Strike Me Lucky: Social Difference and Consumer Culture in Roy Rene’s Only Film


Strike Me Lucky (Australia 1934) presents an imaginative view of Australian society and consumer culture in the 1930s. The only film starring vaudeville star Roy Rene, it has been largely dismissed because of its poor box office performance and perceived artistic failure. Yet Strike Me Lucky is significant for centring on a prominent Jewish Australian comedian and for being an early screen example of Australian ethnic humour. The film’s diverse view of Australian society undermines perceptions of the 1930s as culturally homogeneous and Anglocentric. Its depiction of a modern consumer culture reflects upon Australia’s relationship to Hollywood and modern capitalism.


Starring the pre-eminent Australian vaudeville performer Roy “Mo” Rene, Ken G. Hall’s Strike Me Lucky(Australia 1934) presents an imaginative view of Australian society and consumer culture in the 1930s. The film’s episodic narrative centres on the character of Mo McIsaacs and his pursuit of wealth through a series of comical encounters with gangsters, eccentric aristocrats and Bondi lifesavers. Despite being Rene’s only film, Strike Me Lucky has been largely dismissed by critics and historians because of its poor box office performance and failure to replicate Rene’s vaudeville popularity on screen.[1] Yet this film is significant for a number of reasons that render it unusual among Australian films produced before World War Two. Strike Me Lucky centres on a prominent Jewish Australian comedian and is an early film example of Australian ethnic humour. It presents a diverse view of Australian identity in speech and action, undermining perceptions of 1930s Australia as culturally homogeneous and Anglocentric. Moreover, the film’s depiction of a modern consumer culture reflects upon Australia’s relationship to Hollywood and modern capitalism.  This article expands knowledge of early Australian film comedy by offering the first sustained analysis of Strike Me Lucky.

Roy Rene and comedy film

Roy Rene’s pre-eminent popularity in vaudeville rendered his first film, Strike Me Lucky, an “important” production.[2] Rene had achieved great success in vaudeville as part of a comedy duo called Stiffy and Mo, with Nat Phillips from 1916 to 1928, and in a subsequent solo career that included performing to “packed houses” throughout World War Two.[3]  Notwithstanding Rene’s enduring popularity, however, Strike Me Lucky was made in a period in which Australian theatres were in crisis and many were closing because of movies’ growing popularity.[4] While a successful film could have extended Rene’s career in this context, Strike Me Lucky exemplifies the potential difficulty of a performer’s transition from vaudeville to the screen:[5]  an issue often overshadowed by the screen success of such stage performers as Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, and, to a lesser extent, Australia’s George Wallace.[6]  At the same time, high expectations of Rene’s first film probably contributed to subsequent disappointment at its perceived financial and artistic failure.[7]  This negative response is exemplified by the common designation of Strike Me Lucky as the only Cinesound film that failed initially to make a profit, although it eventually recovered its production costs.[8] Blamed for the end of Rene’s film career, Strike Me Lucky is both a document of a short-lived film career and an Australian example of the use of spectacle and narrative in early sound comedy film.[9]

Strike Me Lucky can be situated within an international critical debate about early sound comedy films. For instance, Henry Jenkins notes a tendency for film critics to praise silent comedies above early sound comedies on the basis that the latter have incoherent narratives and inconsistent characterisations.[10] Even the celebrated early sound comedy films of the Marx Brothers and W. C. Fields[11] have episodic narratives and disparate plotlines that juxtapose naturalistic performances with vaudeville-style routines. Fred Parsons’ opinion that Strike Me Lucky was flawed by a script that gave Rene “few chances to be the Mo his mob loved” echoes such objections to early sound comedies.[12] The difficulty of incorporating an established vaudeville persona into a narrative progression is implied in Ken G. Hall’s view that Strike Me Lucky was flawed by a poorly developed screenplay, in which the collaboration between gag writer Victor Parker and musical comedy playwright George D. Parker encapsulates the potential for incongruity in this type of film.[13] Yet Strike Me Lucky can be redeemed by Jenkins’ assertion that early sound comedies are “pleasurable” in their incoherence.[14] Like the American films that Jenkins analyses, Strike Me Lucky provides “immediate pleasure in comic spectacle” and enables sustained reflection on the significance of “local … aberrant elements” in the narrative.[15] Strike Me Lucky is a more complex text than previously estimated when it is read “atomistically, as a loosely linked succession of comic ‘bits’” in which the idea that “the parts are more satisfying than the whole” is not necessarily a negative criticism.[16]

