A funny sitcom undeserving of its almost total obscurity today, Lotsa Luck! had too few episodes to syndicate after its one-season run during the 1973-74 television season. The show was the creation of Carl Reiner, Bill Persky, and Sam Denoff: Reiner, of course, had created The Dick Van Dyke Show a dozen years before, and the writing team of Persky & Denoff eventually wrote many of that program's best episodes and later served as story consultants and producers.
Adapted from a very popular British show called On the Buses (1969-73), the basic set-up is the same though its emphasis is radically shifted. Stanley Belmont (Dom DeLuise) is a bus company employee working in its Lost & Found department. He lives in Brooklyn with his mother, Iris (Kathleen Freeman), his sister, Olive (Beverly Sanders), and her no-good bum of a husband, Arthur (Wynn Irwin).
One might have reasonably expected the series to play like a cross between The Dick Van Dyke Show and the British On the Buses. Like Dick Van Dyke, the series would seem to cry out for a fairly equal emphasis on Stanley's home and work life, but that's not the case. Lotsa Luck! is overwhelmingly a domestic sitcom, with Stanley's job at the bus company fairly incidental, and scenes there probably occupy less than 10% of the show's scripts. In Lotsa Luck!, audiences rarely see the bus company beyond Stanley's small Lost & Found department, and few of his co-workers are glimpsed beyond best friend Bummy Pfitzer (Jack Knight).
This is quite a contrast with the British show, which had Stanley (played in that series by Reg Varney) and pal Jack (Bob Harper) constantly at odds with their superior (Stephen Lewis), and which had a strong emphasis on Stanley and Jack's endless pursuit of sexy women. (A review of the three theatrical features based on the series can be found here.)
And unlike The Dick Van Dyke Show, in which Reiner and Persky and Denoff drew from their own life experiences for material, Lotsa Luck!'s flavor is broader with an emphasis on jokey insults. It's rather like All in the Family without (for the most part) the political content, or a Neil Simon comedy without the humanist characterizations - like something Buddy Sorrell might have written without Rob and Sally to reign in his excesses.
And yet, after a few episodes, Lotsa Luck! grows on you, and occasionally it's laugh-out-loud funny. Partly this is due to the performances. DeLuise, shortly before he became typed in the public consciousness as the manic, improvisational comic actor supporting films like Silent Movie (1976), The End (1977), and The Cannonball Run (1981), is extremely good and surprisingly nuanced here. His timing throughout is immaculate, and as the much put-upon breadwinner of the family, his bus employee is less reminiscent of Ralph Kramden than, oddly enough, Rod Steiger.
The great character actress Kathleen Freeman is okay but miscast as Stanley's mother; she excelled domineering over patsies like Jerry Lewis (and, later, The Blues Brothers) but here her nurturing if manipulative (vaguely) Italian mother doesn't play to her strengths. Beverly Sanders's character is a bit one-note; a shame considering that the actress seemed on the verge of stardom for much of the early-'70s. Wynn Irwin is terrific as the slovenly Arthur, however, hitting all the right notes.
The show works best when, like The Dick Van Dyke Show, it captures universal bits of human behavior and frailty that audiences could identify with. One episode has a very funny sequence where Stan and Arthur are forced to share the same bed, an arrangement that comically pays off much like the similarly funny business between Steve Martin and John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987). Another strong episode has Stanley on the make for an attractive librarian (Jackie Joseph) and their awkwardness together works because the script is honest about the way people behave in those situations.
Video & Audio
Lotsa Luck! was shot on tape, and the presentation here is about as pristine as that long-defunct video technology will allow. Basically, though, the shows look great, and are not edited or time-compressed. There are no subtitle options, and the English mono sound is fine.
The original Pilot Episode is in worse shape than the rest of the series. It looks like a third-generation dupe, but it's okay. S'More Entertainment deserves points for sticking at least one supplement, however trivial, on each of the four discs. Besides the pilot, Disc One includes a Dom DeLuise Interview running 19 minutes. Most of the interview consists of the actor, apparently at home seated at the kitchen table, reminiscing about his early years as a coat-checker and concession salesman on Broadway, and tells several very amusing anecdotes. Regarding Lotsa Luck!, DeLuise speculates that the show's mild raciness in the early episode with Jackie Joseph turned off prudish Middle Americans and cost the show ratings. Maybe so -- later episodes certainly have none of the gleeful smuttiness of its British counterpart, but then again American audiences were always far more Puritanical about sexual content.
Disc Two includes a brief Dom DeLuise Biography, a five-minute segment that plays like a resume, while Disc Three includes Dom's Bird Tricks, which is nothing more or less than the actor clowning with a pet bird; a fun Lotsa Luck Trivia Quiz is also included. Disc Four features a Photo Gallery, but that seems to consist of frame-grabs rather than actual stills; and Breakfast with Dom, an appropriate segment given the amount of on-camera eating in every episode, and the somewhat usual practice of having the performers eat real hot food during the performance.
Three cheers to S'More Entertainment for taking chances with minor gems like Lotsa Luck!, programs far too obscure for mainstream collectors but long desired by those who saw them from when they first aired, or TV buffs and historians championing long lost shows worth remembering.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.