Roy Rene (1891-1954 heart failure) was one of the first great Australian comedians. His character Mo thrived in the 1920s and 30s but he only made one film entitled Strike Me Lucky (1934), a title based on one of his quips.
It was in that film that Mo was recorded for posterity with his self-satisfied grin, sad and mournful lift of the eyebrows and his lascivious leer.
The director of Strike Me Lucky and the head of Cinesound Studios, which peaked in the 1930s, Ken G. Hall (1901-94 complications of stroke) was unhappy when he looked at the results. He felt he didn’t capture how Mo performed live on stage, particularly without an audience.
I first heard of Mo from my grandfather who saw Strike Me Lucky in his 20s and said it was one of the funniest Australian films he had ever seen. Not that there were many to choose from as the output of Australian films was quite modest even in that boom time before World War Two.
He remembered one scene from the film when Mo walks in on someone in the shower. There is a woman’s scream and Mo quips with his leer after retreating: “Pardon me…. sir.”
When I finally saw the movie in my late teens or early 20s, I saw that the scene worked as does much of the film… dated that it is. But in context, you can see why Mo was such an Australian icon and phenomenon.
I was fortunate enough to interview director Hall in my early 20s when he was still canny as ever at 87 years of age. I had read his book and we covered his career from when he produced one of the first Aussie sound films On Our Selection (1930) onwards.
When I asked about Strike Me Lucky, he dismissed it, as he did in his book, as I expected… I agreed with him like any very young interviewer to get along with their subject… It was when I agreed that I saw him wince. It was almost as if Hall had a secret love for the film despite the results. I wish I had told him it was one of my grandfather’s favourite films but I didn’t which remains a regret of what was perhaps my favourite interview of all time.
This article will cover the life of Roy Rene or Mo and the film Strike Me Lucky. All thanks to Mo’s Memoirs which were published in the 1940s, Hall’s book Austrailan Film: The Inside Story and from recently watching the film.
This actor and comedian who would often deliver dialogue with “a queer lisp” turned down all offers to go to London and Hollywood. He remained uniquely Australian, not one to show off at parties and a true professional of the theatre who would give his all whether the theatre was full or near empty.
His make-up of white face with a black beard may have been relics of American burlesque but they were still uniquely Mo.
Mo was born in Hindley Street in Adelaide, South Australia in 1891. Born into a Dutch Jewish family, his father was a cigar maker and Henry Van der Sluys as Rene was born would pass the Theatre Royal every day as a boy, not knowing he would make his first appearance there.
Not yet ten, he organised shows for the local kids for a penny admission which would apparently last all afternoon. Later, he would sing at the markets on Grote Street where he would often win a prize of a duck or ten shillings.
Then came his first appearance as a boy soprano at the Theatre Royal and then the Tivoli Theatre. His father wanted him to go into the cigar business and not acting and the family moved to Melbourne to set up a new business around the time of young Henry’s bar mitzvah.
All of his family seemed to be good at performing as his sisters did ballet and singing on stage. But he thought it was from his father where he got his talent from as he had a great sense of humour.
It was at school where the youngster only liked history that he formed his historical sketches about Queen Elizabeth and Henry the Eighth which brought him much success on the stage.
Upon turning up in Melbourne, Roy Rene, as he would later be known, appeared at the Gaiety Theatre for the sum of about three pounds a week. A tidy sum for a youngster back then but he gave the money to his family “for my good” as he said.
Rene learnt his craft as a comedian by seeing all the visiting American vaudeville acts at the Melbourne Tivoli, formerly The Old Opera House. All the while performing to some of the toughest audiences in the world – as they’d sing in chorus with you if they liked you, but beware if they didn’t, because they’d let you know. Rene learned the importance of polish, finesse and finish.
He thought they were real artists in those days before World War One. And Rene would take all the backstage advice from these artists, the likes of which included Harry Houdini (1874-1926 peritonitis) who came to Melbourne to perform.
When his voice broke at sixteen, Rene changed his act to Boy Roy the would-be comic in, heaven forbid, blackface for a time. Soon Henry would change his name to Roy Rene.