Incoherence in Strike Me Lucky is most evident at the level of performance, in a tendency for secondary characters to upstage Rene, who had difficulty performing for a camera. Although producer-director Ken G. Hall ultimately accepted responsibility for the film’s shortcomings,[17]  Roy Rene was the most conspicuous bearer of this failure. The shooting of Strike Me Lucky revealed that Rene relied on a live audience to validate his performance, a function that the film crew was able to fulfil only with initial takes.[18]  The inconsistent effectiveness of Rene’s performance is exemplified by a scene in which Mo seeks employment as an assistant to a tailor, Lowenstein. After Lowenstein tries to sell a customer an ill-fitting suit and Mo intervenes successfully to elicit a higher price, Mo tells the tailor that he was previously employed in “ladies’ underwear” but found the business to be “too scanty”. Here, the relative comedic effectiveness of the business involving the suit may be attributed to the fact that the sequence does not rely on Rene’s performance alone. Much of the humour arises from the suit’s cavernous size and from Bert Le Blanc’s memorable portrayal of the stereotyped Jewish tailor, whose response of “Oy vey!” tends to validate Rene’s portrayal of the obsequious Mo as a theatre audience might. With the verbal double entendre about the “scanty” underwear business, though, Rene’s spluttering laughter at his own joke tends to emphasise negatively the absence of an audience and implies self-satisfied smugness.[19] Despite such inconsistencies at the level of performance, however, Mo’s interaction with secondary characters is significant for forming an early example of ethnic comedy in Australian film.

Although dismissed as an artistic and box office failure, Strike Me Lucky is a rare document of the work of Australia’s pre-eminent vaudeville performer and a local example of vaudeville-derived early sound comedy. The film is of particular interest for its use of ethnic humour.

Ethnic humour

Strike Me Lucky is a rare Australian film example of Jewish humour. Rene’s extension of his Jewish stage persona to the screen positions this as an exception to Freda Freiberg’s assertion that “Jews are not associated with images and archetypes of Australia and Australians”.[20] Freiberg attributes the absence of Jews on Australian screens to such factors as the small size and fragility of the local film industry, the relative abundance of Jewish stories in American cinema, and Australian audiences’ lack of awareness of “an absence” of Jews in Australian film.[21] She suggests that the overshadowing presence of American Jewish culture is reflected in Strike Me Lucky in similarities between Mo and the Jewish connotations of Charles “Chaplin’s tramp persona”, and in Mo’s affinities with “Groucho Marx’s lecherous persona”.[22] Indeed, a subplot in Strike Me Lucky in which Mo befriends a seemingly impoverished girl is redolent of Chaplin’s The Kid (USA 1921). Equally, the lecherous tendencies that Rene exhibited through sexual humour on stage[23] are echoed in Strike Me Lucky in the reference to the “scanty” underwear business. Yet Rene’s contribution of Jewish humour to Australian film also departs from contemporary American developments.

The affinities between Strike Me Lucky and foreign comedy films are somewhat superficial. Mo’s resemblance to Groucho Marx contrasts with the fact that Rene’s performances were aimed primarily at Australian, not international audiences.[24] John Tulloch identifies Strike Me Lucky as “the most local” of Ken G. Hall’s Cinesound films “in its audience appeal”, and Hall notes that Rene’s vaudeville popularity was limited largely to Australian east-coast cities.[25] The overt references to Jewish identity in Strike Me Lucky are more consistent with Rene’s local popularity than with the effacement of ethnicity in the Marx Brothers’ films. Although the Marx Brothers were Jewish, Groucho Marx’s absence of a specific ethnic identity on screen is seen to exemplify American cinema’s assimiliation of immigrant ethnic identities into “a comedy more congenial to a [wider,] middle-class and intellectual audience”.[26] The Jewish references in Strike Me Lucky contrast with the universalisation and “de-Semitization” of American screen comedy by 1934[27] and underscore the remoteness of Rene’s vaudeville-derived humour from Hollywood and American society. Whilst the public images of Hollywood stars were manipulated to efface markers of social difference in attempts to appeal to wider audiences, Rene’s performances “played on his Jewishness throughout his career”.[28]

The fact that Rene’s Jewish persona was well-known to the intended audience for Strike Me Lucky is implied in the film’s opening scene. Set at a city bookstand, the sequence opens with a shot of an unidentified hand perusing and abruptly discarding a book entitled 1000 and 1 Ways to Cook Ham (sic). Here, the use of a reference to Rene’s Jewish identity as a means of introducing the protagonist, whilst delaying the first glimpse of his face, indicates that this ethnicity was one of his most recognised traits. Only towards the end of the scene is the hand revealed to belong to Mo. Although references to Jewish identity are neither central to the narrative nor constant throughout Strike Me Lucky,[29] the film’s juxtaposing of such references with allusions to Scottish, Irish and Greek identities is significant for forming an early example of ethnic comedy in Australian film. The ethnic humour in Strike Me Lucky presents a perspective of 1930s Australia that is at odds with a perception of this as a “homogeneous” and predominantly British culture; it is more consistent with David Malouf’s assertion that the homogeneity of Anglo-Australian culture included unobtrusively “a place for what was contrary, the non-conformist and dissenting”, in his account of growing up from the late 1930s as an Australian of Lebanese background.[30]  Rene’s Jewish persona in Strike Me Lucky alludes to the diversity of Australian society in a period that precedes both World War Two and the later inception of multiculturalism.

