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Monday, October 14, 2019

Of Lusty, Loving, Gambling Men ...

Power Propels The Mississippi Gambler (1953)

An 1859 Engraving
They called gamblers on the river “black-legs.” Virtually all were crooked as a dog’s hind leg. In antebellum Vicksburg, they strung up a handful to let the rest know card sharps weren’t welcome. Gamblers thrived in towns along the Mississippi before steamboats arrived in 1811, from there an onward-upward course until at least 500 men (and a few women) dealt pasteboard to suckers till the Civil War curbed river traffic. Anyone with a poke was fair game, many a chump starting trips flush, exiting gangplanks broke. Games were non-stop day and night, one experienced traveler estimating that not fifteen minutes passed without cards in play. Bartenders and not a few captains were in on shafts, every deck “shaved” or otherwise marked, sealed or no. Connivers got their percentage of yield. You’d not detect a cheat even where you knew full well he was cheating. That’s how expert the best of them were. Pros had no choice but to play false, closing margins for error a first priority. “They must cheat, or starve,” said one observer. After the war, when most of the lice had been cleared, came the rewrite. Gamblers were all of a sudden heroic figures, “the romance of rascality,” some called it. Pretty soon everyone forgot what predators these were, recasting them as gentlemen with a code, fleecing the rich to frequently assist the poor. Dime novels, and then movies getting aboard, made career gambling something to aspire to. History-be-hanged where rose-tint glasses prettied life amidst paddle-wheels and genteel wagering. Of films to celebrate this culture that never was, The Mississippi Gambler stands tallest. Run it to an audience (I have) and chances are they’ll figure it for historic fact and applaud besides (mine did).

The Mississippi Gambler was Universal’s 1953 idea of an ultra-A. In the silents, they’d have called it a Super-Jewel. Tyrone Power was lately loosed from Fox, conflicting data as to whether he was done there or this was his yearly-as-contracted outside pic; in whichever case, there was partnership with Ted Richmond, a busy producer bee for U-I, who steered Power to fifty-fifty split of profits, which thanks to Gambler’s three million domestic rental haul, yielded the actor $750K, money way beyond that for laboring at Fox. Postwar percentages gave players glimpse of wealth they hardly knew existed. Agents-lawyers with capitol gains hoodoo made ripping off tax men a sport equal to what sharpers did a century before, minus the tar and feathers, or hemp. This however, was but Power’s turn of the card. Others at U-I, including all who supported the lead man, saw leagues less than what Ty took. Consider sobering statistics: Piper Laurie, his love interest, began her contract with $100 per week, vaulted to $150 one year later. By 1953, just a few seasons after joining U-I, would Piper's pay have been higher? Then Julie Adams, a starter at $150 … no wonder Power seemed to her like a god off Olympus. I’ll not speculate on what small-part and background young men took home: Dennis Weaver, William Reynolds, Guy Williams. Hollywood then was as now --- live on velvet, or crumbs.

Wife Linda Christian Is a Visitor To The Set

And yet all was not soft for Power. His then-wife, Linda Christian, had wanted the role Piper Laurie got. He promised it to her ‘neath softness of sheets. They had even done a test, Ty bragging that “I own half the picture, so I can get my way!” Glare of U-reality left others to tell Linda she was out, Power “in a meeting” and never liking to be dispenser of bad news. The fissure as much as any fouled their marriage … maybe not so much as Ty’s score of willing mattress Anita Ekberg (a Gambler dress extra), whose chicken-scratch love notes Linda found in hubby’s overnight case. Ekberg would do as much mischief to Gary Cooper’s marriage a few years later. That’s what I love about these old stars --- feet of clay, right down the line. Linda Christian wrote a memoir in 1962, Linda: My Own Story, Power not around to say yea or nay to her account. Piper Laurie got out her Learning To Live Out Loud in 2011, recalled tension in Christian having lost the plum part, scars gone in any case by such a late date. Julie Adams’ The Lucky Southern Star, published that same year, had her telling Power on-set how excited she was when the Jesse James crew came near her hometown in 1939, to which he replied “When you were a little girl, no doubt,” both knowing awkward zone she stepped into. But why so aggrieved, Ty but thirty-eight when The Mississippi Gambler was made. Consider this was 1952, a time when thirty-eight was really thirty-eight, every nicotine trace showing up on Power’s face.

