KAMAD Throwback Thursdays 1975 “Lucky Lady”

Throwback Thursday #TBT

Throwback Thursday on the KAMAD site will be a regular occurrence in the next year. As a motivational project, to make sure I am working on something, even in a week where I don’t see a new film in a theater, I am going to post on movies from 1975. Along with 1984, this is one of my favorite years for movies and it is full of bittersweet memories as well. 1975 was my Senior Year in High School and my Freshman Year in College. The greatest film of the last 60 years came out in 1975, as well as dozens of great and not so great cinematic endeavors. Most of the films in this weekly series will have been seen in a theater in 1975, but there are several that I only caught up with later. I hope you all enjoy. 

Lucky Lady

Three big stars, on a boat, in 1975, that’s a hit right?, Only if you add a shark, otherwise you have the misbegotten and mostly forgotten “Lucky Lady”, an action romantic comedy adventure starring Academy Award winning actor Gene Hackman, Academy Award winning Actress Liza Minelli and soon to be Number One Box Office star in the world Burt Reynolds. You wonder how it could wrong, well let me count the ways.

To begin with, the director Stanley Donen was probably wrong for this kind of picture, although at first blush it seemed like he would be perfect for it. Donen had directed some of the greatest movie musicals of the 1950s, including “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. Liza Minelli had recently won her Academy Award for a musical drama set in the 1930’s, “Cabaret” and she was a friend of Donen’s so it seemed like a good fit. There is a musical number at the start of this film. This part is right up his alley. Unfortunately, that sequence is only 2 minutes of a movie that ran a hundred and twenty-five minutes. Most of the film takes place on boats and you know, that ain’t easy to get right.

The second problem is that the film can’t quite balance the tone. Is this a slapstick nostalgia piece, is it an action film with gangsters shooting it out, or is it a romantic comedy with a ménages à trois as it’s centerpiece? It tries to be all of those things and never hits the right amount of any one element. There were several films in the 1970s that were set in the depression era, gangster films and some others, but there were two that seemed most likely to have inspired Twentieth Century Fox to back this project: “Paper Moon” and “The Sting”. Both of those films managed to get the hardscrabble era right, with a good amount of humor, but not turning it into a cartoon. This script by the married duo Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, is all over the place and Donen compounds the problem by having the lead actors playing it for laughs, in the face of machine guns mowing down people left and right. Burt Reynolds mugging, Gene Hackman aw shucking, and Liza sometimes sincere and sometimes shrill.  

In “The Sting” and “Paper Moon”, everyone is playing it straight. Sure there are a couple of double take looks by Redford when shooting takes place in the story, but you feel the stakes are real. Ryan O’Neal is in serious danger from John Hillerman and his thugs in “Paper Moon”. Hillerman is one of the bad guys in this film, but you never feel  like the main characters are at risk. Reynolds is taking pratfalls during the action and Hackman is aiding and abetting in all of that jocularity in the face of killers. Maybe you can get away with that in “Some Like It Hot” but the premise there is comedic to begin with as the leads are cross dressing to escape the gangsters. It simply doesn’t work here. Especially, when the young companion of the three, gets shot to pieces and we see it with squibs and everything. The joke won’t work in these circumstances.

Both Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds had four movies that they starred in during 1975. They were clearly very busy. I will be covering at least four of those other seven films during the yearlong project here. One of the co-stars in this picture was also in four movies in 1975. Geoffrey Lewis plays the captain of a Coast Guard ship that tries to stop the rum running scheme of the three main characters. This part was all bluster and buffoonery, even when he is pointing machine guns and shotguns on the two men and ordering his crew to basically murder them. This feckless character might work is the violence in the film was all cartoon like, but in the big climax, dozens of people are getting killed. 

The film was given at least three different endings, one of which involved the demise of the two male leads. But having tried to make this a light hearted romp thru bootlegging, that downer of an ending was dropped for something more in keeping with 80% of the film we have been watching. The big sea battle that is the finale of the picture would have made more sense if the eastern syndicate had been pitied against some of these other independent groups earlier in the film. Otherwise, as it seems in the film, they come out of nowhere at the end. In “The Sting” we get a sense of the community of con artists who have come together to take down the bad guy. No such connection was established in this script. 