Lacking a local film tradition of ethnic humour, the comedy of ethnic difference in Strike Me Lucky can be linked to an international vaudeville tradition in which “the virtuosity of the individual comic performer” is showcased “through a complex interweaving of stock characters and dialects”.[31]  This virtuosity is manifested in Strike Me Lucky in the alternate assertion and ridiculing of Mo’s Jewish identity, a pattern that was also evident in Rene’s stage routines.[32]  In one scene, for instance, Mo’s Scottish boarding-house mate, Donald, jokes that he saw Mo in a pork butcher’s shop with a lemon in his mouth. The interweaving of references to various ethnic identities is evident when Mo, in turn, ridicules Donald’s habit of playing bagpipes early in the morning. The idea that some of the film’s ethnic jokes are displaced references to Jewishness is suggested by Mo’s parting words to Lowenstein upon losing his job at the tailor’s shop: “I never wish to work for a Greek again”. Ethnicity is also an object of ironic allusion in the first encounter between Mo and the gangster Al Baloney. When the latter addresses the protagonist as “O’Brien” and Mo responds, “’Ow’d you know I was Irish?”, the characters assess one another implicitly as rivals. At the same time, the ambiguous ethnicities of the names of Mo McIsaacs and the English-sounding character of Baloney are consistent with the interweaving of stock ethnic types. Given public concerns during Rene’s career that his Jewish persona was offensive to the Jewish community and promoted anti-Semitism,[33]  the interweaving of ethnic references in Strike Me Lucky defies assimilation by sustaining a vaudeville tradition of ethnic stereotypes that Hollywood was leaving behind.

Yet the film also promotes integration of ethnic difference within the protagonist and society. After Mo and Donald’s initial exchange of ethnic jokes, for instance, they become friends and co-conspirators in a search for gold. Moreover, Freda Freiberg has noted affinities between Rene’s comedic persona and Anglo-Australian identities. She observes that colloquial phrases for which he was known became later linked to “ocker” behaviour, which is in turn closely associated with ideas of Australian identity.[34]  Rene’s characteristic use of such phrases as “Strike me Lucky!”, “You beaut!” and “I’m a wake-up to you”[35] positions him alongside Barry Humphries/Dame Edna Everage (“Hello possums”) and Paul Hogan (“G’day”) as one of few Australian comedians who became distinctively associated with specific catchphrases. Indeed, Strike Me Lucky presents Mo as being equally at home in rural Australia as in the city when he emits a friendly greeting to a kangaroo and imitates an emu whilst searching for a gold mine. In a period in which the White Australia policy required Australians of non-British background to adopt Anglo-Australian customs, and before a late 1930s backlash against refugees resulted in stereotyping of Jews as “incapable of assimilating”, Roy Rene’s persona asserted Jewish and Anglo-Australian attributes with a seemingly carefree disregard for social prejudice.[36]

Mo’s simultaneous difference from and affinity with the Australian is foregrounded in Strike Me Lucky when he and Donald attempt to become surf lifesavers at Bondi Beach. From the scene’s beginning, the pair are positioned as outsiders through their comically inappropriate attire: Mo wears an old-fashioned men’s bathing suit that features a skirt and displays the words “kiddi kossi” while Donald has donned ill-coordinated tartan shorts and a striped tank top. The contrast between their gauche, unathletic bodies and the lifesavers’ streamlined costumes and muscular physiques is symptomatic of the idealised status that swimmers had attained as emblems of Australian identity by 1934.[37] In this context, Mo and Donald’s ensuing demonstration of their lack of lifesaving skills foreshadows the scene in They’re a Weird Mob (Australia 1966) in which the Italian protagonist is reprimanded for his ignorance of beach safety.[38] The lifesaving scene in Strike Me Lucky is an early film example of the “othering” of the Australian, a tendency for Australian storytelling to “stand in an external and observing relationship” to that which is thought to be distinctively Australian.[39]  For instance, a perception of the lifesavers’ Australian pronunciation as foreign becomes evident when Mo recites poetry, having misinterpreted a lifesaver’s instruction to “resuscitate” an unconscious man. Yet Strike Me Lucky ultimately eschews the subordination of the protagonist to Australian athletic masculinity by positioning the latter as perverse.

