Richard Dix stars as a male model who wins a luxury car in a raffle. That’s good! But the car is cursed and will bring nothing but trouble when either police or women are around. That’s bad! Can Dix overcome the car’s “hoodoo” and win the heart of his lady love? An amiable car race comedy from back when that genre was a thing.
Be careful what you wish for…
Richard Dix is not extremely well known today but he still has a following, mostly due to his work in sound films. Dix played the lead in Cimarron, headlined the Whistler film series and was the villain of The Ghost Ship. Known for his rugged looks and traditionally masculine performances, Dix fans may be surprised to see his gift for light comedy.
In 1925, Dix was doing well for himself at Paramount. He had been the lead of the modern section of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and The Vanishing American, one of Dix’s biggest hits, opened just three months after The Lucky Devil. During his silent career, he split his time between intense films like The Christian and lighter fare like Womanhandled and Too Many Kisses. (If you’ve only seen Dix’s craggy face in his later films, his youthful exuberance and cute dimples may be just as surprising as his comedic chops.)
The sad sack and the go-getter have always been popular heroes in Hollywood film. Either we root for the underdog who can’t catch a break or we cheer as the kid from nowhere works his way to the top. The Lucky Devil takes a different approach. Everything the hero ever dreamed of gets dropped in his lap within the first five minutes of the film. However, nothing seems to turn out the way he planned…
(Note: The copy of the film that I viewed seems to have been retitled as the characters are given different names from what is listed on IMDB, the AFI catalog and contemporary reviews. To avoid confusion, I will be using the names from the home media release as this is the way most viewers will see it.)
Bill Phelps (Richard Dix) is a city boy who has a temporary job modeling camping togs and equipment at a large department store. Part of the display is a snazzy car, a custom job. Phelps is in love with the car and begins to dream of living the outdoor life for real.
But why is that fancy car being used to display camping equipment? The answer becomes clear when the morning papers are delivered. Rudolph Franklyne, Sr. (Thomas Findlay) sees that his son, Rudolph, Jr. (Anthony Jowitt), is in trouble once again. He has lost yet another breach of promise suit, with the offending proposal having been made in his custom-built car. Junior says that he has had nothing but bad luck with cops and women since he bought the car so he is hiding it in the camping display until things cool down.
Findlay Sr. gets an idea. The entire display is being donated to the Girl Scouts so that they can raffle it off. The car will go with the rest camping equipment. Junior doesn’t seem terribly disappointed to be losing his prized car. He declares that the thing is cursed with a “hoodoo.”
Meanwhile, Bill buys up as many raffle tickets as he can afford and wins the camping kit and the car. So, less than ten minutes into the film and the hero has exactly what he wanted. It can only go downhill from here.
Remember how the car’s jinx works on women and cops? Well, Bill nearly runs over a formation of policemen on parade and barely escapes with this life. But what about women? At this point, we meet Doris (Esther Ralston), who is motoring across the country with her Aunt Abbie (venerable character actress Edna May Oliver). It seems that a rich and eccentric uncle has come out of the woodwork and he proposes to make Doris his heir, she just needs to drive to his home to meet him.
Bill shows up and is instantly smitten but Aunt Abbie recognizes the car from the newspapers and assumes that its owner is the infamous lothario she has read about. The rest of the film concerns Bill’s attempts to catch up with the women and lend a helping hand. However, he is constantly hampered by the cursed car.
The Lucky Devil has all sorts of nice little touches that elevate it above the standard fare of its day. For example, there is a cute scene in which Bill tries to impress Doris by inventing a safari adventure in which he fights a lion. The joke is that Bill is a city boy who has never been to the American countryside, let alone Africa, and so the best his imagination can conjure is a very unconvincing guy in a lion costume. It’s a clever way of reinforcing the fact that Bill is making it all up.
The heiress plot thread is neatly turned on its head once Doris and her aunt arrive at the uncle’s estate. He announces that he cannot discuss money matters because… he is an elephant! Doris looks at the sign on the gate and realizes that the “estate” is really an asylum. There are no shortcuts to fortune in this film, it seems.
But hotel bills won’t pay themselves and it seems that the only answer is to enter the local automobile race and win the generous cash prize. However, Bill needs the $100 entrance fee first. Now besides racing, what is the other quick money gimmick in silent films?
Of course, it all goes haywire but Bill and Doris are nothing if not imaginative and he finally is able to pay the entrance fee. The car race manages to be both exciting and funny thanks to the countryside race track and the imaginative ways that the car’s hoodoo manifests itself.
The Lucky Devil, like all successful luck comedies (yes, it is a small sub-genre but it exists), establishes a set of rules and sticks to them. Bill and the car are just fine as long as women and the police are nowhere to be found. Once either type of person shows up, things go sour.
This internal logic is a big part of the film’s success. There is nothing more irritating than a comedy (or a fantasy or sci-fi film, for that matter) that establishes the rules of its world and then disregards them when they become inconvenient. Poor Bill can’t catch a break as long as the fateful combination is nearby and any scraps of good fortune sour. He seems to be doing fine when it comes time for the final curtain but I wouldn’t be surprised if life has another nasty twist in store for him– unless he drops the car, that is.
The Lucky Devil is a merry little programmer. It wasn’t designed to win awards or reinvent the motion picture. Rather, it was intended to provide six reels worth of entertainment and laughter for its audience. It succeeded and thanks to the talented cast and crew, it’s entertaining us nine decades later.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
The Lucky Devil was released on DVD by Grapevine.