Never an early riser, Rene admitted later on to sleeping until all hours of the morning and he said there would be no stopping that.
Working in Australia back then was a small market of capital cities which meant you had to be versatile compared to the international acts who could concentrate on one act throughout the world.
Rene followed a show with the famous J.C. Williamson production company entitled The Whip to Sydney and stayed. It was there he met Harry Clay, a theatre circuit owner who told him to do a number and it clicked. Rene earned six pounds at the end of the week after what had been a rather long spell without work. He would continue to work for Clay for many years.
It was then he had to have a front tooth pulled… and shortly after he was told he was to perform as “the Hebrew comedian” on a tour of New Zealand with Ben Fuller’s company. These are all forgotten names today but they were once local impresarios.
Shaking like a leaf and wearing a false beard, he went on stage and the audience wouldn’t let him leave, Rene was such a hit. The beginnings of Mo was born. He stayed in New Zealand for eighteen months and it was that season where Rene perfected his make-up which he used for the rest of his career. It was doing farce that Rene learned to walk and talk on stage.
“Now timing was one of the most important things in building up an act. You don’t force your audience to laugh, you just wait until they’re ready and then you punch the line home… You’ve got to understand your audience and be with them the whole way,” said Rene to the ghost writer of his memoirs. “What you’ve got to remember is that every night the audience is different.”
Soon after returning from New Zealand, he met Nat Phillips (1883-1932) and they formed the revue act Stiffy and Mo. It was a name that amused me as a kid. No one remembers where the names came from except that they came “spontaneously” from a former stage doorman at the Sydney Tivoli. The act was an instant success as they were just what the public wanted in 1916 at the height of World War One. They were turning them away, Stiffy and Mo were such a hit.
The pair worked for about 16 years in revue which changed weekly.
“We didn’t have any scripts to speak of… (we) just wrote the main outlines of the act on bits of notepaper and then went on and ad-libbed,” said Rene.
Their revue contained a couple of straight men among the cast. Over the years Stiffy and Mo would split in the late 1920s, until Mo was fired one night in Adelaide for telling a blue joke when he was warned not to. They got back together for a few years more…
Rene performed in the pantomime The Bunyip for a couple of years while they were apart which he thought was one of the finest ever produced. Even in 1945, when Rene spoke his memoirs in interviews the theatre had changed since back in those days. Once everyone, even the poor, could afford a ticket to the theatre once a week… but by the 1940s, theatre prices were a premium and movie theatres had taken over.
Also, back in the old days, the actors used to live in boarding houses together and take their laughs home with them but, again, by the mid-40s, everyone was living here and there and not together, which also changed the atmosphere of theatre.
Another lesson that Rene learned was that the humour of each state of Australia was different and while he was incredibly popular on the east coast, he wasn’t that popular in Adelaide, the city of his birth.
Once Stiffy and Mo split for good, Rene had to get used to being just Mo.
At one stage, Rene did a ‘legit’ show entitled Give or Take, a straight show which the producers worried Mo would hijack with his ad-libs. But as Rene said: “So help me, I wasn’t game to alter those lines.”
Theatre changed in the mid-1920s as vaudeville began to use shows with set scripts. As for the Mo and his jokes, Rene said the material came from friends or overhearing something on the street.
“It was everyday life that gave us our material,” said Rene, who thought that with the set scripts the performers were losing their touch in terms of ad-libbing.
It was in the late 1920s that Rene married the love of his life Sadie Gale. He had a first marriage to an actress not mentioned in his memoirs but it produced no children and shortly after the divorce Rene married Sadie who was also an actress.
After that Rene fell ill will peritonitis followed by complication after complication from pleurisy to emphysema. It took over three months for him to recover. This was around 1930 and a year later his son Sammy was born. It was the time of The Great Depression and Mo Machackie or Machachie was as popular as ever when Rene returned to the stage.
This was the greatest period of Mo’s/Rene’s career. He had always played an ordinary bloke and someone wrote: “No matter what his gusty buffooning involves him in, his humour and resilience always asserts the pride of an undefeated human being.”
