Welcome to a new Film Friday and the conclusion of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of Barbara Stanwyck (1907-1990), one of Hollywood’s most respected leading ladies. Known for her snarky and cigarette-filled performances, many of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code films have become notorious for their delightful disinterest in adhering to the provisions of the 1930 Production Code. Surprisingly, we’d only featured one Stanwyck film here before, Night Nurse (1931). So far in this survey of her work, we have covered Ladies Of Leisure (1930), Illicit (1931), Ten Cents A Dance (1931), The Miracle Woman (1931), Forbidden (1932), Shopworn (1932), So Big! (1932), The Purchase Price (1932), The Bitter Tea Of General Yen (1933), Ladies They Talk About (1933), Baby Face (1933), and Ever In My Heart (1933). Today…
Gambling Lady (1934)
“Honest gambler Mike Lee commits suicide rather than succumb to the pressures of a gambling syndicate, headed by Jim Fallin, which wants him to run a crooked game. Charlie Lang, a player for the syndicate at the racetrack, takes up a collection for his daughter, Jennifer Lady Lee, and when he delivers it, he proposes to her. She gently turns him down, partly because he is playing a dishonest game and partly because she does not really love him. He accepts her dismissal, but they remain friends. Needing a job, Lady asks Fallin for a chance to play for the syndicate, but insists that she will only play in honest games. He sets her up playing with Park Avenue businessmen, and she becomes both a financial and a social success, especially after the men learn that she wins her games honestly. She particularly impresses a man she knows only as Peter, who had known her father, and they become friendly. One night, while playing at a society party, she meets Garry Madison, whose flirtations she discourages in spite of her own attraction to him.
“Her attraction turns to dislike, however, after a private club is raided because Garry naively allowed men he did not know to accompany him into the club. After she is bailed out by Charlie, Garry convinces Lady that he had nothing to do with the raid, and she agrees to go dancing with him. To prove his intention to marry her, he brings her home to meet his father. Nervous at first, she relaxes when she learns that her old friend Peter is Garry’s father. To her surprise, when Garry leaves the room, Peter offers her a large sum if she will agree not to marry his son. Rather than fight, Lady turns to leave without the money. Ever the gambler, Peter offers to cut cards for Garry and Lady wins. Garry and Lady marry and the marriage is happy. When Sheila Aiken, a friend of Garry, returns from Europe, however, she determines to prove that Lady is not an appropriate wife for Garry. Lady challenges Sheila to a game and ends by winning her jewelry. Both Sheila and Garry are aghast when they learn that Lady intends to keep the jewelry.
“Later Charlie is arrested, and Lady asks Garry for money to post his bail. After Garry refuses her request because he is jealous of her friendship with Charlie, she pawns Sheila’s jewelry. Charlie tells Lady that he has information on the syndicate and plans to blackmail Fallin. Just as Lady is explaining to Charlie that she cannot see him anymore, Garry walks in and throws him out of the house. After he learns that she pawned Sheila’s jewels, Garry runs after Charlie to retrieve the pawn ticket. He does not return that night, and the next morning, Lady learns that Charlie is dead and that Garry has been accused of the murder. She tries to convince the police that the syndicate murdered Charlie, but they tell her that Garry will not reveal where he was when the murder occurred. Realizing that Garry believed she was in love with Charlie, Lady suspects that he spent the night with Sheila. She confronts her rival and learns that her suspicions are true, but that Sheila will not give Garry an alibi unless Lady divorces him…” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
Although there are elements of the story that resemble some of the soapier fare with which Stanwyck was saddled in much of her Pre-Code career, the roughness of the premise eliminates the potential stench of melodrama. With the exception of a few scenes — like the one in which Pete tries to pay off Lady — the film’s inherent drama is allowed to play without histrionics. This is vital, for if the tone tried to overcompensate for the otherwise trivial story, our ability to enjoy the film would be greatly hindered. Instead, we’re gifted with an enjoyable fast-paced picture full of tough, well-designed characters and a story that is able to maintain its momentum throughout the duration. Much of this, I believe, is due to Stanwyck, who’s given the opportunity to play an unsentimental heroine: a matter-of-fact dame with an attitude that gives her control over the proceedings. In other words, Stanwyck’s character is the plot’s most active, and unlike some of her earlier efforts, this allows her to demonstrate the strength with which we’ve come to associate her onscreen persona.
This is the last of Stanwyck’s Pre-Code pictures, and interestingly, although she seemingly has power (and sexual power), she’s not the morally questionable heroine of Ladies They Talk About or Baby Face; like the title says, she’s a “gambling lady,” but a major facet of her character is that she will absolutely not participate in crooked games. Furthermore, she’s shown to be nothing less than honest and loyal. So, although Stanwyck’s Lady is an indomitable force, the questions of morality with which some Pre-Code leading lady roles so deliciously contend are completely unasked. This could perhaps be a weakness of the film, for the shading of Stnwyck’s character would add more complexity to the otherwise straightforward aims of the film and the story. Some of the side characters, while not as richly drawn as Lady, do get to contend with more “Pre-Code-esque” material, like Claire Dodd as Sheila, the snobby ex-girlfriend who has sexual relations with the married McCrea. Dodd is probably the film’s spiciest ingredient; she does not give a particularly sexy or exquisite performance, but she marvelously complicates the plot and contributes to some of the film’s most memorable scenes — including the one in which Lady wins all of Dodd’s jewelry and refuses to give it back to her.
Meanwhile, McCrea, whose work of which I’ve always been a fan, delivers a typically solid performance and shares an appropriate amount of chemistry with Stanwyck, who, unlike some leading ladies, is usually pretty able to create a bond and repartee with all of her leading men. There’s nothing particularly hot about their connection in Gambling Lady, but it’s logical and makes sense. (The actors went on to become good friends.) So although this film lacks the exceptional finesse of a fantastic motion picture, it successfully eschews a lot of the factors that could have bogged down the narrative, and delivers a lot of fine ingredients in a sufficiently constructed final product. Thus, I can recommend it.
Come back next Friday for coverage of another Pre-Code film! And tune in on Monday for a whole new week of fun on That’s Entertainment!