The problem of Mo and Donald’s difference from the lifesavers is effaced when the latter depart to attend to another emergency, leaving the protagonists to revive an unconscious man who has been rescued from drowning. Like the lifesavers, the man has an athletic build and wears a modern swimming costume. The sequence becomes a comedic spectacle when the unconscious man’s body is revealed as perverse through its involuntary responses to Mo and Donald’s attempts at resuscitation. The man’s mouth projects a stream of water into Donald’s face and his leg springs up when massaged by Mo. The portrayal of the man’s movements as perversely mechanical is underscored by the soundtrack’s inclusion of a metallic squeaking during this episode. Moreover, latent homosexuality is implied when the unconscious man springs up and bites Mo’s posterior, traps Mo between his legs and performs the splits whilst rotating on the table. Yet denial of homosexuality is also evident, in the man’s unconscious state and his denigration of Mo’s lifesaving skills after regaining consciousness.[40] Having thus portrayed athletic masculinity as a machine-like other and as perversely contradictory, however, the scene ends with a reconciliation between Mo, Donald and the lifesavers, who all link hands to sing a song about being “pals”. In Strike Me Lucky, the positioning of the protagonist as both an outsider and an honorary Australian may be attributed at least partly to Roy Rene’s then pre-eminent popularity in vaudeville.

Viewed today after the popularity of such films as The Wog Boy (Australia 2000) and Fat Pizza (Australia 2003) and the television series “Pizza” (Australia 2000-), the comedy of ethnic difference in Strike Me Lucky presents a cosmopolitan view of 1930s Australia that is remarkable for preceding by decades the official inception of Australian multiculturalism in 1973. Indeed, the allusions to social diversity in Strike Me Lucky are at odds with the film’s production in a period in which the term “cosmopolitan” was commonly used negatively. The use of the term to vilify “nonconformists, including Christians, Jews, aristocrats, merchants, homosexuals and intellectuals” precedes present-day revisionist interest in cosmopolitanism as a “middle-path alternative” to “ethnocentric nationalism and particularistic multiculturalism”.[41] Indeed, the comedy of Roy Rene exemplifies Suzanne Rutland’s observation that “[p]re-war Jewish refugees were the forerunners of [Australia’s post-World War Two] transformation from a cultural backwater into a vibrant multicultural society”.[42]  Strike Me Lucky is a rare example of the use of ethnic humour in an Australian film that precedes World War Two, multiculturalism and post-war cosmopolitanism.

As well as being a rare instance of Jewish humour in Australian film and an early example of Australian ethnic screen comedy, Strike Me Lucky depicts a cosmpolitan consumer society. The film’s urban setting and secondary characters portray a contemporary Australian consumer culture that promotes “manufactured cultural artifacts” as sources of “stimulation” and “active and creative” uses.[43]

Consumer culture

The narrative of Strike Me Lucky is set against the backdrop of a modern Australian consumer society in which local people embrace an international circulation of commodities and styles. In her study of modernity in Sydney between the depressions of the late 1890s and the late 1920s, Jill Julius Matthews argues that the city’s “constant interaction with the rest of the world” was manifest in the public’s embrace of cinema, dance halls, radio serials, magazines and advertising as sources of “glamour and excitement”.[44]  Although “national elites” objected to cosmopolitanism as “Americanisation” (p. 11), Matthews sees the cinema as pivotal to the development of Australian “vernacular modernism”, Miriam Hansen’s term for everyday activities that “articulated and mediated” ordinary people’s experiences of modernity as a wider social transformation (p. 15). Whereas histories of Australian film have tended to privilege nationalist perspectives,[45] Strike Me Lucky is more consistent with Matthews’ argument that optimism characterised the modern consumer culture that provided Australians with access to “the most attractive and newest entertainment” from both locally and abroad (p. 144). The film celebrates the participation of ordinary Australians in this consumer culture.

In the predominantly urban setting of Strike Me Lucky, Mo’s spontaneous and often illicit pursuit of profit is juxtaposed with other characters’ participation in a consumer culture that combines international and local styles, frivolity and thrift, and organised and ad hoc enterprises. An aristocratic man tells his daughters that their lavish spending will drive the family to poverty; a gangster’s woman reinvents herself in the image of Hollywood star Mae West; a picture book inspires the aristocrat’s young daughter to pose as a street urchin; salesmen are seen peddling vacuum cleaners, cut-throat razors, books, magazines, taxi rides and ill-fitting suits. The pivotal significance of modern media in this environment is suggested by the film’s references to magazine publishing, movies, radio and gramophone music. The theme of consumer culture is established in the film’s opening scene when Frank Hurley’s camera moves in from a long shot of a busy urban street to frame a stall selling newspapers and books. Here, the availability of consumer culture to a range of classes is suggested by the juxtaposition of Mo’s perusal of a girlie magazine, which he doesn’t buy, with a flirtation between the upper-class characters of Margot and Larry over a copy of Romeo and Juliet. However, female characters are shown to benefit most from this consumer culture.

