The very title of The Lady Gambles is enough to suggest that its something she shouldn’t be doing. Made in 1949 the movie is a surprisingly gritty tale which on occasion plays like a serious version of the “Women: Know Your Limits!” public information film parody from Harry Enfield’s sketch show.
Barbara Stanwyck stars as the lady in question. She is Joan Boothe a photo journalist attempting to do a secret feature on the gambling life of the casinos in Las Vegas. It’s sad that an older film featuring a professional woman, acting independently and following her own agenda should feel it necessary to punish her. By giving her such a huge weakness in the form of gambling addiction the character’s strengths are squashed. That addiction also becomes the reason the men in the film find reason to talk down to her.
For a film made in 1949 The Lady Gambles still seems dark and adult. The film begins with Barbara Stanwyck’s character being beaten up in an alleyway which is a step away from what you might expect. Violence (although mild by on screen standards of today) and talk of suicide mean that this DVD release is still classified 12. On it’s release in the UK in May 1949 it was rated A, for adults.
The character is fascinatingly complex, but everything about her is explained away by men being concerned. They frown and nod and the whole impetus behind the film seems to be that they know better. Which sticks in the throat somewhat, especially as a depiction of the debilitating effects of gambling addiction The Lady Gambles is otherwise pretty ahead of the game. In an opening title-card we learn that the business people of Las Vegas lent their full support to the film – which considering it shows the horrendous effects gambling can have on a person, is quite surprising. Vegas wasn’t a huge city in 1949 but like now gambling was always at its heart.
Mansplaining characters overbalance what could have been an absorbing character drama. Although yes, those men are acting in her best interests, the patriarchal assumption of that support comes across incredibly patronising. However good natured and well meaning their behaviour the underlying societal pressure is acutely apparent. For social history and gender studies students this might be particularly compelling.
The Lady Gambles is out on DVD now and is interesting if not entirely satisfying. Tony Curtis completists may be keen to know that he appears for a about ten seconds in an early role as a hotel bellboy.