A Gambler Stroll Past Famed Notre Dame Cathedral on U-I Lot
Universal-International was seat of stalwart men and sirenous women (that last not a word, but I like it, so hereby invent it). Competition was hot for what stardom U-I could bestow. Jeff Chandler wanted The Mississippi Gambler, but Power left a bigger boxoffice footprint, and so was preferred. Latterly weak ones at Fox saw need for a vehicle that would speak to his strength, The Mississippi Gambler clearly it. Variety reported seven weeks shooting, all upon a backlot or boat pulled up to waterway U had dug. That craft still floated in 1975 when I did a USC summer session and walked decks just like the Fabulous Mark Fallon as essayed by Power, The Mississippi Gambler already a favorite thanks to a 16mm print got from NC’s own blackleg dealer by name of George Ashwell, from whom much ill-got treasure flowed in freeboot collector days. George could smell intense want soon as you’d come through his door, thus a high tab for The Mississippi Gambler on IB Technicolor, being three cartoons in trade, my original print of Deadline USA, plus $150. I felt like a hapless player after Mark Fallon showed his “tens-full” and scooped the pot. The Mississippi Gambler was worth it though, pleased mightily my college audience, a rare time when a finish (Piper finally yielding to Ty’s embrace) got spontaneous and lush applause. Things differed, however, when I ran Gambler to six or so fraternity brothers, each put off by Laurie marrying another guy at the halfway point, one explaining that by surrendering her virtue to the wrong man, she’d no longer be worthy of Power. That made a big impression, showing how invested even 20-22 year old boys could be in one of my old movies.

On-Set Reunion for Power with Former Co-Star Loretta Young

A Grand Winding Staircase Beloved of 50's Universal Sets, Used for Gambler, and in 1957 for Man Of A Thousand Faces

Break Time for Exuberant Ty and Julie Adams

Much of anecdotes real-life gamblers left turn up verbatim in Seton I. Miller’s story/screenplay. He clearly did his research, however The Mississippi Gambler was softened re history. A particular, and vivid, source for Miller was surely Forty Years a Gambler on The Mississippi, by George Devol, published in 1887 and an unapologetic account of his career dealing and stealing. The Mississippi Gambler’s John McIntire, as Fallon partner “Polly,” was based on a device Devol and others often used, coming aboard as a rube, or farmer with “pig money” almost begging to be separated from it. Fallon/Power announces from the go that he will deal only honest cards, which none of genuine articles was dumb enough to try, unless they wanted to go bust on a first trip and ones thereafter. Fallon and Polly escape dry gulchers by bailing off a boat steered close to shore, gold weighing down Polly so he has to discard it all onto muddy bottom, further incident taken from truth. Not trying to propose The Mississippi Gambler as documentary, but writing gives it flavor of the era, Seton Miller a sure-hand at lead man vehicles, having penned for Power (The Black Swan), plus numerous for Cagney, Flynn, Ladd, others. Notable too is Tyrone Power’s great-grandfather, an Irish-born actor/theatrical manager, who toured stateside and left an outstanding memoir, Impressions of America (1836), where he recognized “crying evils” supporting “the course of crime” that gamblers pursued.

John Goodno Scored This Meet For Being The Outstanding Exhibitor in Huntington, West Virginia

Mid-January 1953 saw military style campaign that was The Mississippi Gambler’s deep-to-upper-south opening, New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis each touted as “World Premieres.” 350 “pre-release” runs would follow at cities along the Mississippi, stars aboard for the haul, Power because it served him to serve, Piper Laurie and Julie Adams because publicity was as critical, perhaps more, than their job emoting before cameras. Being an actress for U-I meant performing for tie-ins, the women at department stores, doing chat shows for local TV, pulling plow that was lobby lines for autographs that took hours because masses kept coming. This was means, necessary ones, by which U-I kept talent before a public, as formula films weren’t enough in themselves to close a stardom sale. Piper Laurie acknowledged in her book that The Mississippi Gambler was a first “A” film she had been involved with, and who knew if there would be another under U-I tutelage? There was, decades later, a Winston-Salem western show, one of the last, where Piper Laurie set up to sell autographs, by herself, at least when I paused to speak. She was polite if not fully animated, another of those, like Virginia Mayo, who showed up for a North Carolina cowboy meet and then asked herself Why? I looked at this woman with the dupe stills and felt marker and thought how once she did this ritual for hundreds lined in a Loew’s lobby, their idea of glitter-land’s summit, back in the year before I was born. Now it was just me with nobody in front or behind to rush this occasion for meeting Piper Laurie. I told her how much I liked her book and she thanked me for that. It was only after driving out of the hotel parking lot that I realized I’d forgotten to ask for her autograph.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

The lobby cards for the theatrical reissue of GAMBLER even highlighted cast member Hugh Beaumont (way down the cast list during shooting) but now well recognized as Ward Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver. Too bad some idiot on UI payroll listed Beaumont as "and Hugh Beaumont from TV's LITTLE BEAVER."