The film’s portrayal of modern life as enabling females to shape their social identities is consistent with early twentieth century responses to modernity. For instance, Matthews notes that the idea of “the modern girl” was frequently central to popular discourse about modernity: “the incomprehensibility and speed of social change could be given concrete form and reduced to the fashionable playthings that fascinated women, the ‘fugitive, fleeting beauty’ of modern life” (p. 65). Distinguishing femininity as a metaphor from the experiences of actual women, Matthews affirms that women of various classes did access 1920s Sydney modernity’s “democratic and heterosocial public world of excitement, music, movement, glamour and employment” (p. 70). Strike Me Lucky defies social concerns about the “exploitation and corruption” of women and other “vulnerable and lower orders of the city” (p. 16) by positioning female characters as canny participants in modern capitalism.

Consumer culture is linked to female independence from the opening scene of the film, when Margot evades Larry’s flirtation by departing in her Rolls Royce. Similarly, the decision by the character of Kate to impersonate Mae West can be read as a defiance of her gangster fiance’s claim that “you won’t be gadding about like this when we’re married”. The film’s ending sustains this defiance by presenting a parody of traditional domesticity, in which Mo and Kate preside over a Jewish Home for Bankrupt Bookmakers’ Children. Moreover, a wider prevalence of female consumption is suggested in a scene set at a gangsters’ café, where at least half of the patrons are young women who are drinking and dancing with one another and with men. At the same time, the film’s intertwining of plotlines about aristocratic and underworld females suggests a modern blurring of the former distinction between respectable and less respectable women (p. 91). A similar convergence of female domesticity and hedonistic depravity is presented when a woman shows a vacuum cleaner salesman into a room that is wildly disarrayed and littered with empty bottles. Strike Me Lucky alludes to the cinema’s role within this cosmopolitan world by linking female cinema-going to performative social fantasy.

A convergence of vaudeville performance and character motivation, cinematic display and spectatorship occurs when Kate transforms herself into June East, an impersonation of Mae West. Kate’s intention to rival West is established early in the film when she announces to her gangster fiance that she is off to see a Mae West film. She declares her goal to supplant West in a local context: “I hear [Mae West is] the quickest vamp in the world. … That’s only because I don’t happen to be in Hollywood”. Here, the positioning of cinema-going as a pretext for the viewer to modify her own identity through performance can be linked to a modern recognition of the relationship between theatre and shopping. In particular, the cinema inherited an association between spectatorship, shopping and personal adornment that existed in theatre since at least the start of the twentieth century. Amanda G. Taylor notes that Australian theatre, like “its counterparts overseas”, was “an important site where a ‘symbiotic relationship between fashion performers and fashion spectators’ was set in motion”.[46] Just as some plays were set in department stores because producers recognised that women’s theatre attendance was often motivated by an interest in fashion, by 1920 Australian women were said similarly to be influenced by styles of personal adornment that they had seen in movies.[47]

In Strike Me Lucky, the juxtaposing of the cinema with a beauty salon reinforces this link between consumption and performance, echoing the proximity of urban theatres to fashionable shopping districts.[48] Women’s attraction to and active consumption of the glamour of the movies[49]  is emphasised in Strike Me Lucky by the salon window’s display of a neon image of a female archer, whose arrow points in the direction of the cinema. The film’s embedding of the cinema within a local consumer culture is made explicit upon Kate’s emergence from the cinema, when she comments conspiratorially to a promotional poster of West, “Well, you sure put me onto the real thing, dearie”, before striding towards the salon. The salon’s fostering of emulation of Hollywood styles is evident in its window display of a fashionably crimped, blonde wig. In Kate’s metamorphosis from brunette to the blonde June East, the tendency for early sound comedies to subordinate narrative logic and characterisation to “moments of immense fascination and satisfaction”[50] enacts a link between consumption and performance that reflects upon Australian attitudes towards Hollywood cinema.

