Strike Me Lucky (Ken G. Hall, 1934), the only feature film starring the pre-eminent Australian vaudeville performer Roy “Mo” Rene, was a disappointment both financially and artistically (1). However, the scene in which the protagonist, Mo (Rene), goes to a café frequented by gangsters is noteworthy. Mo is accompanied by a Mae West impersonator named June East (Yvonne Banvard) and a runaway heiress, Miriam (Baby Pamela Bevan). It is daytime and the venue is populated by stylishly dressed, moody-looking people of both sexes, including women dancing as couples. Mo offends the male patrons and then tries to impress them with song. A man and woman perform a modern dance that includes mimed wrestling and gymnastic movements. Mo seizes the female dancer and dances with her violently until she retaliates; he then spanks and kicks her. When Mo is besieged by men seeking the reward for Miriam’s return, he and the heiress flee.
Reasons for re-viewing this scene are both textual – the staging and mise en scène suggest cosmopolitan and modernist elements that are rare in Australian film before World War Two – and historical – the sequence can be read differently today than it would have been in the 1930s. The scene would have been intended to showcase Rene’s singing and slapstick skills, in contrast with which the café was probably supposed to parody the behaviour of gangsters and artists. However, the failure of Rene’s comedy to make a filmic impact, at least in part because of the absence of a live audience (2), renders him unsympathetic here. This in turn foregrounds the diegetic conflict between Rene’s aggressive, boastful performance and the café crowd’s libertarian, aesthetic sensibility. The sequence can be read as both an absurd fantasy and a glimpse of deviance and cosmopolitanism in 1930s Australia.
The scene augments references to the relatively new American gangster film genre with a dance sequence that is more redolent of European modernism. An equation of gangsters with perverse impulses is implied in the dancers’ mimed violence and the male patrons’ jealous defence of a sculpture upon which Mo strikes a match. Laissez-faire morality is suggested by the abundance of nonchalantly sultry women and the female dancer’s casually revealing attire, contrasting with then gender-segregated Australian public bars. The apparent contradiction between Mo’s (and Rene’s) European Jewishness and his inability to engage with this seemingly European-influenced subculture is explained by the class disparity between the café’s Art Deco objects and the protagonist’s vulgarity. His incomprehension of this environment surely reflected majority 1930s Australian attitudes.
Viewed today, ironically the cafe seems more consonant with the cosmopolitan society that Australia has become. Indeed, the mimed violence in the dance even prefigures the parody of an avant-garde salon in Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957). Within Australian cinema, the incomprehension implied in Mo’s cruelty towards the female dancer is echoed in later depictions of Australian chauvinism towards unfamiliar cultures, such as Tim Burstall’s Stork (1971) and the Barry McKenzie films. Of little consequence for Rene’s successful career in theatre and radio, Strike Me Lucky is nonetheless of interest today for envisaging flamboyant deviance in 1930s Australia.