Monday, September 26, 2011

Any Number Can Play - 1949


"Any Number Can Play" (1949) is a spot-the-character-actor festival.  Shown recently on TCM, I came in late, after the opening credits, and knowing nothing about the film, I had a ball picking out character actors I knew or thought I knew.

The leads, to be sure, are enough of a draw.  Clark Gable is a the owner of a gambling house, who spends too much time at work, and whose attacks of angina point to stress and serious heart trouble if he doesn't take it easy. 

Alexis Smith is his wife, who has grown lonelier through the years in his absence, and especially now that her son is almost grown.   Darryl Hickman plays their boy, who is angry at his father for being absent, being the town notorious clip joint owner, and for wanting him to fight other kids when he has no desire to punch anybody. 

There seems to be a lot of emphasis on Gable's disappointment in his son's lack of a brawling gene (there is a toy model of two boxers in a ring on Gable's desk), and his resentment at being resented.

There's not a lot of action; it's a quiet movie, an interesting study of a man not only feeling his age but feeling his mortality, along with a lot of brief side glimpses at the desperation of addicted gamblers and the nature of life as being one big gamble.

This is our post-War Gable, older and looking it, but still with that incredible magnetism.  When he walks through the crowded gambling salon, he's the only person you watch.

Unfortunately Alexis Smith doesn't get to stretch her acting muscles much in this film, except for one very lovely scene.  Gable rumages among the junk in the cellar of their mansion looking for a set of old fishing flies for a long-postponed vacation his doctor says he should take or else.  Alexis leads him off to a side room in the cellar she has fixed up for herself.  She calls it a memory room.

It is a small hideway, a looking almost like a camping cottage.  There are a few pieces of mismatched old furnature, a phonograph, a baby's wooden highchair, and an old double bed that had been theirs in the small apartment they had when they were first married.  All the items are from the early years of their marriage, including the box of fishing flies Gable wants.


He is astonished, and she explains in a low, almost whispered voice that she misses the days when they were together more, when he was just starting out in business, and when they shared all their thoughts and experiences.  Her pain and her disapointment, and her frustration at having to be the linchpin between her estranged husband and son, are mitigated only by her great love for this man.  He flops on the lumpy mattress and she joins him, still whispering between kisses, a very touching seduction scene (We can only suppose she's keeping one foot on the floor).   She is more impressive in this scene than Gable, whose normal tone of speaking voice seems almost a shout compared to her softer tones, and he looks uncomfortable.  He's the rogue of younger days, chasing women in between wisecracks, and does not seem to like being seduced.

However his later scene with Mary Astor, as an old flame who still pines for him, is more profound and shows Gable as lonely as his wife.  One interesting thing about this movie is that, despite Gable's obvious magnestim before the camera, he must also have slipped the cameraman a buck or two because in several scenes he is shown facing the camera and we see only the back of the person talking to him.  This happens most glaringly with Mary Astor, who plays much of their one scene together with her back to us.  Mary Astor, of all people.

Knowing nothing about this film, and missing the opening credits, Mary Astor pulling on the arm of a slot machine was only one happy surprise.  The rest of the movie  became an Easter egg hunt for familiar faces.


Frank Morgan has a great role as an aggressive gambler, a rival and enemy to Gable, who intends to clean him out.  Morgan is a far cry from his normal jovial roles.  He's menacing, snide, sarcastic, but ultimately respecting Gable for playing the game of life as hard as he does.  Mr. Morgan died only two months after "Any Number Can Play" was released.

Leon Ames is the doctor who tells Gable to cut out bad habits (including work) or he's a goner.  Lewis Stone plays the town drunk, who borrows money from Gable, and loses everything at poker.  If you had no idea Judge Hardy could act, have a look at this movie.

Wendell Corey plays Gable's no-account brother-in-law (married to sis Audrey Totter, who doesn't get much to do expect drink and look bitter).  Mr. Corey is a smarmy weakling, who works at Gable's gambling house and is skimming money for himself.  He's gotten in trouble with a couple of hoods.  William Conrad is one of them.  ("Hey!  William Conrad!" she shouts to the TV like a happy idiot.)

Marjorie Rambeau is the town rich lady with an earthy love of gambling.   Edgar Buchanan is one of the patrons, but I don't think he had any lines.  We just see him looking tense at the poker table from time to time.  ("Hey!  It's Edgar Buchanan!")

Caleb Peterson is the simple-minded bar guy, who we sense is another one of Gable's charity cases.  We caught a brief glimpse of Mr. Peterson as the African-American veteran who helped move the heavy plane engine at  the beginning of "The Best Years of Our Lives."

That's William Edmunds as the men's room attendant - remember Mr. Martini from "It's a Wonderful Life"?






