When Ginger Met Ronald

Chemistry between actors is a curious thing. It can result in some kind of indecipherable but wondrous alchemy that crackles and pops or a concoction that simply refuses to strike fire like soggy matches.  It works best or most memorably when the least likely actors are paired together in a movie and click beyond all expectations – Fonda and Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen or Lancaster and Kerr in From Here to Eternity. When it doesn’t work, you end up with something inert and lifeless like Laurence Olivier and Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl or Sophia Loren and Anthony Perkins in Desire Under the Elms. There is also that gray area in between where it both sparks and fizzles out simultaneously, allowing you to see the potential in a promising pairing. Such is the case with Lucky Partners (1940), which stars Ginger Rogers and Ronald Colman in a whimsical romantic comedy based on the 1935 French comedy written directly for the screen by the prolific dramatist/actor/director Sacha Guitry. That’s part of the problem right there.   

The French have a knack for this sort of light, airy, fanciful souffle – check out Rene Clair’s Le Million (1931) or The Italian Straw Hat (1928). But something got lost in the translation and execution on Lucky Partners. For a movie adapted from a saucy French farce, the movie is remarkably chaste. This is because the Hays Office rode shotgun on the production, making sure no risque or sexually suggestive scenes or dialogue made it into the final film.

LUCKY PARTNERS, Ginger Rogers, Ronald Colman, 1940

Here’s the premise: A man walking down the street spots an attractive brunette coming his way and wishes her good luck as they pass. This prompts her curiosity and a brief exchange between them before she goes on her way and experiences some unexpected good fortune; she receives a brand new $300 dress by default through an errand. The woman in question is Jean Newton (Ginger Rogers), a working class girl who assists her dizzy Aunt Lucy (Spring Byington) in a book store. The man is David Grant (Ronald Colman), a Greenwich Village artist and confirmed nonconformist. When Jean encounters David again – his studio just happens to be across the street from her aunt’s bookshop – she decides to ask him to go in with her on a horse race sweepstakes ticket since he seems to be her lucky charm. David agrees on one condition. If they win the grand prize, which is a sizable sum of money, she must promise to take an around-the-world trip with him even though she is engaged to be married to Freddie Harper (Jack Carson), a boring, bespectacled office worker who wants to settle down in Poughkeepsie, New York, and postpone their honeymoon until he has more money.

Ginger Rogers, Jack Carson and Spring Byington (right) star in the whimsical romantic comedy, Lucky Partners (1940), directed by Lewis Milestone.

David has ulterior motives, of course, but states sincerely that he views the entire situation as an experiment. He sees it as “taking someone who is going to settle down happily and prosaically in Poughkeepsie and giving them one little shot in the arm of magic and enchantment – and I hope fun – on a quite impersonal plane – of course – beforehand and then seeing if it will last them the rest of their life.” After much brouhaha and misunderstanding between all three parties, Jean accepts David’s condition with the understanding that their arrangement is purely a formal affair. [Spoiler alert] When the odds for their racetrack pick looks good, it’s Freddie who decides to sell the ticket for instant cash and partly to put an end to the platonic trip fantasy. Just to spite him, Jean decides to take the trip with David anyway, even if their combined winnings were only $6,000. So off they go – first stop, Niagara Falls.

Ronald Colman plays a Greenwich Village artist in the 1940 romantic comedy Lucky Partners, co-starring Ginger Rogers.

