Thursday, January 9, 2014
"THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER" (1953) Review
"THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER" (1953) Review
Tyrone Power's career took a strange turn during the post-World War II years. Although he still managed to maintain his position as one of Twentieth Century Fox's top stars during the remainder of the 1940s, something happened as the 1950s dawned. Powers still found himself in Grade A movies during that particular decade. But he also seemed to appear in a growing number of standard costume melodramas.
Twentieth Century Fox lent Powers to Universal Pictures to star in the 1953 drama called "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER". Directed by Rudolph Maté, "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER" told the story of a New York-born gambler named Mark Fallon, who moves to New Orleans with ambitions to create his own gambling casino. During the riverboat journey down the Mississippi River, Mark becomes the friend and protégé of an older gambler named Kansas John Polly. The pair also run afoul of a crooked gambler and two Creole siblings named Angelique and Laurent Dureau. During a poker game, Mark exposes the crooked gambler. Also Laurent Dureau loses all of his money and his sister's priceless necklace during the game. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Mark becomes acquainted with the Dureaus' father, Edmond Dureau. The latter admires Mark and realizes that the younger man is in love with Angelique. Unfortunately, she refuses to acknowledge Mark and sets matrimonial sights upon a friend of her brother's, banker George Elwood. Mark and Kansas John meet and help Ann Conant, the daughter of an unlucky gambler who had committed suicide. She helps the two friends build their casino, yet at the same time, falls in love with Mark. And both she and Mark become uncomfortably aware that Laurent Dureau has fallen in love with her.
While reading the synopsis of this film, I noticed that it was identified as an adventure film. "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER" does feature some action sequences that include a fist fight aboard a riverboat, at least two duels and a murder attempt. But for some reason, I am hard pressed to consider it an adventure film. There seemed to be a lot more drama and action in this film. Especially melodrama. Production wise, "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER" struck me as an attractive looking film. Being a constant visitor of the Universal Studios theme park, it was easy to recognize some of the exterior scenes from the studio's back lot. I doubt that "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER" had the budget to be shot on location in Louisiana. But I still would not describe it as cheap looking for a standard melodrama, thanks to Irving Glassberg's sharp photography. Even Bill Thomas' costume designs added to the film's visual style. However, there was one costume worn by leading lady Piper Laurie that reflected the early 1950s, instead of the early 1850s.
I have no problems with the movie's performances. Tyrone Powers gave a subtle, yet excellent performance as the good-hearted Mark Fallon, who had not only become enamored of New Orleans society, but also the leading lady. His chemistry with Piper Laurie struck me as pretty solid, but not particularly striking. I think Laurie's portrayal of the aristocratic and hot-tempered Angelique seemed a bit too fiery . . . and possibly too young for the more sedate Powers. The actor seemed to have better chemistry with Julie Adams, who portrayed the sweet-tempered, yet practical and mature Ann Conant. I found myself wishing that her character was Powers' leading lady. The lead actor certainly clicked with John McIntire, who portrayed Mark's close friend, Kansas John Polly. The two men seemed to have created their own on-screen bromance with considerable ease. John Bear gave a very credible performance as Laurent Dureau, the careless, yet passionate young scion who happened to be the leading lady's brother. Paul Cavanaugh was equally competent as Angelique and Laurent's elegant father, Edmond Dureau. I would comment on the rest of the cast. But if I must be honest, I found them unmemorable . . . including Ron Randell, who portrayed Angelique's corrupt husband, George Elwood.
While reading about the film, I also learned that "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER" was a big hit during early 1953. Leslie I. Carey, even managed to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Sound Recording for his work on the movie. But you know what? Despite the decent production designs, visual styles and solid performances from the cast, I have a pretty low opinion of "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER". In fact, I am astounded that this movie was a box office hit. Perhaps that sounded arrogant. Who am I to judge the artistic tastes of others? I certainly do not like for others to judge my tastes or attempt to infringe their tastes upon me. But I have to say that I did not like "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER".
What was it about the movie that I disliked? Seton I. Miller's screenplay. I found it very ineffective. In other words, I thought it sucked. Exactly what was this movie about? Mark Fallon's struggles to build his New Orleans casino? His adventures as a riverboat gambler? His romance (it that is what you want to call it) with Angelique Dureau. Apparently, it is all of the above. But Miller's story struck me as extremely vague and very episodic. The only storyline that remained consistent from beginning to end was the love story between Mark Fallon and Angelique Dureau. And honestly, it did not strike me as a well constructed love story. The problem seemed to be the character of George Elwood. Instead of marrying him earlier in the story, Angelique did not marry him until the final half hour.
The love story was not the only problem I had with the plot for "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER". One scene featured the leading characters witnessing a dance number by slaves or free blacks in an area known as Congo Square. I am aware that such performances did occurred in 19th century New Orleans. I found it more than disconcerting that the dancers featured in the movie were white performers in blackface as African-Americans. Mark Fallon's struggle to build a casino did not come off as much of a struggle to me. In fact, Mark, Kansas John and Ann Conant managed to build the casino within the movie's second half hour and lose it, thanks to George Elwood's financial manipulations by the last half hour. Not only did the banker's financial manipulations concluded the story line regarding the casino in an unsatisfying manner, but the same could be said about how Mark and Angelique's love story ended. I could go into detail about what happened, but why bother? It would be a waste of time. All I can say is that I found the conclusion of Miller's story vague, rushed and very unsatisfying.
In a nutshell, "THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER" possessed both a decent visual style and production designs. It also featured solid performances from a cast led by Tyrone Power and Piper Laurie. But the first-class costume melodrama that Universal Pictures set out to create was undermined by a vague and unsatisfying story written by screenwriter Seton I. Miller. It seemed a pity that within the seven to eight years following the end of World War II, Tyrone Power's career led him to this.