Although Strike Me Lucky was made in a period of considerable concern about Hollywood’s influence on Australian society and achieved domination of the local film industry,[51]  this film suggests irreverent rather than hostile attitudes towards foreign influences. Indeed, the casual familiarity of Kate’s claim to rival Mae West seems validated by the fact that the Australian actress who portrays Kate, Yvonne “Fifi” Banvard, had appeared previously in American movies as “one of Mack Sennett’s bathing girls”.[52]  Moreover, Strike Me Lucky positions itself explicitly as a pastiche of Hollywood by incorporating into its mise-en-scene a poster for a nonexistent Mae West film, She Did Him Dirt (a reference to She Done Him Wrong, USA 1933). Whilst the poster’s location outside the cinema alludes to the local omnipresence and popularity of Hollywood films, its largely decorative function in Strike Me Lucky disavows the idea of Hollywood as a threat. The arbitrariness of attributing greater value to foreign entities is also suggested when Mo and Donald pause at an isolated signpost whilst cycling to find gold at rural Emu Flats. Displaying directions and distances to London, New York and Emu Flats, the signpost positions the journey to the latter (1985 miles) as almost as daunting as these other destinations. (Directional movement is also presented as arbitrary through the fact that the duo travels in the opposite direction from Emu Flats.) In Strike Me Lucky, the idea that the modern was not the “product” of any one nation but “a constantly evolving international process that adapted differentially to national hosts [and] grafted onto local customs and desires” (p. 12) is suggested by a playfully outlandish commingling of local and foreign entities.

Mo’s pursuit of wealth in Strike Me Lucky is set against a modern Australian consumer culture in which female characters are linked to the new and the changing. While modern capitalism and popular culture are presented as potential sources of spatial freedom and revised identity, however, Mo occupies a more passive and subordinate relationship to this environment.

Masculinity and consumer culture

Strike Me Lucky presents male characters as less adept than female participants in modern capitalism. Whereas the film’s portrayal of unfettered female consumption tends to disavow the Great Depression and suggest financial pressures on men, Mo’s often fruitless pursuit of financial gain links Strike Me Lucky to a cycle of 1930s Australian films about “the urban ‘little man’ with his everyday worries about job security, and his fantasies of sudden wealth”.[53]  Mo’s disempowered and impoverished status is emphasised when he is manipulated by a profit-seeking taxi driver, fails to become a lifeguard, loses his job as a tailor’s assistant and is evicted from his boarding-house accommodation. Modern capitalism’s privileging of female consumers over men is emphasised in a scene in which Mo is employed as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. At the first house he approaches, the male occupant angrily proclaims that he is “sick of” visits from salesmen. By contrast, the occupant of the second house is a woman whose confidence as a consumer becomes evident in her exploitation of Mo, when she has him clean her house and then reveals that she already owns a vacuum cleaner. In Strike Me Lucky, “the well-worn trope of eternal female fickleness” (p. 65) implies a disavowal of the Great Depression and fuels conflict between male characters and modern capitalism. Indeed, Mo’s misfortunes seem remote from “the romance of business” that Jill Julius Matthews perceives in Sydney’s modernity (p. 143).

Just as the positioning of Mo as a “little man” contrasts ironically with Rene’s vaudeville success, however, the protagonist’s apparent estrangement from modernity is deceptive. As in much Australian comedy, the subordinate social status of the male protagonist is a self-consciously defiant stance. In her analysis of Australian literary humour, Dorothy Jones argues that anti-authoritarianism is the most prominent manifestation of an ambivalence that is central to Australian humour:

A view of the world which represents human beings as victims of an alien environment and an uncaring destiny is egalitarian in its implications, and Australians frequently pride themselves on their general irreverence towards authority. But this notion corresponds more with the myth Australians hold of themselves than with the way they actually behave.[54]

Intrinsic to Jones’ argument is the observation that Australian humour’s use of the vernacular tends to stop short of tolerating outright verbal abuse or profanity.[55]

In Strike Me Lucky, aversion to authority and eschewal of conflict are linked to Mo’s laziness. Upon announcing that he plans to obtain a job, for example, Mo’s apparent capitulation to modern capitalism is parodied and his social subordination affirmed by the shocked responses of Donald, who collapses, and Mo’s parents, whose portraits fall from the walls. Ironically, Mo’s employment is as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman, an occupation that by 1934 was strongly associated with a modern American style of selling[56]  and not with ideas of Australian identity. Although the profession of salesman would later be imbued with great tragic and comedic significance[57]  in such diverse American works as Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman (USA 1949), the television series The Abbott and Costello Show (USA 1951-1953) and the documentary Salesman (USA 1968), the relatively early depiction of this job in Strike Me Lucky is aligned with Australian colloquialism rather than with a polished American sales style. In particular, Mo’s lack of professional commitment is aligned with vernacular provocation when he invites an abusive male householder to “come out and say it, mug” and then runs away as the man confronts him. If Mo’s sales job reflects comically the lengths to which he is willing to go to obtain money, his apparent capitulation to American-styled capitalism also renders him a scapegoat, since the Depression had prompted a backlash against businessmen.[58]  In Strike Me Lucky, Mo’s subordination to modern consumer culture through intermittent employment in jobs for which he appears unsuited involves performance no less than Kate’s impersonation of Mae West does.

