Gambling Lady is a Warner Brothers’ quickie starring Barbara Stanwyck that was released just a few months ahead of Production Code enforcement. Despite running just a little over an hour it seems to invite every contract player on the lot, and then some, to pop in for a few minutes and earn their paychecks. The only actor who manages to be a consistent presence throughout the movie is its star, Stanwyck, who takes her part seriously and even manages to provide a few wonderful little moments. She also gives the viewer some extra fun by peppering her usual tough lingo with extra bits of gambling slang throughout.
While Gambling Lady didn’t merit special promotion from Warner’s in the trade papers, nor even any fuss in the fan magazines, it proved popular enough with audiences to be named as one of the major contributing factors for Archie Mayo breaking into Hollywood Reporter’s annual top ten list of best box office directors for 1933-34. Mayo scored thanks to four straight hits from Warners-First National beginning with The Mayor of Hell starring James Cagney, then Stanwyck’s previous film, Ever in My Heart, the notoriously bawdy Convention City (all 1933) and, finally, Gambling Lady. Masterpieces none, entertaining popular fare all, though we’ll have to take history’s word for that in the case of Convention City, a lost film.
As for Gambling Lady it caught me off-guard with a little twist in plot that didn’t seem as much intentional as it did the unintended result of Warner’s lengthy call sheet.
During the first half of the movie there is little doubt that our villain is Arthur Vinton as Fallin, head of a gambling syndicate soon employing Stanwyck’s Lady Lee as, presumably, its only honest card player. When rich boy Garry (Joel McCrea) unintentionally fingers an illegal game that Lady is a part of, it seems obvious that the remainder of the movie is going to be about Garry regaining Lady’s trust and Lady deciding between him and bookie pal Charlie Lang (Pat O’Brien), who on the surface has much more in common with her. To make the set-up complete I figured Fallin would cause no end of trouble to all three along the way and probably allow Lady’s winning suitor to emerge by bumping off the loser.
Instead, Lady quickly forgives Garry, we blink and they are married. Arthur Vinton disappears, though his syndicate still pulls a few strings in this story. Replacing the gambling boss as villain is Garry’s old flame, haughty socialite Sheila Aiken, played by the pre-Code Queen of haughty socialites, Claire Dodd.
Instead of being a simple underworld story where Stanwyck must overcome odds, literally and figuratively, plus be the key side of a love triangle, Gambling Lady becomes about Stanwyck trying to overcome her background, which is all the more prominent in contrast to Dodd’s Sheila, who isn’t exactly reserved in her pursuit to win McCrea’s Garry back.
Gambling Lady winds up uneven thanks to this unexpected turn, but the one constant in the film, Stanwyck, turns this to her advantage. We get the best of two shades of Stanwyck as she spends the first half of the movie talking tough and claiming her independence in the wake of her father’s death and the second half hour or so trying fit into McCrea’s world on her own terms, but being repelled by Dodd at every opportunity her cunning Sheila can create. Sheila even manages to squeeze Lady into a tight enough corner to unleash some Stanwyck hysterics.
My own favorite bit of Stanwyck in Gambling Lady was the unforgiving wrath she heaped upon McCrea after he accidentally turns informer by escorting two detectives up to the illicit card game. She just keeps pounding him:
“Well, you sure fooled me, brother. I didn’t spot you for a copper.”
“Where’s your badge, flatfoot?”
“Drop in for tea some afternoon at the jail — copper.”
“Well, I don’t think I’d know you without your uniform.”
McCrea is still pretty sympathetic at this point as the fresh faced rich kid who has fallen for her. You want her to stop, cut the guy some slack, but at the same time her complete and utter disdain becomes a bit more fun with every razz she lays on him.
But Stanwyck’s best scene in Gambling Lady comes late in the film, when McCrea requires an alibi, but won’t spoil a certain lady’s honor. Stanwyck supports him nevertheless, but as she embraces him she smells a rat. More specifically, she smells Claire Dodd and the little flicker of rage that flashes over Stanwyck's eyes as she loosens her grip is unsettling. As electric as that stare was her voice is completely flat when she tells him, “Okay, I think I catch on.” Empathy to rage to disappointment in seconds, and who knows what she'll do next. Not McCrea, who's completely baffled as she departs.
