In advance of a DVD release, Fox Movie Channel showed Lucky Lady one afternoon recently — the first airing of this unlucky movie anywhere in my experience since its premiere in 1975. I saw it back then, when I was — ahem — in my teens, and I thought it was pretty good… my strongest memory was of Liza Minnelli playing a Bessie Smith record (“Young Woman Blues”). I’d never even heard of Bessie Smith, but her deep growling and wailing on the soundtrack made a huge impression on me. And any movie that introduces you to Bessie Smith can’t be all bad.
So I was pretty excited to see the movie again after 35 years. As a movie buff, it’s always nice to discover a “forgotten” film and tell people about it. Maybe it would turn out to be a lost treasure. They’re out there — great little movies that most people have never heard of, and you read about them on the blogs sometimes… Two Seconds, Desert Fury, Strangers When We Meet, No Down Payment, Daisy Kenyon, just to name a few that you can find rapturous little posts about here and there.
Alas, this won’t be one of them. Lucky Lady was supposed to be Fox’s big Christmas hit of 1975: Minnelli’s first movie since Cabaret, co-starring the biggest star of the decade, Burt Reynolds, plus Gene Hackman fresh off his Oscar for The French Connection. It was only a couple of years after The Sting, which had been a hit of immense proportions, and this was an imitation — another story of darling, roguish crooks set in the Roaring ’20s, with cutesy ragtime music and movie stars grinning with cigars in their mouths.
It was even a bit daring for its time: the stars play a floozy and two bums during prohibition, and as they bicker and laugh their way from down-and-outers in Mexico to filthy rich rum runners, they eventually become a ménage a trois… we even see them in bed together. You can tell that the filmmakers were trying for an update of the old ’30s MGM Powell-Harlow-Tracy formula, with a raucous tart battling a tough guy and a mug. Lucky Lady, by the way, is the boat they use to transport hooch up and down the California coast, chased by the Coast Guard and murderous yet comically inept rival bootleggers.
None of it works. There’s no chemistry, for one thing. Hackman was a late replacement for George Segal (who wisely bailed at the last minute). He turned it down also, until the studio offered so much money that he couldn’t refuse, but he looks shamefaced, as if he knows he shouldn’t be there, and as the movie progresses he seems to almost disappear while you’re watching him. Burt Reynolds has a more interesting role, as a klutzy puppy dog with a sad little crush on Minnelli. He’s convincing as a total boob, but not very funny or appealing. You expect Hackman and Reynolds to do the movieish thing and scrap over the woman they both love, but nobody in the movie shows enough feeling to suggest any emotion, much less love.
You couldn’t be in love with Minnelli’s character anyway. Sour and snarling one minute, emotionally vulnerable the next, she’s pigeon-toed and graceless and utterly unappealing. Abrasive boorishness worked for Harlow because her wisecracks were witty and you could feel the joy she took when she told somebody off — she was our heroine, a no-class gal giving the snooty swells a big fat kick in the rear end. Liza Minnelli is (or was…) a very talented woman, but she can’t pull off this particular act. Four or five minutes into the movie, she’s in a dive cantina in Mexico, singing a frowzy fake-cynical Kander and Ebb song, wearing a Harpo Marx wig and a gaudy print dress, and you get the dismal but unmistakable sense that you’re watching a flop.
Not that Fox didn’t try. They poured $13 million into the movie, and there are spectacularly mounted scenes of boats racing along, gun battles, explosions, etc. Some of the sets are huge, though the Teflon-coated fake art deco looks more mid-’70s disco than Jazz Age. They shot three different final scenes, too, after test audiences rejected the original “serious” ending. One of the several attempts found the three characters many years later, still in bed together; this hastily discarded scene of the three actors in lousy old-age makeup is a minor inside-Hollywood legend.
Most catastrophically of all, the director Stanley Donen (or someone; the movie reeks of too many chefs) opted to shoot the film using “flashed” cinematography. This technique lets some extra exposure in as the film is being processed. The result washes out the colors and details, puts a smeary haze around the edges, and brightens and softens everything. Basically, it makes the movie excruciating to look at. Have you ever awakened hungover on the deck of a boat in the glaring midday sun? Well Eddie has, kids, and I can testify that that’s how Lucky Lady looks, for two solid hours.
There’s one saving grace note… watching again 35 years later, I was still enchanted for the brief moments when Minnelli put Bessie Smith on the gramophone. Here was the real voice of the 1920s: smoky and defiant, steeped in rueful experience, but joyful, free and bracing as a shot of bootleg gin. When she belts out her timeless lowdown blues, the contrast with the phony, uneasy little movie surrounding her couldn’t be greater.
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