A note from Lindsey: This film was viewed as part of TMP’s Barbara Stanwyck filmography project. Check out Listography to keep track of the project’s progress!
Jennifer “Lady” Lee (Barbara Stanwyck) has grown up in the world of gambling. Her dad, Mike (Robert Barrat), is a pro at it, but is also an honest man and has never run a crooked game.
When a gambling syndicate puts the pressure on Mike to get into the business of bad gambling, he makes the harrowing decision to commit suicide rather than giving into the pressure.
Charlie Lang (Pat O’Brien), a player for the syndicate that drove Mike to suicide, is very worried about Lady and decides to take up a collection to help her out. Charlie wants to marry Lady, but she turns him down because he’s a dishonest gambler and because she doesn’t love him.
Lady soon finds success of her own playing honest games against big-shot businessmen.
During this time she meets and becomes attracted to Garry Madison (Joel McCrea), but numerous complications arise in their relationship that make her question her trust of Garry.
Archie Mayo directs 1934’s Gambling Lady, based on the story by Doris Malloy, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Ralph Block.
With Stanwyck and McCrea in the leading roles, I was pretty much guaranteed to at least like this film.
The two have great chemistry and also give great performances individually. They’re very believable, never over-the-top. Even as the film shifts to a more melodramatic mood, the performances are realistic.
Great performances don’t mean the film is perfect. The plot, despite all of its gamblin’ drama, is not completely engrossing. The personal journey of Lady as she loses her father and deals with romantic entanglements is interesting, but the simple cops-versus-gamblers conflict that makes up the other half of the film isn’t super high on intrigue.
The interest level does pick up when the film becomes more of social drama, pitting Lady’s world against Garry’s. The romance works best as the film’s focus, mixed with the emerging crime drama aspect. (Gambling-free crime comes in during the later portion of the film, and I won’t spoil just how because it came as a surprise to me!)
This genre-mixing leads the film to have a combination of both upbeat and sad moments. At times it tortures the viewer. Stanwyck and McCrea are easy to root for, but a huge obstacle arises that could potentially tear them apart forever.
In addition to the aforementioned cast, Claire Dodd makes an appearance of Sheila, who has eyes for McCrea’s character. There’s a lot of tension between Stanwyck and Dodd, naturally, and the “showdown” between the characters over Garry’s affections is great.
There is a repeated gesture of McCrea pushing Dodd’s hand away whenever she tries to affectionately fix his tie. This act is so simple, but so telling of Garry’s personality and loyalties.
The ending of Gambling Lady comes a bit abruptly, which isn’t great (though I do like what happened in the end), but overall the film is a more than decent watch. As the first pairing of Stanwyck and McCrea on screen, I will forever be grateful to this film for launching more appearances of the pair. The score: 3.5/5