Claire Dodd plays a magnificent bitch. Always does. There is zero doubt from the moment her Sheila intrudes upon Lady’s honeymoon with Garry that she is going to be trouble. It is to Gambling Lady’s credit that she’s more mountain than molehill standing between Lady and Garry’s eventual happiness. Dodd is both viper and vamp from the moment of that entrance and seems a much more formidable obstacle to our star than the overall slight setbacks that the gambling world had previously presented.
Hanging all over Garry the first impression is that Sheila must not have heard about the marriage, but her dialogue quickly dispels that idea. Lady watches her from a Monte Carlo card table that she’d been cleaning up and is eventually distracted enough by Sheila’s attentions upon her husband that she leaves her hot streak behind to join them.
Sheila soon excuses herself, but pauses before she goes: “Oh, how stupid of me. I forgot to return your ring,” she says to Garry. “It’s customary, I believe.”
Later in their hotel room Lady tells Garry, “I don’t like that Sheila dame.”
McCrea suddenly loses our rooting interest by turning snob. He tells his wife, condescendingly, “Not that dame. You mean that young lady; that girl; that woman.” He doesn’t win us back later when he passes an ultimatum cutting off Lady’s friendship with old suitor Charlie.
That jealousy leads to another great moment from Stanwyck as she and McCrea argue over her past involvement with the O’Brien character.
“You’d do anything, wouldn’t you, to save your—”
“Don’t say that,” she says, cutting him off.
“Well, he was, wasn’t he?”
Stanwyck turns mischievous and vindictive. “Figure it out for yourself,” Lady tells Garry, leaving him to wonder about her past. “And I won’t be here while you’re making up your mind,” she adds, turning to leave him.
Stanwyck is so good at expressing these little glimpses into her soul that she can turn a little movie like this into something fascinating. There’s a good bit wrong with Gambling Lady, but none of it is Stanwyck.
While none of the other actors, except perhaps McCrea, appear throughout the film consistently, each of them is at their best as well.
Small role for Pat O’Brien, which probably could have been handled by Phillip Reed, who plays an even smaller role. While O’Brien’s character begins Gambling Lady more or less on equal footing with McCrea’s, he’s quickly usurped by the more traditional romantic leading man. McCrea is just fine as Lady’s love, though Garry's shift from sympathetic hearthrob to jealous husband was off-putting and happened as quick as you can say, “I do.”
If C. Aubrey Smith feels a little out of place here, you’ll get over that quickly as he is his typical elder gentleman throughout. He gets a few good moments on screen with Stanwyck, including an early scene where he picks up on her discovery of a card cheat at their table and another later when he offers a very polite bribe to her and she earns his respect in the manner she rejects it.
Arthur Vinton was good as head of a crime syndicate who stands as a little different from the norm in this era for not directly involving himself in any overt violence. Surely that would have changed had he not gone missing over the second half of the movie!
Ferdinand Gottschalk has a small part as McCrea’s lawyer and Willard Robertson pops up again as a tough district attorney. There’s even a Louise Beavers sighting in the final few minutes of the movie.
The Claire Dodd fan, like myself, will enjoy Gambling Lady, even though you have to wait 35 minutes for her to arrive. Once she does she provides a suitable sparring partner for Stanwyck, which is saying quite a lot.
Otherwise, Gambling Lady is all Barbara Stanwyck. Her Lady is the honest girl from the wrong side of the tracks, who has her doubts about moving over. When she does it is all for love and while she's happy to adapt, she won’t change who she basically is. She modifies her behavior as Garry’s wife in breaking off contact with Charlie, and her play has moved from illegal card dens to the bright lights of Monte Carlo and contract bridge amongst her new social class, but Lady Lee retains her honesty and earthiness until the very end.
This post was written for the Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon being hosted by Aubyn of The Girl with the White Parasol. Given Stanwyck's immense popularity nearly 50 writers have signed up to blog about her at their websites during the week of July 16-22, 2013. You can find links to all of the Blogathon posts at Aubyn's site HERE.