11:44 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Well, based on your write-up I took a look at this. I'm coming off the 4th day of a bitter cold (first I have had in a long time) with all the attendant body aches, questions of why I bother to continue, mucus,phlegm, itchy, scratchy throat and the whole nine yards.

Question was would I be able to actually watch it.

Answer was yes.

It's hard to beat Paul Cavanaugh and you failed to mention Rudolph Maté as director. There was a man who knew how to frame a picture.

Too bad you did not get an autograph from Piper Laurie. She probably had to spend out of her own pocket to be there.

Wonderful film. Again, thank you.

1:48 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Have lauded Rudolph Maté before, and did not want to extend this subject too far. He was an expert director of popular genres, and nothing he signed fails to entertain.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

38? I'd have taken Power for 50.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Chrisk said...

Found Gambler ok. Have another viewing last nite in view of the above. It seems they spent a huge sum on advertising for Gambler. Was disappointed it was not swashbuckling enough. I tend to compare this with The Gambler From Natchez. Best regards.

10:49 PM  
Blogger Ed Watz said...

John -- As always, your meticulous research, superb analysis, and engaging use of colloquialisms appropriate to the era, make you THE Dean of today's Film Historians. Wherever Bill Everson's spirit might be, he must be mighty proud of you!

2:33 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Ed, you have made my day with such generous praise. Can't thank you enough for the kind words.

5:03 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

A small historical footnote regarding Mississippi Gambler, with Guy Williams briefly (very briefly) sharing a scene with Tyrone Power, this is the only film in which two actors who played Zorro would appear together.

9:48 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Kevin K -- A friend of mine and I just finally cured ourselves of saying, "Wait, he was only 44 when he died? That can't be right." It was -- he started young and then beat the crap out of himself with his lifestyle. As Phil Harris once said, "If I'd known I was going to live so long I'd have taken better care of myself."

12:57 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon talks about THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER and Universal players who lived to talk about it, and other aspects of U-I contract days (Part One):

Hi John,

Much enjoyed your almost exhaustive essay on "Mississippi Gambler"! Well done! I've never seen it to this day though I'm quite sure it popped up in airings back in the '60s when the quotient of the oldies we love was much, much higher in daytime and even prime time programming. You cover a lot of bases, here...a lot of tributary topics. That's what I like about you and your writing, because my mind runs that way, too. I just don't have your ability to organize all those streams of consciousness as skillfully as you do.

You have had some parallel experiences re: this one, too. Now, I got to meet Julia or Julie (depending!) Adams, twice. Both times at a bookstore in Burbank which is one of the last holdouts for particularized fantasy and film fans. It's called Dark Delicacies. As far as I know, it's still in business! Adams appeared there to sign her autobiography, and I got a copy of that of course. She was still a beautiful gal, but old, and not surprisingly given her age, looking a bit tired. But I give her a lot of credit for willingly putting herself through the wickets of promotional work for something like this, her life story. One of her sons by Ray Danton (looking a good bit like his old man) was her backup that day. He was an attractive and outgoing guy, and saved his mom a lot of the face time chat by interceding in a gracious way to answer questions, above and beyond obviously having escorted her there and supporting her generally. I can't remember his name, sorry to say. Dark Delicacies had her back a year (?) or so later, together with Rex Reason and Gregg Palmer, to co-autograph Tom Weaver and Co.'s history of the Creature films. Unlike your rather melancholy scene--but very convincing in all its implications--with Piper Laurie in her latter years (and I believe she's still with us), both events I've described here were well attended. Long lines considering the age of the participant[s], and the not-too-amusing element for the second event is that the bookstore failed to buy many copies of the book. Hard to believe! That's the whole point, right? They sold out of the small stack almost instantly. Palmer was, to put it plainly, almost unrecognizable as the hulking but good looking young guy in those '50s pictures, but Rex Reason looked much younger than his actual years, handsome and prosperous and gracious. The amazing, booming voice in (possibly) his most characteristic starring role in "This Island Earth" was very much muted, but one would expect that. I think that like some other once-busy actors, including if I'm not mistaken Dana Andrews and Donald Woods, that Reason had gone into selling real estate. It'd make an interesting (or, maybe not) column just chronicling those who did, and made out well doing it. Undoubtedly one of the ones who did extremely well was Asher Dann, the star-for-two-seconds of the 3D epic "Summer Storm" (and a very good looking young guy), whose shingle I actually remember posted all over Beverly Hills in the early '80s. He does an interview on the Blu-ray for that movie and like Palmer, he's almost unrecognizable vs his youthful self.

1:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Craig Reardon:

I had to laugh at your references to Ty Power's apparent inability to resist any willing female's allure. What with all the sidebar references to his being gay or pansexual, one must simply let it go. But it appears that his pursuit of the fair sex was no exaggeration. Part of that is or was just the fact he was, as you put it in regard to Julie Adams's awe of him, a kind of god, as far as his looks and voice and bearing. I love the guy in all his old movies. But I've also read short remarks on Amazon and such that he left others cold. I can imagine that today's kiddies, seeing his formal way of speaking and behaving in most of his movies, feeling a sense of bewilderment or an inability to relate. Brando did his damage! Ha. No, but, realism today is still a matter of opinion, especially when you look at some actors like (at the extreme) Nicholas Cage, for instance. But Brando and Clift focused attention on a kind of self-conscious naturalism which, ironically and amusingly, well established screen performers like Cooper and March (and many others, especially in the character ranks) had had out there in plain sight way before Brando hit the scene. It's fashion, is what it is. But Americans love their mythologies, so Brando invented naturalism, and there it is. That's your 'truth'. I myself find Power very natural. I have a much wider view of what constitutes realism or credibility, I guess. Also art, music, literature...! I think all these things will become more relaxed as people get their heads unstuck from received judgements...and that'll be a good thing, I hope. I remember my wife telling me that there was a Japanese lady who worked at Hilton during the years she did (at their former world headquarters in Beverly Hills) who'd been a hairdresser at Columbia Pictures in her earlier life. She'd met Power (my immediate guess would be "The Long Gray Line", but he also did "The Eddie Duchin Story" there) and could still babble about how beautiful and charming he was, all those years later. So, yeah, it must have been something that had benefited Power all his ultimately short life. But, also, very full life!

1:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Three from Craig Reardon:

As far as the contract players vs the free lance headliners, that too was an interesting bit in your richly rambling coverage. I was lucky to work with Rosemary Forsyth on a TV show, and she told me that she was either one of the last young actresses, or 'players' in the old parlance, to sign with Universal as a contract player. So that's a distinction that made it that much more fun to have had the opportunity to meet her. Your observations about Laurie and Adams demonstrate that it was a big undertaking to sign with a major studio back then, as far as all he 'fine print' obligations. Even to the extent of having to attend movie premieres for movies you weren't even in, often with another 'player' for a date, who you weren't really seeing/dating. Sometimes, as with guys like Tab Hunter or Rock Hudson, who wouldn't have shown up to a private gathering with a Piper Laurie or a Julie Adams under any circumstances. All part of their job.

Finally, just to put the brakes on here, I'll also mention that that riverboat used in "Mississippi Gambler" definitely was on the lot for many years. The last time I have a strong memory of still seeing it, well beyond my first opportunity of working at Universal in 1977, was in 1989--yes, twelve years later--while I was there working on "Dick Tracy". A Touchstone movie (a now retired 'division' of Disney), it was shooting primarily at Universal for most of its schedule. And the ol' riverboat had seen better days. Looking a bit collapsed and woebegone by then. I think it was only hanging on because the brass may have viewed it to be an asset for the ever crawling trams filled with tourists, coursing through the studio every single day and minting money for the owners of the lot. I don't know what other theatrical features it may or may not have been featured in, but I know it was the costar, as it were, of a TV show I watched as a little boy, which starred Darren McGavin and Burt Reynolds, called "Riverboat"--a Revue (owned by MCA) show of the late '50s or earliest '60s. It's definitely gone now. The last time I had occasion to be on the backlot, so much had changed that I had a time getting my bearings. Between the big fire which forced the studio to decide whether or not to rebuild their one-time complex of Big City/small town streets and buildings (they elected to do it, and I must say did an excellent job--but, it's not quite the same in appearance as the former structures which had roots back to the earlier decades of the studio), and changing public tastes which most recently had them razing the fabled, almost sacrosanct Phantom of the Opera stage to put in something to amuse the Universal Studios Tour-ists, it's become a place I can't relate to either via direct memories or enthusiasm running much, much further back as per its days as the primary purveyor of 'horror' movies as well as the Abbott and Costello factory, plus some excellent John Wayne vehicles and other odd delights. Things change. But that's why I love "Greenbriar Picture Shows". You keep the memories alive.


1:35 PM  

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