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Monday, May 16, 2016

A Universal-Stanwyck Dice Throw


The Lady Gambles (1949) Is Better Than Ads Look

Universal by late 40's was back in cheese trade. Their try at prestige had gone a-flounder, thanks to frequent flops. 1949 would usher in cheaper westerns, garlanded with color to good result, sand-and-sex w/ Yvonne De Carlo plus others at appropriate talent level, and on the way --- Ma/Pa Kettle and Francis the chatting mule. Here was profit's way to go, and it worked. U would lay a banquet table for Decca Records' eventual takeover, then creeping takeover that was MCA. What of good pictures amidst this exploitation? One was The Lady Gambles, which took serious account of card/dice play as crippling addiction, Barbara Stanwyck staging downfall to make Lost Weekender Ray Milland scarlet with envy. So what did Universal do with so valued a property? Sell it like piano roll in a whorehouse, per usual. Must have --- in fact, did --- make creative participants blanch. But this was Universal, so what could they expect?


Director Michael Gordon was interviewed years later by Ronald L. Davis (Just Making Movies, excellent book) and would complain of the title. The Lady Gambles atop lurid ads was no lure to Academy votes, despite Stanwyck a more than deserving lead. Interesting how postwar saw Davis/Crawford having their up/downs (mostly downs), while Stanwyck did continuous good ones minus fuss. Gordon spoke of her no-temperament and good humored finish of work. I toted her 50's record against actresses at similar level and found Stanwyck charting far ahead in terms of still-watchable (Executive Suite, The Violent Men), or lately cultish (Witness To Murder, There's Always Tomorrow). Throw in Titanic, To Please A Lady, Blowing Wild, Jeopardy, work with Mann, Siodmak, Dwan ... Stanwyck quadruples quality work any of others did. Of these, The Lady Gambles ranks comparative minor, yet a winner and worth the seek after Universal's DVD set of it and five others with the actress. Released in 2010, back when U still had transfer standards (check the recent Alan Ladds and see how far that's slipped), the Stanwyck set is safe bet for The Lady Gambles alone.


There is location at Las Vegas as it was in beginnings. Stanwyck and screen husband Robert Preston (very good) visit Boulder Dam a year before Edmond O' Brien ran loose there. Treatment of gamble habit is cautious; we're shown it's OK in moderation, Stanwyck's character stood in stark relief to calm companions who bet for recreation and know when to quit. U had to tread soft to get site privileges. The town would not have welcomed a black eye from filmmakers, or depiction of gambling as potential sickness to be shunned. So who negotiated terms of depiction? The Lady Gambles was surely Mafia-vetted to some degree, the place built wholly on crime dimes and policed on self-help terms. Gangland operates in the film, but on margins, bad eggs tending to float in from out of town, and headed good-riddance way once schemes collapse. The Lady Gambles would make splendid pairing with Casino. Has anyone thought to combine them? Gordon said he "really researched" the addiction angle, and it plays credible. I'm not sure there had been a movie before 1949 that took the problem serious. The Lady Gambles is a fine one that should have got more credit then, and certainly recognition now.

2 Comments:

Blogger Dave K said...

Hey, I've never seen this one. Will have to track 'er down! I have a high tolerance for the Davis and/or Crawford weepies, but Stanwyck was in a class of her own! Her starring vehicles could be anything, from screwball to thriller to message picture to high class soap. She made plenty of Classics with a capitol 'C' but she has a great batting average for good-movies-nobody-ever-told-you-about (think JEOPARDY or THE PURCHASE PRICE.) Victoria Wilson's recent bio is a must (can't wait for volume two!)

2:28 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

This was my intro to Stanwyck as a kid, and I was hooked for good. As to Missy faring better than Davis or Crawford in late 40's throughout 50's, could it be that she'd merely been independent way longer than either Bette or Joan; Davis having spent virtually entire career at Warner's till '49, and Crawford doing a long stint there after a since-silent-era berth at Metro.

Could it be that when cut loose from studio support, Davis and Crawford were at a disadvantage compared to Stanwyck, who was more accustomed to, and hence better at, selecting her own vehicles?

5:32 PM  

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