Mo has been compared to Chaplin’s tramp because it is the personality of Mo and not the joke writer that the audience is laughing at. The Age newspaper was now calling him a “genius”.
Meanwhile theatres were closing and the performers moving into different professions from which they would never return… But Mo was keeping them laughing in the aisles and earning more than ever before.
When Strike Me Lucky was made in 1934, Rene was 43 years old. He had never been interested in talking pictures and thought Chaplin was the greatest comedian as he could make you laugh without opening his mouth. Rene had heard he had been compared to Chaplin but thought his own brand of humour was “dumb”.
“But Chaplin, ah…,” said Mo, who was a fan of Charles Laughton’s (1899-1962 kidney cancer) Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), didn’t like the pretty boys and their love stuff but was a fan of Disney. He thought Pinocchio (1940) a masterpiece.
“But mostly I don’t go to the pictures much,” said Rene.
Rene didn’t hesitate to do Strike Me Lucky when Cinesound’s Ken G. Hall and Stuart Doyle signed him up.
However Rene said: “I found it too hard to be funny to no one.”
The character of Mo was used to the stimulus of the audience and there was little from a camera and a silent crew.
“Ken Hall had a terrible lot of patience with me,” said Rene. “It was the hardest work I have ever done.”
He didn’t like the early starts or long days and you were on your feet all day for three minutes of footage.
“It’s very tiring, especially if you’re used to the laughs of the theatre,” said Rene.
He said he went to the preview of Strike Me Lucky and was “very disappointed” although “all the kids in Sydney wagged it from school to go” when it showed at the Capitol Theatre.
It just seemed to Rene after seeing the rushes of the movie that all the best scenes were cut from the film.
He had actually grown a real beard for the film and when he shaved it off at the end, his infant children were reportedly upset. Rene didn’t take much to radio either, or its “insensitive cliched scripts”, although he had some success in this medium late in his career.
Despite his Mo character, Rene was a family man and lived for many years in his Sydney home named Sammylo named after his two children Sammy and daughter Mylo.
“People think of me as a man who likes blue jokes, but the truth is I’m a simple, serious minded man and my ideas and tastes are modest.”
He was considering an offer to perform in England but World War Two broke out ending the possibility. Ill health plagued him after the war and a long theatre run ended. After a bit of radio, he returned to the stage in 1949 in a revue called Machackie’s Moments. He died at home in 1954 of heart disease.
Ken Hall said in his book that whatever went wrong with Strike Me Lucky: “I must accept the bulk of the blame.”
He said the writers and Mo could also be responsible but it was Hall who made the final decisions and called the tune.
“My problem at the time was pressure and lack of assistance on the creative end,” wrote Hall.
He thought the script, which had no end of ridiculous situations, didn’t appeal to everyone. Hall also saw that without an audience Mo/Rene was like a fish out of water as the crew would laugh at a scene during the first rehearsal but, of course, it would dry up after that.
“…He did need an audience…(and) it depressed Mo tremendously.”
Compare this to the fresh live audiences the comedians of sitcoms get today with flashing signs saying “LAUGH” and Mo was all at sea alone on stage.
Apparently, Strike Me Lucky opened to enormous business which quickly dropped off, a sign that word of mouth was unfavourable. It was the only one of Hall’s Cinesound films which didn’t return an immediate profit and the director had a near breakdown and was packed off on a cruise to north Queensland.
The film Strike Me Lucky starts off with Mo loitering at a magazine stand before his adventures start as he gets in a taxi where he sees a fat purse on the floor. He gets in the cab to be driven home only to find the purse stuffed with newspaper. Then he helps sell a suit in a tailor’s shop which impresses the owner.
“I was in ladies’ underwear,” says Mo of his previous experience.
“And how was the business?,” asks the tailor.
“Too scanty,” says Mo who sprays the tailor’s face with a spittle filled laugh and the tailor has to mop his face.
It’s typical Mo and as a record of Mo’s personality Strike Me Lucky is important and a key Australian film.
There’s a Mae West movie poster entitled She Done Him Dirt in a couple of scenes as Mo gets the job with the tailor only to burn his finest stock with an iron. Mo is fired and puts on a show of fake tears and sentiment and leaves.
