involved in this plan, and it leads to the biggest screwball scene, where Nugent and Margaret go to a fancy dinner, and almost every other character from the film shows up to confront them. First, another couple that knows Nugent elbows their way in. Then Susan shows up, then Jerry, who’s been drafted, and then Tommy, the ADA. Adding to the hilarity is that the band keeps playing happy birthday for various people in the restaurant.
The scene is a lot of fun, Cary Grant was in a lot of screwball comedies, and he’s a pro, and Myrna Loy was in the entire Thin Man series, which was one of the major screwball comedy series in all of cinema. The film really makes good use of the duo in this scene
There are a few more scenes in the film, but nothing really of substance. We get the standard romantic comedy ending, where the two end up together, which is orchestrated by Matt, the psychiatrist.
The Double Feature
Watching two Cary Grant movies is never a bad time. The man is an amazing actor, and maybe one of the most charming people that’s ever appeared on screen. And these two films show his incredible range. He can play a draft-dodging gambler who finds redemption, and then a fun, kind, caring man who’s enjoying the single life and is doing his best not to hurt a young girl. Grant had an incredibly varied career, playing straight villains, heroes, and plenty somewhere in between.
As for the individual films, both are quite good, mainly because of Cary Grant. Mr Lucky in particular is one that could have been really great with some stronger actors in the supporting roles, and a better written female lead. Dorothy spends about half the film as strong and capable, but as soon as she comes up against trouble from a dock worker who refuses to unload a ship without a payment, she lets Joe handle it by taking him into his office and beating him up. Previously, Dorothy has been horrified by Joe offering to hold a gambling night, but she’s ok with him roughing up a dock worker? And why didn’t she push him aside to handle it herself? This is a man who joined their organization within the last week, and he’s being trusted to solve a serious problem. Doesn’t make sense.
She then gets way too interested in the scams he runs involving rigged coins and other things. She also doesn’t seem to be bothered at all when her butler notices he has a gun, or discovers he’s stolen $6000 from her. And near the end of the film, she screams for him like a maniac, begging him to take her with him while he leaves on a boat. This isn’t a romantic relationship, it feels more like Stockholm syndrome.
The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer is better, mainly because of the cast. Myrna Loy is wonderful as always, and Shirley Temple works really well as the lovestruck teen. But in general, it’s lighthearted and fun, and it works. The only major flaw is the title, which is way too long. But I don’t know if it’s really worth trying to dive deep into the film further than that. It’s not trying to say anything, and it’s not trying to solve any problems. And that’s ok. Not every film has to have a serious message.
Classes started last week, and it’s good to get back into the grind. I started to work on my dissertation in earnest. I actually wrote about 2000 words of the introduction this week, copy pasting a lot of it from previous documents I’ve worked on. It’s going to be a long process, but I’ll get there.
So what about next week’s films? I know I just did some 70s films recently, but I just can’t resist a pairing on FilmStruck, who were promoting Michael Crichton as a director. I knew he directed WestWorld, and I’d seen the film before, but I didn’t realize he had directed several others. So next week’s films are:
Michael Crichton – Coma (1978)
Michael Crichton – Looker (1981)
I decided to skip WestWorld, even though it’s his most famous film, because I was interested in exploring his other films. They should be interesting.
And for the week after, post 75, I’ve got something special planned.
See you then.