Unfortunately, Lucky Partners mostly squanders the intriguing matchup of Colman and Rogers in a “Class meets Working Class” romance. Putting a socio-economic spin on a meet-cute scenario always gives it some zip and tension and it certainly worked for numerous Joan Crawford vehicles that partnered her working girl heroines with bluebloods like Robert Montgomery and Franchot Tone. But Colman and Rogers never really connect and strike sparks here and it’s disappointing because both are charismatic, multi-faceted actors.   Maybe Ginger was intimidated by Colman, who was not only one of her longtime idols but an uncredited producer of the film. In her autobiography, she wrote, “There was one actor in Hollywood whom I had long adored from afar. Everything about him, from his voice to his gentlemanly manner, thrilled me. When I was at last introduced to Ronald Colman, he turned out to be as fine in real life as he was on screen. His wife, Benita Hume, knew I had a crush on her husband. She decided I was harmless enough, and invited me to their home for many enjoyable evenings. Benita always seated me on Ronnie’s right and I’d sit there gazing at him with a perpetual grin of pleasure on my face, just like a fan. No wonder I jumped for joy when RKO assigned me to Lucky Partners.”  Fans of Ginger Rogers, however, will probably be disappointed to see her here as a very dark brunette…and so was the studio. Even Ginger later admitted that she found her decision to go brunette a mistake. “When I reported to the set,” Rogers recalled, “the front office at RKO was shocked to see that I had dyed my hair even darker than it had been for Primrose Path. They thought it wasn’t glamorous enough for me and that the public would be disappointed. I told them I was more interested in portraying the character correctly than in the glamour. Actually, my hair color did come out darker than I wanted, but by that time shooting had begun.”  Her hair color also remained dark for her next film – Kitty Foyle – but it was a lighter, more agreeable shade and she won the Best Actress Oscar this time for playing another working class heroine.

Ginger Rogers won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Kitty Foyle (1940).

But back to Lucky Partners. Ginger never wavered in her affection for Ronald Colman, at least in print. “Ronnie was a perfect performer,” she added in her autobiography, “and a perfect gentleman on the set. If ever he made a correction or a suggestion to me, it was always done in an inoffensive manner. I never minded receiving criticism from him, though there were rumors of conflict between us. (To set the record straight, I adored Ronald Colman and there never was any friction between us.)”

Director Lewis Milestone (left) on the set of Change Partners (1940) with Ginger Rogers & Ronald Colman.

Another possible fly in the ointment was the choice of director – Lewis Milestone, who was best known for such hard-hitting dramas as All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Of Mice and Men (1939), The General Dies at Dawn (1936) and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). He was NOT considered a comedy director by most people in the industry and especially not one versed in screwball comedy despite the fact that he directed The Front Page, which is a decidedly streetwise, cynical satire. No, Milestone was tapped because he was the good friend and next-door neighbor of Colman and he followed this up with another Colman romantic comedy, My Life with Caroline. According to the director, “The critics always expected something weighty from me, so whenever I did a comedy – like these two – they’d usually say, ‘Milestone takes a holiday!’ These two films had to be made to keep Ronnie’s production company active. It was just Go, and we had to find stories at pretty short notice.”

The famous French playwright/actor/director Sacha Guitry

Whatever made Sacha Guitry’s original screenplay entitled Bonne Chance! (aka Good Luck) a success in France (Guitry also co-directed the 1935 film with Fernand Rivers) was somehow lost in the American adaptation which was first penned by Allan Scott. Then, after a production delay of three weeks due to Milestone getting sick, was reworked by John van Druten, specifically the second half. The irony of it all is that Colman’s top choices for the female lead all turned him down due to the problematic script. Only Ginger, who was equal in popularity with Colman at the box office then, wanted to do it and she allegedly turned down an opportunity to star in His Girl Friday to do Lucky Partners!

Jack Carson (left) carries a sleeping Ronald Colman in this scene from Lucky Partners (1940), so-starring Ginger Rogers.

In addition to all of these factors, there was some behind-the-scenes tension regarding the supporting cast at first – namely, Jack Carson. According to Milestone, “We had Ginger Rogers playing opposite Ronnie, and I brought Jack Carson into it. I remember having a little squabble with Ginger because she didn’t want him. ‘He was an extra man in one of my pictures!, she said.’ ‘I can bring up pictures where you were an extra girl! Everyone starts where he can.’ ‘What does Ronnie say about it?’ Ronnie says what he always says: ‘You’re the doctor.’  Carson certainly wasn’t a greenhorn when he made Lucky Partners and had already appeared in at least twenty films but he was still a novice compared to his co-stars. “I had a terrible problem getting Jack to assert himself,’ Milestone confessed. ‘He was so in awe of these two stars. Finally I got through to him. He gained confidence in himself, and soon both Ginger and Ronnie went crazy about him. And Jack took full advantage of it.”