That photo in Gable's office of his son as a little boy  -that's not a young Darryl Hickman.  That's a young Scotty Becket.  You recognize him right off, and it threw me.  I spent the rest of the movie wondering when Scotty Becket would show up

Barbara Billingsly is supposed to be a gambler, too, but I didn't see her anywhere.  Instead, I saw a couple people who weren't there.  I thought I recognized one fellow as Leon Belasco, and another as Regis Toomey, at least from profile - but IMDb doesn't list them in the credits. 

I got so hung up on hunting for character actors at that point, I was starting to see things.


16 comments:

Caftan Woman said...

Omigosh, and there's Richard Rober next to William Conrad! I usually recognize his voice before his face.

I saw I had missed the beginning of this picture so filed it away in my mind for another time. You make me wish I hadn't shown such restraint.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

And Richard Rober. Usually if I miss the beginning I bail out, too. It's just the roster of familiar faces like cameos in a class reunion that pulled me into taping the rest of it.

DearMrGable said...

I really enjoyed reading this. It's one of Gable's quieter roles, but it's a good little movie. I have never thought Alexis Smith had great chemistry with him at all, but I suppose that part of the point was that they were older and their marriage was lacking the spark it once had. It's interesting to see Gable play the father of a teenager; he did not play a father often.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Welcome, DearMrGable, and thank you. I agree it's an interesting departure for Gable. Another thought I forgot to mention: the angina scenes are rather uncomfortable to watch when you recall he died of a real heart attack some 11 years later.

Cliff Aliperti said...

So glad I recorded this! I thought I'd seen it some time ago but none of this is familiar at all. I'll watch anything with Judge Hardy as the town drunk! Shoot, who am I kidding, I'll watch anything with Lewis Stone, period. Frank Morgan looks pretty happy there, that's a shame about the timing of this one for him.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

With luck, Cliff, you recorded it from the beginning. If so, you'll have to fill us in on what happened those first 15 minutes or so. Thanks so much for stopping by.

ClassicBecky said...

Jacqueline, I was lucky enough to catch this from the beginning, and really liked it -- I don't think I had ever seen it before, at least no more than pieces of it. Gable was striking in it, older or not, which men are allowed to do in Hollywood, not women...a real bone to pick for me. I had to laugh at your assessment: "...he must also have slipped the cameraman a buck or two because in several scenes he is shown facing the camera and we see only the back of the person talking to him. This happens most glaringly with Mary Astor, who plays much of their one scene together with her back to us. Mary Astor, of all people." That is a very surprising thing to be able to do to Astor, who was no shrinking violet herself as a screen presence!

Like you, I thought Alexis was kind of under-used except for that sweet scene in the memory room. That was such a sad little piece of this woman's mind.

Great post, Jacqueline!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thanks, Becky. I also kind of thought Wendell Corey's role would be larger, but they fooled me. Where did Gable's first symptoms occur? When I came in, Leon Ames was just leaving his office.

ClassicBecky said...

As I remember, it wasn't long before the doctor came to his office. I think it was just one time that he showed the pain in his face. I was on the phone for a minute or two into the movie, trying to get a long-winded friend to hang up!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Now, see, I would have shouted, "I can't talk now! Clark Gable's having angina!" And then hung up.

barrylane said...

This is not only a great film but one that is based on real people. The town is Milwaukee and the relationship between father and son is colored by the boy's homosexuality. It is also about that same young man's loving relationship with his father. Based on a book that is out there somewhere. And the real life boy, now an old man of coure, may well be alive.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I've never read the book, and don't know much about author Edward Harris Heth, except that his story was supposed to be at least partly autobiographical.

Vienna said...

I love this film. Great cast, though I hate seeing Audrey Totter so totally wasted. All Audrey seemed to do was stand around with a glass in one hand and cigarette in the other.
I thought Alexis Smith did well ,playing a woman whom I 'm sure was meant to be older than Alexis who was probably about 30 at the time.
Great to see Mary Astor though,again, what a small role. And Marjorie Rambeau is always a joy.
It could have been a play, with the only sets the gambling club and Gable's house.
An unusual role for Gable and he was convincing.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Vienna, I agree that Audrey Totter was wasted. So many great leads and character actors that none of them get much focus. I also thought Alexis Smith did well in her role. She usually played "older" in her films, but here she's old enough to have a grown son. It would have been interesting, I think, to film the whole movie in the gambling house, sort of like Rick's in "Casablanca".

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Vienna, I agree that Audrey Totter was wasted. So many great leads and character actors that none of them get much focus. I also thought Alexis Smith did well in her role. She usually played "older" in her films, but here she's old enough to have a grown son. It would have been interesting, I think, to film the whole movie in the gambling house, sort of like Rick's in "Casablanca".

barrylane said...

I understand that Edward Harris Heth passed some time ago. Possibly in the sixties.