I can’t quite criticize the cinematography, it seems like it should be a good looking movie, and 

Geoffrey Unsworth, a two time Academy Award winning Director of Photography, had just done “Cabaret” and “Murder on the Orient Express” , two terrific looking period pieces. The problem is, the print I viewed this movie on was from a out of print DVD, that seemed to be badly in need of a remaster. This film is not available to stream anywhere, I had to go to ebay to find a DVD. It looks like it never had a home video release until the 2011 Shout Factory DVD. So though the whole VHS era, this movie was missing. That will tell you how forgotten it must have been.

This was a blind spot for me from 1975. I never saw this film before today, in spite of the fact that it features my favorite actor and it came out in my favorite film year. This was a Christmas release and Christmas 1975 was a tough time for us that year. I was in my first year at college and my schedule with the debate team kept me busy. It slipped by because it bombed and I never caught up with it until now.

Cabaret Fathom Events 50th Anniversary

As amazing as the performances are and the staging of the musical sequences is fantastic, this movie and story are haunting in a way that is difficult to explain. As the nation of Germany is about to be swallowed up by the fanaticism of the Nazis, the decadent entertainment seems to be a distraction from the coming storm. Even when the characters acknowledge the impending doom, they can’t seem to escape from the complications they are living through while the pawl of doom is closing in. 

Director Bob Fosse has made a movie musical for people who don’t like movie musicals. Characters don’t break out in song, unless they are on a stage, or at one point in an audience listening to a staged song. His background in theater shows as these sequences of the performers at the “Kit Kat” club, are all choregraphed with just enough vulgarity to be fitting for this kind of venue, but also enough professionalism to keep us watching closely. The stories that the film is based on sound like they focus on the decadent behavior more than the Nazi threat, and maybe the poverty of the time is not fully conveyed, but I don’t think any of us living today would choose this era to live in. It is the antithesis of glamour, with the exceptions of the characters of Max and Natalia, both of whom seem to have bleak futures despite their wealth.

Liza Minnelli is of course the shining star in the film. She has an unconventional beauty at this point in her life, and her persona was perfect for the somewhat deluded Sally Bowles. I get the impression that the less we know about the real characters that were the inspiration for the stories that the play and the musical are based on, the greater we will enjoy the experience. Michael York seemed to be everywhere in the 1970s, and he was very well cast as the sexually ambiguous Brian. The uncertainty of his character about his own sexuality would be a no no in today’s world, where questioning an impulse is frowned upon. In 1930s Berlin, I would imagine this difficulty was much more understandable. We should have known that the romance between Brian and Sally was doomed, but there are moments when they seem to make each other happy and more confident and that is the sort of thing that drama can thrive on. 

The editing of the musical sequence with the beat down of the maître d’ of the Kit Kat Club was very clever and cinematic. I also liked the choices of audience shots for some of the songs, including the one song that is performed in front of an nearly empty cabaret. There are a few scenes of violence, and knowing what the future held, I am sorry to say that the moment that disturbed me the most involved the death of an animal rather than violence at a person. The mental cruelty of the moment hangs over the rest of the film, and I don’t know how people could continue to seek pleasure in times where this was widely practiced victimization. At the moment, such horrible behavior remains the exception, although every time I look at news articles, I wonder if the fascists on the left and right are aware of how much they do come off as Nazi progeny. 

I too want to enjoy the moments of singing and dancing entertainment on the stage, but Fosse manages to make us pay for that with a guilty conscience. Joel Grey steals the stage every time he shows up, and that is frequently. In spite of the fact that he has no off stage dialogue, he is as central a character as the lovers are. It is a great performance. The Master of Ceremonies is guilty of taking the anti-Semitism of the culture very lightly and that it becomes part of the entertainment may be answers the difficulty of explaining my disquiet in the opening paragraph here. 

“Cabaret” is a terrific film, that will entertain you but also challenge your sensibilities. It is a much more complex film than some seem to realize.