Spring Byington, Ronald Colman and Ginger Rogers in a publicity shot from the film Lucky Partners (1940).

Rogers later stated in her autobiography that, ‘we all had a wonderful time’ on the Lucky Partners set. But she obviously realized it was not going to be one of her better efforts. Milestone later noted, “Running rushes with her was an experience! She insisted on coming to see them, then the minute the lights went out and a scene of hers came on the screen, you could hear her start groaning. And she kept groaning, sliding down further in her seat until just the top of her head was visible. She always found something wrong with the way she looked.”

GINGER ROGERS, in a publicity portrait for RKO during the filming of “Lucky Partners”, she is showing one of her hobbies which is collecting miniature furniture, c. 1940

Surprisingly enough, Lucky Partners received several positive reviews when it opened. Either critics were so starved for romantic whimsy and escapism during the beginnings of WWII that even a botched effort was acceptable or they were too respectful of Rogers and Colman to pan their joint film effort. You’ll notice from the below notices, however, that the reviewers focused on the screen personalities, not the actual film.   The Hollywood Reporter: “Ronald Colman displays his usual dapper, debonair and at times, insouciant personality, which invariably causes women to sigh softly and make comparative mental notes.”

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times: “Ronald Colman and Ginger Rogers in the leads are still two of Hollywood’s most pleasant people…(They) play with an easy and infectious zest.”

John L. Scott of The Los Angeles Times: “Colman again reveals that subtlety in performance which marks his every appearance on screen.”

LUCKY PARTNERS, Jack Carson, Ginger Rogers, Ronald Colman, 1940

Not everyone was fooled by this flat champagne masquerading as sophisticated mirth. The Christian Science Monitor reported that “Ginger Rogers, always a lively and attractive person, has not been well used in Lucky Partners. Either by her hairdresser or her couturiere.” And The New York Herald-Tribune critic nailed it when he wrote, “The people are too real for the fantastic background of events and the events are too prosaic for the basic innuendo of the treatment…Call it bad casting, but both Ronald Colman and Ginger Rogers, as the guinea pig in the experiment, are neither convincing nor amusing for most of the time.”

Spring Byington and Ginger Rogers in a scene from the 1940 comedy Lucky Partners, directed by Lewis Milestone.

Of course, I wouldn’t have spent this much time dissecting Lucky Partners if it wasn’t for the offbeat pairing of Colman and Rogers. The two stars are often fun to watch even when the storyline loses all interest and credibility and it’s certainly a novelty to see Jack Carson play such an unimaginative, penny-pinching lughead. Carson is one of the great unheralded Hollywood character actors (and occasional leading men) of all time in my book.

The great, underrated Hollywood character actor and occasional leading man Jack Carson.

Spring Byington even gets to shine for a brief moment in an obvious homage to Sacha Guity and the original source material. Ginger catches her reading a racy tome and says, ‘This passion you’ve acquired for French novels. Shame on you!,’ to which Spring responds, ‘Yes, darling, they’re not entirely moral but the French seem to make everything seem so logical.’

Hollywood character actress Spring Byington in a publicity photo.

If nothing else, Lucky Partners is worth watching as an intriguing case study in which the best ingredients do not produce a recipe you’d want to repeat. It all comes down to chemistry or a lack of it and even a top tier cast, renowned director and behind-the-scenes talents like art director Van Nest Polglase, composer Dimitri Tiomkin and costumer Irene are no guarantee of success. And the final kicker is that Colman reputedly turned down the lead in Hitchcock’s Rebecca to make this.   Lucky Partners was released as a DVD-R with no extra features by the Warner Archive Collection in April 2011 and that is still your only option for purchase unless you happen to catch an airing of it sometime on the Turner Classic Movies channel.

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