Although Strike Me Lucky has been widely dismissed as a financial and artistic failure, the film is significant for being the only film starring Roy Rene and a rare Australian film vehicle for a Jewish comedian. The film’s juxtaposing of ethnic identities constitutes an early instance of Australian ethnic screen comedy and calls into question the existence of a singular definition of Australian identity. Through positioning Mo as an impoverished schemer within a modern consumer culture, the film also presents a cosmopolitan view of 1930s Australia in which athletic masculinity is viewed ambivalently and female characters are empowered. Strike Me Lucky alludes in a playfully flamboyant manner to a disjunction between working-class masculinity and female consumption, in which disavowal of and allusions to the Great Depression position the protagonist’s anti-authoritarianism as being no less a performative display than the film’s other comedic episodes.

This research was supported by an Early Career Researcher grant from the University of Ballarat. Access to the film Strike Me Lucky was provided by the National Film and Sound Archive.


[1] Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper, Australian Film 1900-1977: A Guide to Feature Film Production (Melbourne: Oxford University Press and Australian Film Institute, 1980); Graham Shirley and Brian Adams, Australian Cinema: The First Eighty Years (Paddington, NSW: Currency, 1983), 146; John Tulloch, Australian Cinema: Industry, Narrative and Meaning (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1982), 30, 150; Roy Rene, Mo’s Memoirs (Melbourne: Reed and Harris, 1945), 137; Ken G. Hall, Directed by Ken G. Hall: Autobiography of an Australian Film Maker(Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1977), 89; Fred Parsons, A Man Called Mo (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1973), 36-7.
[2] Hall, 89.
[3] Celestine McDermott, “Rene, Roy (Mo) (1891-1954)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol 11 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 360-1, (12 June 2009).
[4] John West, Theatre in Australia (Stanmore: Cassell, 1978), 138-9.
[5] Hall, 89.
[6] Pike and Cooper, 211, 213, 237, 241.
[7] Hall, 88-90; Pike and Cooper, 221.
[8] Pike and Cooper, 223; Hall, 90.
[9] Hall, 88-9; Rene, 137. Although talking films as an international phenomenon were not new in 1934, Strike Me Lucky can be classified as an early Australian sound feature film on the basis of the relative recentness of the first Australian talking film of (almost) feature length, Norman Dawn’s Showgirl’s Luck (1931).
[10] Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts? Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992), 3-4.
[11]  Jenkins, 4.
[12] Parsons, 36.
[13] Hall, 89.
[14] Jenkins, 4.
[15] Jenkins, 4.
[16] Jenkins, 5.
[17] Hall, 88-9.
[18] Hall, 89.
[19] Freda Freiberg, “Lost in Oz? Jews in the Australian Cinema”, Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture, 8, no. 2 (1994): 202.
[20] Freiberg, 196.
[21] Freiberg, 199-200.
[22] Freiberg, 202.
[23] John West, “Roy Rene”, in The Greats: The 50 Men and Women who Most Helped to Shape Modern Australia, ed. Leonie Kramer, Russel Ward, Trevor Kennedy, Ray Martin and Richard Walsh (North Ryde, NSW: Angus & Robertson, 1986), 262; Freiberg, 203.
[24] The idea that Rene’s work was intended for local audiences is supported by reports that he refused offers to perform overseas. See West, “Roy Rene”, p. 260.
[25] Tulloch, 30; Hall, 88.
[26] Mark Winokur, American Laughter: Immigrants, Ethnicity, and 1930s Hollywood Film Comedy (New York: St Martin’s, 1996), 126; also see Jenkins, 172-183. Groucho Marx wrote later that the “Marx Brothers never denied our Jewishness. We simply didn’t use it. We could have safely fallen back on the Yiddish theatre, making secure careers for ourselves. But our act was designed from the start to have a broad appeal.” See Simon Louvish, Monkey Business: The Lives and Legends of the Marx Brothers (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 76. Although biographers have noted the unreliability of recollections by Groucho Marx (see, for example, Louvish, 9, 76), Australia’s lack of a large-scale Jewish theatre circuit can be added to the reasons Freiberg offers for the absence of Australian Jews from the screen.
[27] Irving Howe, quoted in Jenkins, 175.
[28] West, “Roy Rene”, 260; see also McDermott, 361.
[29] Freiberg, 202-3.
[30]David Malouf, “Made in England: Australia’s British Inheritance”, Quarterly Essay 12 (2003): 20. Also see John Rickard, Australia: A Cultural History (London: Longman, 1988): 187-192.
