Shamedown #11: Happy-Go-Lucky

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We’ve almost made it to December, all! As always, if anyone is arriving late and wants to know what a Shamedown is, the details can be found here. Past Shamedowns can be found here. Now, on with the show…

Ah, the mistaken identity trope. And the amnesia trope. And the lookalike trope. And the espionage trope. And the crooner trope. And the romance trope. The 1936 film, Happy-Go-Lucky sports all of these and more. Well, more like it tosses them in a blender and leaves the top off. I know it’s good form to let a movie make its case, but this is one of those times when that idea is really tough going.

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Mary Gorham (Evelyn Venable) has been looking for her husband, Bill, who was shot down over the Pacific Ocean and who has been accused of treason, so she’s come to Shanghai with her dad, Charles (Jed Prouty) to look for him. Her chaffeur has spotted a guy, John L. “Happy Jack” Cole (Phil Regan) in a Marine uniform singing at a theater who’s the spitting image of Bill. After watching Jack perform, Mary is convinced and runs up to him backstage, where she gives him a big kiss and a hug. Jack is pleasantly surprised and more than a little weirded out, but he agrees to come and see Mary and her dad between shows.

Charles is a radio magnate, and he just so happens to be auditioning a band when Jack shows up, which inspires our supposed wandering Marine to sing along, and then Jack, Mary and Charles get down to brass tacks. Charles and Mary think Jack is really Bill with amnesia and even show him a photo of his apparent self right before he shipped out.

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Jack is polite but says he can’t possibly be Bill (he’s never been in a plane before), and anyway he’s got to get back to the theater. Problem is, just as he stands up to leave the lights are cut, the butler is stabbed, Jack is knocked out, and Mary and Charles are spirited away. Jack wakes up lying neatly on the sofa and hightails it back to the theater, where a gang of toughs tail him.

Our hapless hero latches on to a chorus line and warbles another number, but it’s no use–the crooks catch him, he’s knocked out again, and wakes up on a yacht wearing nothing but his underwear. It’s all Charles’s friend, Bennett’s (Jonathan Hale) fault because he’s in on a scheme to find out what Jack knows about the super-secret plane Jack (Bill) crashed into the ocean.

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Funnily enough, Charles and Mary are being held prisoner on board, and while they’re all happy to see each other, how are they going to escape? By setting a bed on fire of course, after which Jack jumps ship and heads for shore.

The hoodlums are onto him again, though, and Jack has to figure out a way to give them what they want without giving them what they want. It just may involve crooning his plans to Mary, who doesn’t seem to care that Jack isn’t Bill after all, and taking the criminals on a wild flight over Shanghai, complete with barrel rolls. Meanwhile, the real Bill shows up and he’s way crankier than Jack and doesn’t seem to notice Mary, who really doesn’t care because she now has stars in her eyes for Jack.

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Confused yet? It’s completely understandable if that’s the case. As the ending credits rolled on this movie, one question stood out in my mind: What in the actual flying fish did I just watch?

Happy-Go-Lucky was made by Republic Pictures and is another Poverty Row B-movie that was probably shot very quickly and obviously very cheaply. Unlike similar films of the era, it seems to have had a bigger budget because it’s heavily populated with extras, dancers, and non-speaking actors playing Shanghai police. They got a little creative in terms of special effects–when Jack jumps off the yacht, the film’s frame rate slows down to make his plunge look longer. It would be clever if it wasn’t so obvious.

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The filmmakers deserve kudos for roping in Phil Regan, who was a busy radio singer in the thirties and forties and who would have been a familiar voice for audiences in that time. They have him singing as much as possible, even when he’s being held prisoner by Bennett’s henchmen, who use their downtime to noodle around on the piano and sing a bit.

The frequent song breaks don’t help the film, though, which looks as if it was written and edited with hacksaws. Not much is made of the amnesia angle and certainly nothing of the real Bill suddenly appearing on the scene; he never interacts with or shares a screen with Jack at any time. We don’t even see him with Mary, who’s all too happy to fall in love with Bill’s lookalike with no mention of bigamy or Mary divorcing Bill.

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Other story points are just plain laughable, such as when Bill tricks a fisherman out of his clothes by throwing the day’s catch back into the water (the guy jumps in after the fish, natch). There’s also an insanity angle introduced about two-thirds of the way through that goes absolutely nowhere. And when the movie ends, it’s as if the film has put in its time, not that it deserves to end.

In the end, Happy-Go-Lucky was filmed and then probably shelved until TV went back into active development after World War Two. Judging by the meager amount of press it got, it’s very likely no one thought much about it in between (Betty Hutton made a movie with the exact same title a mere seven years later). No one seemed to think about it much afterwards, either, because it’s not mentioned in trade papers or fan magazines after the thirties, although it was likely shown on TV from time to time.

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This Motion Picture Herald ad seems a wee bit exaggerated. (Media History Digital Library)

Amazon has obviously thought about it, though, since the film resides on Prime. Lucky us.

And now on to our usual end-of-the-Shamedown business. Coming up in December (click on the image for more information):

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And because I forgot to tag someone for my Pick My Movie Tag last month, you all get a double-header this time. Our winners are (drum roll, please):

Gabriela from Pale Writer and Terence from A Shroud of Thoughts!

Just as with our other winners, the assignment is (if they choose to accept it) is to review a film from their watchlist, and the longer it’s been on there the better. The other rules can be found here. Congrats, you two!

All right, all, a major announcement is coming up tomorrow, so I hope you’ll check back then. Thanks as always for reading, and have a good one…


Happy-Go-Lucky is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

~Purchases made via Amazon Affiliate links found on this site help support Taking Up Room at no extra cost to you.~

If you’re enjoying what you see on Taking Up Room, please look for additional content on Substack, where you’ll find both free and subscriber-only articles. I publish every Wednesday and Saturday.

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