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Jinxed June: Gambler's Choice (1944)

We’re feeling very lucky after a successful 2023 Picture Show, so we are turning the focus onto films that involve luck and fortune both good and bad for the month of June.

RODNEY BOWCOCK: Gambler’s Choice is an early 20th century period piece about three childhood friends who reunite as adults. One is a casino owner, one is a nightclub singer and one is a police officer. Complications ensue as their career paths cause a moral conundrum.

There’s not much plot here, even for the brisk 66 minute running time. This was one of the more expensive productions from Pine-Thomas (it was distributed through Paramount) and one of three that paired Chester Morris and Russell Hayden. It was based on a short story by James Edward Grant called Tenderloin (due to the district in New York that the action takes place in), but shortly before filming began, the title of the film was changed to what we know it as now.

SAMANTHA GLASSER: Motion Picture Herald called it, "Reminiscent of Boss Canfield's lavish bronze-door gambling house era and the upswing of civic reform." In the way that modern audiences enjoy looking back at the 1960s, audiences of the WWII era seemed to be highly nostalgic for the 1890s. Both were major transitional periods bridging eras, so it makes sense. The music was innovative, the technology was changing, and we caught glimpses of what was to come while retaining the traditions of the past. This movie does a good job of painting a different time period, sticking with period costumes, old fashioned hairstyles and duster jackets worn while riding in early automobiles. The saloons look authentic with their stick and ball wood details and the use of marble as the height of luxury.

"The formula has been dressed up to kill and the result has a fillip that makes it a money-maker... the handicaps are the shortness of the film and the lack of big marquee names," said Showmen's Trade Review's writer.

RB: Chester Morris, a long time Picture Show favorite, whom we probably remember the best for the long-running Boston Blackie series from Columbia had a long career dating back to 1917 and continuing until his death in 1970. This was also during the time when he made a lot of features for Pine-Thomas. He largely retired from films around 1950, but he still appeared here and there, and had a lot of guest bits on TV.

Russell Hayden is primarily known for his work in B-westerns, but he did a lot of work for Pine-Thomas as well, often paired with Morris, although they weren’t exactly a team, just co-stars.

SG: Hayden is the discovery of the film for me. He is an appealing actor and even looks at home in his old-timey mustache. I was surprised to learn that he mostly made westerns during his career because he had potential to be a capable leading man.

We have seen Nancy Kelly in several films we have blogged about (One Night in the Tropics, Stanley and Livingstone, Tail Spin) She is a pleasant and capable actress, but something about her seems generic and forgettable.

RB: Kelly would later win a Tony for The Bad Seed and be nominated for an Oscar for the film version, which makes her certainly the most decorated star in this film. But at this time she was bouncing around radio and B movies, which makes her just the kind of actor that I like. Likely, her most notable role around this time is One Night in the Tropics, but that’s just because Abbott and Costello are in it.

The cast is rounded out by lots of great character actors such as Lee Patrick, Lloyd Corrigan, Sheldon Leonard and Lyle Talbot, which almost always means that you’re in for a good time.

SG: The film utilizes tropes from classic movies, like a montage of headlines and action sequences to move time, that feel comfortable to those of us who love this era. Charles Ryweck, reviewer for Motion Picture Daily said, "It has many moments of fast action, but it is handicapped by an oft-told story that weaves a too familiar pattern." Indeed, the casting of Sheldon Leonard as the heavy is alone enough to support this sentiment. It doesn't require a lot of thought, but it is entertaining and tightly made.

"Good action melodrama that our patrons liked much more than many of the super dupers," said Abe Kaufman of the Fountain Theatre in Terra Haute, Indiana. "I wonder how long it is going to be before the producers remember that the nice little stories of Shirley Temple and Will Rogers went over better than most of the colossal pictures."

Otto Chapuk played Gambler's Choice at his theatre in North Dakota and said it was, "not a bad little picture."

RB: Exhibitors and critics generally regarded this as a perfectly adequate movie for bottom bills and bargain nights, which is all it was ever intended to be. One reviewer, however, Rudy Covi of the Covi Theatre in Herminie, PA felt differently. “Six thousand feet of film with images that have the appearance of motion when projected on the screen. There is nothing more that I can say about this alleged motion picture.” As Jack Benny would say… “WELL!”

While that’s true, and this movie really isn’t any great shakes, it’s an entertaining way to spend an hour if you enjoy the cast, and you probably do if you’re reading this. Two and a half stars.

SG: I think if we judge this movie for being a programmer, its production values give it a boost above the crowd. Three stars.

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