[31]Jenkins, 173. Although the ethnic references in Strike Me Lucky constitute more sustained ethnic humour than in any other Australian film made before World War Two that I have seen, some other Australian comedies of this period include brief references to ethnic difference. In Harmony Row (1933), for instance, a newly enlisted police officer is threatened by a shopkeeper whose style of speech suggests he is supposed to be Italian. In His Royal Highness (1932), the protagonist begs a pie from a street vendor named Giuseppi (sic).
[32] West, “Roy Rene”, 260; McDermott, 361.
[33] West, “Roy Rene”, 260; Suzanne Rutland, The Jews in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 132; Freiberg, 202.
[34] Freiberg, 203; Tom O’Regan, “Cinema Oz: The Ocker Films”, in The Australian Screen, ed. Albert Moran and Tom O’Regan (Ringwood: Penguin, 1989), 76.
[35] W. Fearn-Wannan [Bill Wannan], Australian Folklore: A Dictionary of Lore, Legends and Popular Allusions(Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1970), 377.
[36] Rutland, 51-6; McDermott, 361.
[37] Glynis Jones, “Speedo: From Underwear to Outerwear”, in Modern Times: The Untold Story of Modernism in Australia, ed. Ann Stephen, Philip Goad and Andrew McNamara (Carlton: Miegunyah, 2008), 70.
[38] Jeanette Hoorn, “Michael Powell’s They’re a Weird Mob: Dissolving the ‘undigested fragments’ in the Australian Body Politic”, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 17, no. 2 (June 2003): 165.
[39]Tim Rowse, quoted in Tom O’Regan, Australian National Cinema (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), 250.
[40] Whilst ambiguity exists about whether Mo’s interaction with the unconscious man in this scene is homosexual, biographer Fred Parsons notes that on the stage, “the Mo character was bisexual”. Parsons, 5.
[41] Helen Gilbert and Jacqueline Lo, Performance and Cosmopolitics: Cross-cultural Transactions in Australasia(Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 4-7.
[42] Rutland, 134.
[43] Alan Warde, “Consumption”, in New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, ed. Tony Bennett, Lawrence Grossberg and Meaghan Morris (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005), 58.
[44] Jill Julius Matthews, Dance Hall & Picture Palace: Sydney’s Romance with Modernity (Sydney: Currency, 2005), 10, 133. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[45] See, for example, Shirley and Adams; Tulloch.
[46] Amanda G. Taylor, “A Fashionable Production: Advertising and Consumer Culture on the Australian Stage”,Journal of Australian Studies 63 (1999): 120.
[47] Taylor, 119-120; Erika D. Rappaport, “Acts of Consumption: Musical Comedy and the Desire of Exchange”, in Cathedrals of Consumption: The European Department Store, 1850-1939, ed. Geoffrey Crossick and Serge Jaumain (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998); Matthews, 81; Melvyn Stokes, “Female Audiences of the 1920s and Early 1930s”, in Identifying Hollywood’s Audiences: cultural Identity and the Movies, ed. Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby (London: BFI, 1999), 50-53.
[48] Rappaport, 190-191.
[49] Stokes, 53.
[50] Jenkins, 5.
[51]Shirley and Adams, 97-8.
[52] Anne-Marie Gaudry, “Banvard, Yvonne (Fifi) (1901 – 1962)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13 (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1993), 104, (22 April 2009).
[53] Pike and Cooper, 199.
[54] Dorothy Jones, “Winning and Losing: Australian Humour”, in Comic Relations: Studies in the Comic, Satire and Parody, ed. Pavel Petr, David Roberts and Philip Thomson (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1985), 85.
[55] Jones, 85.
[56] Walter A. Friedman, Birth of a Salesman: The Transformation of Selling in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004). A glimpse of the history of door-to-door selling of vacuum cleaners in Australia can be acquired from the Lux (formerly Electrolux) Australia website, which states that Electrolux began selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in Australia in 1925. See “A Brief History”, Lux Distributors [Australia], (24 July 2009). In Strike Me Lucky, however, Mo is selling a Hoover vacuum cleaner.
[57] Friedman, 228-9.
[58] Friedman, 228.

Created on: Tuesday, 22 December 2009

About the Author

Lesley Speed

About the Author

Lesley Speed

Lesley Speed lectures in Media and Screen Studies at Federation University Australia. Her research interests include screen comedy in Australia and the United States; youth cinema; discourses of generation in screen culture; and popular screen genres. She is the author of the books Australian comedy films of the 1930s: Modernity, the urban and the international and Clueless: American Youth in the 1990s. Her research has also been published in journals in Australia, the USA and the UK.View all posts by Lesley Speed →