Monday, November 16, 2015

Barbara Gambles

Gambling Lady (1934) is an engaging film, which stars Barbara Stanwyck as Jennifer "Lady" Lee.  When her father, Mike (Robert Barrat) kills himself in despair over his debts to a gambling syndicate, Lady seeks employment in the one occupation she knows - gambling.  Lady, like her father, is scrupulously honest, and takes a job with the syndicate on the proviso that they will run an honest game.  When she discovers they have lied to her (and have placed someone into the game who is systematically cheating), she resigns and begins working on her own.  While playing at a society party, she meets Garry Madison (Joel McCrea); they fall in love and he proposes marriage, to the concern of his father, Peter Madison (C. Aubrey Smith).  But Peter, a gambler himself who knew and admired Mike Lee, comes to realize that Lady's love for Gerry is true, and consents to the marriage.  However, the course of true love hits road bumps - the return of Garry's former girlfriend Sheila Aiken (Claire Dodd) and Garry's jealousy of Lady's friend Charlie Lang (Pat O'Brien).

This is a good, fast-moving film, with a lot of story packed into 66 minutes.  Stanwyck, as always, is excellent as Lady Lee, and her rapport with Joel McCrea (in their first of 6 films together) is evident. Particularly notable are two scenes: the first one has Lady playing cards with her rival Sheila, to Sheila's misfortune; the second immediately follows, and shows Garry and Lady frolicking in their bed as Garry tries to convince Lady to return Sheila's losses (this is, after all, a precode film). It's obvious in this second scene why Stanwyck and McCrea became a screen couple. When we viewed Banjo on My Knee several months ago (their second film together) we discussed their screen history.  For more information on McCrea himself, please visit our blog post on Rockabye.   The one criticism we have of his character in Gambling Lady is his jealousy towards Charlie - he should know his wife better.  She is the soul of honesty; how could he even THINK that she would cheat on him?
We like Pat O'Brien, but he is somewhat wasted in the film  - his screen time is small, and there are times when one wonders why Lady would pick Garry over Charlie (Garry can be quite petulant at times, while Charlie is always in Lady's corner).  But, O'Brien has the acting chops to stand toe to toe with Stanwyck, and that is important here - we HAVE to understand Lady's loyalty to Charlie, even though he doesn't always play an honest game.  And O'Brien has an inner integrity that makes his character almost admirable.

This is a film that is loaded with excellent character portrayals.  C. Aubrey Smith's Peter is one of them.  A man of honor, who loves his son and grows to love and even admire Lady, Smith gives us a memorable performance. A versatile actor, who could play sweet (as he does here) or vile (see No More Orchids for one of his more repugnant characters.)  Smith began his living as a professional cricketer, playing professionally from 1882-1890, and highly regarded as a bowler.  When he came to Hollywood, he continued to play, forming the Hollywood Cricket Club, with fellow actors David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Nigel Bruce, Leslie Howard, and Boris Karloff.  His acting career began in London - he, in fact, was the lead in The Prisoner of Zenda (returning to the story in the 1937 film version, in which he played the wise Colonel Zapt).  He worked in silent films in England, then ventured to Hollywood, where he became the unofficial head of the "Hollywood Raj," or British film colony.  In 1938 he was appointed a Commander in the Order of the British Empire, and was knighted in 1944.  Married to Isabelle Wood from 1896 until his death in 1948, Smith was an actor of note, appearing in such classics as The Four Feathers (1939), Wee Willie Winkie (1937), and Rebecca (1940).  His final film, Little Women (1949) was released after his death from pneumonia.

Claire Dodd is also quite entertaining as the evil Sheila Aiken; as mentioned above, her gambling scene with Stanwyck is one to see - two pros matching wits (Stanwyck wins, but Dodd gives her a run for her money).  We discussed her career in some detail when we saw her in Lawyer Man (1933).  This New York Times review was quite complementary - and justifiably so - of Ms. Dodd in the film.  Fellow blogger at Immortal Ephemera also singled out Ms. Dodd for praise.

As discussed in this TCM article, Stanwyck had some momentary trouble with director Archie Mayo when he tried to pinch her.  Not surprisingly, she handled the situation quickly and firmly (and he didn't do it to her again).

In 1949. Stanwyck would revisit the theme of gambling in The Lady Gambles, but the two films are in no way similar (the 1949 film is very much a social drama about gambling addiction).   We'll leave you with the trailer from Gambling Lady, and a hearty recommendation to give it a try: 

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