vt Laughing at Luck
US / 59 minutes / bw / Monarch Dir: Fred Newmeyer Pr: Burton King Scr: F. McGrew Willis Cine: Edward Kull Cast: Ruth Hall, Grant Withers, John St. Polis, Maston Williams, Jean Porter, Jimmy Eagles, Murdock MacQuarrie.
In Miami, rich John Tracy (St. Polis) is losing heavily at the casino as he follows the system devised by his “friend” Ralph Jordan (Williams); what he doesn’t know is that the system’s a complete con and Jordan is harvesting from the casino a cool 20% of Tracy’s losses.
Some years ago, during the Crash, Tracy’s acquaintance Bill Foster (Withers) lost everything. Bill insisted that Tracy take his string of racehorses in payment for a debt; Tracy insisted on giving Bill paid employment as the manager of the string. Bill and jockey Sandy Lane (Eagles) feel guilty that Tracy’s not getting much of a return on his investment: the only horse they have that’s any good is Lightning, and Lightning—“the fastest thing on earth”—seems well-nigh untameable.
John Tracy’s treasured photo of his daughter Sheila (Ruth Hall).
Foolishly, Tracy thinks that he might be the one to tame the beast, and lets himself into Lightning’s stall. A few noisy moments later he’s being helped away to what will prove to be his deathbed. Bill sends for Tracy’s extraordinarily toothsome daughter Sheila (Hall), a student at snooty school Stewart Hall, where the teachers are really, really strict (“I’d advise you not to get that bathing suit wet. It might shrink”) and the girls are really, really unbridled (“I know a place where they weaken the ginger ale so it doesn’t make us dizzy!”). She arrives in time to witness her father give a farewell homily to rival in length Jim Carrey’s in The Mask (1994), if not Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He greets her with “Hello, Pieface,” and it all goes downhill from there. Thoughts of Oscar Wilde and Little Nell came to mind.
John Tracy (John St. Polis) makes sure not to rush his death scene.
Yep: it’s still going. John (John St. Polis) and Sheila (Ruth Hall) say their last farewells.
By this time we’re getting on toward the movie’s halfway mark and the real story is about to begin.
Three months have gone by and Sandy and horse-wrangler Thompson (MacQuarrie) agree that their boss Bill is really spoony about Sheila. Bill has the measure of con artist Jordan (“Working for a living’s not so bad. You ought to try it sometime”) and is depressed that the sleazebag has clamped onto Sheila, just like he did her father. Sure enough, with the help of Jordan’s “system” Sheila has soon worked her way through the major part of her inheritance.
Bill (Grant Withers) and Sandy (Jimmy Eagles) show their contempt for Jordan.
Determined to recoup her losses, she goes to the stable and takes Lightning out for a ride. By the time she falls off she has, we soon discover, ridden all the nerves and nastiness out of the animal. He’s now in a fit condition to be ridden in the big race.
Sheila lays her last $6,000 on Lightning at good odds. Bill lays all his own cash on the horse—then learns of Sheila’s bet. He ruminates to Thompson that it’d be worth losing all his money if it meant that Sheila lost hers too, because then she might “come down to earth” and marry him secure in the knowledge that he wasn’t just wedding her for her money. Sandy the jockey overhears this, with an obvious result.
Bill (Grant Withers), a part that might have been made for Fred MacMurray.
Talking of wedding her for her money, Jordan believes he has more or less persuaded Sheila to elope with him. When he discovers that there’s none of the money left, he cools a little—but soon hits on a solution: “We [could] leave the altar part out of it.” Luckily Bill is there to sock the cad on the jaw and claim the final clinch . . .
Despite the alluring title, there’s no sex on show, gambled or otherwise (hey, where do I go to get my money back?); in fact, to judge by Sheila’s response to Jordan’s offer, there isn’t even any implicated. Truth to tell, Sheila and her pals at Stewart Hall seem not so much tearaway as downright wholesome, whatever her papa might think: “She’s a wonderful girl, Jordan. Perhaps a bit too much like her father—a little reckless and fond of a good time—but she’s a hundred percent, all the way through.” Of course, all of that might have changed had she got her swimsuit wet.
Horse-wrangler Thompson (Murdock MacQuarrie).
There’s the tiniest bit of subversion here. It’s generally assumed that Sheila’s a bit of an airhead, ripe for swindlers like Jordan, because she’s, well, female, and the remedy for her dilemma is obvious:
Bill: “Somebody ought to give her a good spanking.”
Sandy: “Or marry her.”
At the same time, we’re only too well aware that she’s no worse off on the airheadedness front than her father was: he was equally gullible, got equally badly ripped off by Jordan, etc. It’s no wonder that Bill falls for her because, if you take away the gambling addiction, she is like her father a truly decent human being. Oh, and she’s extremely lovely.
Ruth Hall did a whole bundle of movies in the 1930s, working her way up from minor roles to starring ones, albeit in minor movies. She married the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Lee Garmes in 1933, and they stayed together until his death in 1978. After 1935, perhaps because of kids, she retired from the screen. When she returned in 1945 it was only to do a shortish string of uncredited parts, and in 1953 she retired entirely. She died in 2003 at the age of 92.
The movie has cheapness writ large all over it. The racecourse scenes are quite obviously stock footage. When Sheila rides out on the supposedly feisty Lightning, it’s perfectly plain that the frame-rate has been accelerated. St. Polis is quite clearly a pauper’s version of Claude Rains; Withers bears the same relationship to Fred MacMurray. Yet most of the actors give it their all, however limited that all might be. Eagles, whose reputation rests largely on his performances in Westerns, is especially fine as the jockey, while Hall is magnetic. It’s for her that this movie is worth the effort to track down.
On Amazon.com: Gambling Sex