The Lady Gambles (1949)
The lady in question? Barbara Stanwyck.
Long before James Caan starred as the addicted, Gambler, or Philip Seymour Hoffman captivated me as a gambling junkie in Owning Mahoney, Miss Stanwyck, starred as a happily married woman who finds herself under the bright lights of Las Vegas and after that first taste of winning, doesn’t want to leave in this Universal Pictures release.
Produced by Michael Kraike who had just tended to the superior Criss Cross for Universal, Lady Gambles, will be told in flashback after the opening sequence that sees a back alley dice game end in violence. It’s a rather “dicey” opening when Stanwyck is nabbed with loaded number sevens. For her transgression she’s violently smacked around and left in the gutter. Taken to the hospital she’s attended too by Doctor John Hoyt. It’s when Robert Preston arrives asking about her condition that the tale will unfold.
Turns out he’s her husband who wants to help her. Not to have her locked up as suggested by Hoyt. Apparently she’s got a long rap sheet and there’s suspicion of ….. (Hays Code alert) I’m gambling on that next word being prostitution. Time for that flashback to begin as Preston pleads his case to have her released into his care. Cue the location footage of Las Vegas circa 1949.
Stanwyck is off to the adult version of Disneyland. Tables, slots, roulette wheels. Like any “A” list star of her magnitude she warrants an invite into the casino managers office played by Stephen McNally. Fortunately hubby Preston is off photographing the Hoover damn on assignment. This meeting with McNally will prove one thing. Even in 1949 the term “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” had already been invented. He quickly propositions her and makes it known that her wedding ring shouldn’t stand in their way. She puts him off for now …
McNally stakes her to some play money and before the viewers can grab their popcorn, she’s hooked. She’s worse than a junkie looking for his next high. The thrill of winning any number of games in the casino is too much for her and McNally quickly sees the signs and warns her to slow down. Not only is she hooked on the tables but she’s lying to her hard working hubby Preston and when she loses his bankroll panic sets in. It’s off to the nearest pawn shop for another stake when McNally brushes her off. Thankfully she’ll battle her way back to even without Preston being ever the wiser.
Melodrama is going to rear it’s ugly head when Stanwyck’s spinster sibling arrives in town as played by Edith Barrett. There’s some heavy drama in here and could there relationship be the blame of Stanwyck’s ever increasing dependency on gambling? I think it’s all hogwash (or poppycock if you prefer) but that’s where this plot is headed. Back to the tables….. Preston confronts her as he knows what’s going on and can’t seem to stop her addiction. McNally? He takes her in once he believes he has use for her as both lover and a front in a horseracing scam. As for Preston, he’ll turn his back on her so she can work out her demons. It’s him or the dice.
McNally who goes by his character’s last name, Corrigan, alludes to not wanting to hear anyone use his first. “No-one uses my first name….because it’s Horace” It’s an in-joke for those unaware. McNally was at one time billed in his early films under his real name, Horace McNally. As the casino’s manager he’s quickly learning that his leading lady is a born loser.
“You’re a lost cause baby. So this is the kiss off.”
This is going to bring us full circle with Preston hoping he can bring her back from deep depression and near suicide.
I guess this is one of those films from yesteryear that one might accuse of not holding up to well though I think that line of thinking might come from a viewer who isn’t a fan of classic films or Miss Stanwyck. Sure the melodrama is a slight thick but sheer star power can carry this film a long way and Barbara had that in spades. She’s decked in Orry-Kelly gowns and the film also presents history buffs with some fine footage of Vegas’ earlier years. Too bad the film wasn’t in color to catch all those neon lights working the strip late at night.
Alongside character player Hoyt you’ll spot both Leif Erickson and Philip Van Zandt as McNally’s gambling partners. And just who is that handsome young bellhop rumor has it caused young girls hearts to stir when he makes a brief appearance near the end of the film? None other than Anthony Curtis who would become one of Universal Studios biggest stars in just a few short years. Billed as Stoney …. excuse me, Tony.
The Lady Gambles was directed by Michael Gordon who would score his biggest hit ten years later for Universal, the go to Doris and Rock film, Pillow Talk. As for The Lady Gambles, it’s available as part of a DVD set dedicated to the starring lady, Miss Stanwyck, that was released to home video a number of years ago should you be attempting to hunt this one down.