Judge Jim Thomas says the lucky lady here is his wife, because she didn't stick around to watch this one.
Luck wasn't a lady this night.
In the fall of 1975, you could not escape TV spots for Lucky Lady. A screwball comedy/romance set on the high seas, it was the cornerstone of 20th Century Fox's winter slate, they had it set for a Christmas release, and they were pushing it hard. It ended up being relatively successful, returning around $24 million on a $12 million budget, but it slowly faded into obscurity. Shout! Factory now brings the crew of the Lucky Lady before the court. As it turns out, that obscurity was well-earned.
Facts of the Case
It's 1930, and Claire (Liza Minnelli, Cabaret) and Walker (Burt Reynolds, Smokey and the Bandit) are stuck in a Mexican border town, eking out a living of sorts and smuggling the occasional load of illegal immigrants to break up the monotony. They're thinking about dabbling in rum running, but Claire's husband, the brains of the outfit, just died, and, while Walker is pleasant enough to look at, thinking just isn't his strong suit. They meet up with Kibby Womack (Gene Hackman, The Royal Tenenbaums), a tough guy on the lam, and together with deckhand Billy (Robby Benson, Beauty and the Beast), they set off. Through sheer chutzpah, they outwit a small-time mobster, McTeague (John Hillerman, Blazing Saddles) who's trying to take control of the Mexico-U.S. bootlegging routes and an overzealous Coast Guard captain (Geoffrey Lewis, Night of the Comet), selling loads of liquor for a small fortune. Along the way, Claire manages to fall in love with both men. Rather than rock the boat, they decide to just be a threesome.
They're enjoying the good life, but Claire fears becoming poor again, so the guys start running more and more liquor until their paths once again cross McTeague's. This time, events take a tragic turn, leading to a high seas showdown.
Some spoilers. Whatever.
Lucky Lady is one of those "can't miss" movies that misses and misses badly. On the surface, she looked seaworthy enough—not only do you have Hackman, Minnelli, and Reynolds in front of the camera, but behind the camera you have Stanley Donen, who helmed such classics as Charade, Indiscreet, and (*sigh*) Singin' in the Rain. How could that kind of talent go wrong? Enter the screenwriters, Willard Hyuck and Gloria Katz. The pair was fresh off a triumph with American Graffiti, so you'd think that base was covered as well; sadly, the script has less in common with their earlier work and much more in common with one of their later, equally (in)famous scripts: Howard the Duck.
The problem is simple—the movie never quite decides what kind of movie it wants to be. The movie most resembles a screwball comedy, but the plot takes entirely too long to get off the ground. Once it does, it has some moments, but then the movie develops a case of schizophrenia. Without warning, Billy gets brutally gunned down. By "brutal," think "Sonny Corleone at the toll booth." Brutal. In the wake of that tragedy, the movie tries to return to screwball mode, and just can't pull it off, so that the rest of the movie just doesn't ring true. If the various plots had been integrated more deftly, if the film had been directed with a lighter touch, if that death had been handled in a lass visceral manner, the shift might have worked, but no such luck here. To an extent, Stanley Donen's hands were tied; shooting at sea proved to be so difficult that both the shooting schedule and the budget doubled as they struggled with the elements—everyone comments on the problems in the featurettes. At some point, it almost certainly became a matter of "forget style—just shoot what you can, and we'll sort it out in editing," but while the story is coherent, the tone is anything but.
The acting is…I won't say bad, but it's…odd. It's kind of bad too at times, come to think of it. Hackman is going through the motions (but let's face it—Hackman on autopilot is still better than most), Reynolds mugs for the camera, and Minnelli does that hyper-kinetic thing that she does. The three acting styles don't quite mesh; Hackman in particular ends up running the gamut, vacillating wildly between brooding man of mystery to screwball goofiness; when he goes for screwball, he never looks comfortable. The supporting roles are a mixed bag. Robby Benson and John Hillerman do good work, but Geoffrey Lewis is just painful to watch.
Technically, Shout! Factory pretty much went through the motions on this one. Video is soft, with inconsistent colors, particularly in exterior shots. The mono soundtrack is clear, but is somewhat tinny and lacks depth. Extras are minimal—some trailers and some vintage featurettes. There were at least two alternate endings, but neither are included.
Trivia: George Segal (California Split) was initially cast as Kibby, but had to withdraw shortly before filming started due to an injury. The producers set their cap for Hackman as a replacement, intrigued by his surprising comic turn in Young Frankenstein. Hackman wasn't interested at first, but they kept offering more and more money—he finally gave in around the $1.5 million mark—and that's 1975 dollars, mind you. At that point, his agent said that it would have been obscene not to take the part.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One scene does kind of stick with me: While Walker and Kibby are out making their runs, Claire is living the high life, with a palatial house, ritzy parties, the works, and you really get the sense that Claire is more in love with the high life than her two men. When she learns of Billy's death, and the imminent retaliation, she's in the middle of a party, and has an amazing transformation. The scene is notable partly because of the godawful dialogue (which is a hallmark of the film: "Gee, it's so quiet in here you could hear a fish fart."), but also because Minnelli does a good job of selling that combination of sudden grief coupled with the realization that she's living large while her men are in dire straits indeed, and her place is with them.
Interestingly, at around the same time Lucky Lady was filming, another director was having his own travails with filming on water; however, things turned out a little better for Steven Spielberg.
Hyuck and Katz' story is a mishmash of ideas that never come together. Between that, the crappy dialogue, and the production problems, the movie really never had a chance. Lucky Lady proves once again that you simply can't make chicken salad out of chicken shit.
Bury this one at sea. Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
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