If you like Cary Grant as much as I do, then it doesn’t matter that 1943’s romantic World War II home-front drama, MR. LUCKY (available on DVD), is neither a great movie, nor a film from an interesting though flawed director, nor even featuring an unusually fine screenplay. It is, though, a terrific vehicle for Cary Grant, who might therefore be called the picture’s auteur by default.
Contributing to the “happy accident” status of the movie is excellent black-and-white lighting by veteran ace cinematographer George Barnes (Oscar for Hitchcock’s Rebecca); extremely effective “production design”—-which certainly must have included many camera set-ups—-from the legendary William Cameron Menzies (designer of Gone With the Wind); and a script intriguingly knowledgeable on the subject of gamblers’ techniques by first-time scenarist Milton Holmes, cleverly streamlined and tailored for Grant by old pro (and soon one of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten”) Adrian Scott. The director H.C. (“Hank”) Potter, who started in radio and theatre, was generally mild and inoffensive, but this remains by far his best work, his second-best being another (more family-oriented) Cary Grant movie, 1948’s extremely likeable Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which co-stars the equally-smooth-at-drawing-room-comedy Myrna Loy and Melvyn Douglas.
The occasionally predictable, but nonetheless engrossingly played, story of Mr. Lucky concerns Grant’s being a crooked gambler who takes over a dead man’s 4-F identity in order to evade the draft, and then gets involved in a war-relief effort from which he plans to bilk all the group’s money until, of course, he falls for society gal Laraine Day (lovely, but not an exceedingly resourceful actress). At this point, Cary’s own accomplices are none too happy about his change of heart. (In real life, Grant gave his entire salary from this picture to war relief.)
The film is constructed in flashback, and contains other stylistic reverberations from the wake of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane of two years earlier (including Kane’s impassive valet Paul Stewart as the main heavy). Whoever injected into the script (maybe Grant with scenarist Scott) the charming use of Australian rhyming slang for the gambler, added a great deal to the evocativeness of the piece. Having cockney-sounding, Bristol-born Cary explain to Laraine that “tit for tat” means “hat,” “bottle ’n’ stopper” means “copper,” and “briney marlin” means “darlin’” becomes inspired movie-star magic, and it’s nicely paid off as well.
Seeing Grant play larcenous, edgy and tough (he puts a roll of coins into his fist to strike a harder punch) becomes especially winning when shown beside his learning how to knit in order to impress the ladies’ group he’s conning—thus admirably covering both the masculine-dramatic and feminine-comic sides of the actor’s enduring persona. This double-whammy, combined with his matinee-idol looks, made him a triple threat like no other male star in picture history. How can we not miss dear Cary and all he stood for. (More on Grant in my Special Link to a long piece I did on him for The New York Observer; there is also a substantial chapter on Cary, which also includes the stuff of our relationship over almost 25 years, in my 2004 book, Who the Hell’s In It.)