“Very well Mr Lowenstein, but there’s one thing I’d like to say to you before I go… I never wish to work for a Greek again!”
At the local nightclub, there’s a bust of Spike McGee with the tag “What a Man” beneath it. Mo strikes a match on the bust.
“What are you doing, you mug?,” complains a customer.
“My word I’m tough,” sings Mo after that.
“I think that you’re effeminate… a great big bluff,” sings the tough guy in the bar and the rest of the patrons join in chorus.
“A lot of dirty, dispicable cur,” says Mo as he pretends to have a bomb to escape the bar.
“Anyone got a bit of coke?,” he asks reaching into his top pocket in what has to be one of the rare cocaine references in a mainstream film in its day. It could have been one of the ad-libs that made it through to the final cut.
There’s a subplot with a little rich girl who has run away from home and there is a reward for whoever finds her.
Back at the rooming house where he lives, Mo presents “a poor little starving waif” to the landlady who says he’s been there fourteen weeks and paid one week’s rent.
“Have I paid all that?,” quips Mo.
Feeling sorry for the waif, Mo intends to get a job.
“I’m going to turn over a new leaf… and work,” says Mo and his parent’s portraits fall off the wall.
He tries to be a vacuum cleaner salesman and then a lifesaver at Bondi beach. Well at least I think it’s Bondi as he is told to revive a drowned man by “getting the water out of his system”.
“Where’s his cistern?,” says Mo almost confused by the request.
Watching Mo perform and you wonder how he was at full throttle in front of a live theatre audience. He’s still funny thanks to many of the gags and situations in Strike Me Lucky and you could almost say they still hold up today. Yes, it’s dated as any 1934 movie is bound to be but it still contains adult humour and you can see why it failed as it probably wasn’t a film the family would take their kids to see… and yet the kids in the know, apparently, wagged school to see it.
Due to the style of singing, and poor sound, one sentimental song which has the whole cast in tears, can’t really be discerned.
The second half of the film concerns a map for a gold mine at Emu Flats some 2000 miles from Sydney. Mo and his friend Don decide to cycle there while a Mae West lookalike bad girl as well as the rich guys are on their tail.
The film doesn’t improve as it goes along and the first half is the best. The big set piece is when Mo and Don steal a plane in the outback without nary a clue how to fly it – it is seen flying backwards and upside down before going into a spin and a fiery crash as the pair still look for a lesson to fly from “the book of rules” as they escape the wreck.
They find a tonne of gold, it’s just they have to escape from local cannibals while Mo says: “Ah, look, Bernard Shaw” when he sees the local Robinson Crusoe with his long grey beard.
They are finally saved by the good guys in another plane and the ending has a kind of Marx Brothers Hooray for Captain Spaulding moment as Mo enters down a long staircase to meet society due to his new riches. He smashes a statue about to be unveiled while no one is looking, while there is a boring ballet number which in the days of vaudeville would have had the ballerinas talking while they performed. Hall must be commended for the Busby Berkeley (1895-1976 natural causes) choreographic touches though… as Mo tries to piece together the statue… but when it’s unveiled its Mo in a body stocking and a giant fig leaf.
“What a man,” swoons a bespectacled maid.
The climax has the bad guys invade the mansion… only for the Bondi lifesavers to come to the rescue. As the bad guys are driven away the crowd cries: “We want Mo!”
So, Mo gives a speech on behalf of himself “and my fiasco” or fiancée… “Next Saturday night…” Mo teases as if to announce another party or another programme.
And the coda has Mo as founder of The Jewish Home for Bankrupt Bookmakers’ Children where all the kids look like Mo with a painted beard and big noses while the girls look like his former fiancee and now wife. And they also have a baby.
Strike Me Lucky is far from a classic but it evokes Mo pretty well – or Dirty Old Mo as some called him.
It is sad that Ken Hall couldn’t admit he was proud of this film and I wonder if that flinch I saw was really a twitch from the breakdown he almost had making it, or was it really a double take that he wished I had praised the film – something I should have done.
Another hint is that the first picture in Hall’s book is a full-page picture of Mo.