Release Date(s)1953 (April 11, 2023)
Studio(s)Universal-International (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B-
Unremembered today but a big success during its initial release, The Mississippi Gambler (1953) is an above-average yet ultimately unremarkable A-picture from Universal-International. The studio was actively wooing big stars such as James Stewart to work there in exchange for unprecedented profit-participation deals. Tyrone Power, a big star still under long-term contract at 20th Century Fox but free to make the occasional film outside of Fox, took full advantage of U-I’s offer. His agent reportedly negotiated for Power 50% of the rentals (profits) in lieu of Power’s usual salary, which at the time was probably around $150,000-$200,000 per picture. For his work on The Mississippi Gambler, Power made well in excess of $1 million, unheard of for a single film appearance at that time.
Most sources describe the film as a Western but it barely qualifies as that; it’s really more of a Gone with the Wind-type romantic melodrama with a similar degree of action. Its romance aspects play rather old-fashioned and corny today, but for film buffs it’s fun to watch for its cast and extensive use of the studio backlot.
Set before the Civil War, the movie follows atypically honest professional gambler Mark Fallon (Power) who, as the film opens, becomes friendly with veteran gambler “Kansas John” Polly (John McIntire) and together they board a riverboat bound for New Orleans. During a poker game, Mark cleans out Laurent Dureau (John Baer) so badly he has to pay his debt to Mark with a family heirloom, a diamond necklace belonging to his sister, Angelique (Piper Laurie). Mark’s success at the table also runs afoul with proprietary card sharp F. Montague Caldwell (Ralph Dumke), who sends his men to ambush Mark and Kansas John, forcing them to hightail it ashore just short of New Orleans.
Skilled fencer Mark becomes friendly with suave southern gentleman Edmond Dureau (Paul Cavanagh), Mark initially unaware that he is Angelique’s and Laurent’s father. Impressed by the gallant young man, especially when he generously returns the diamonds to the family, Edmond tries to persuade Angelique to wed Mark, but she insists upon an engagement with shady banker George Elwood (Ron Randell). Loser Laurent, meanwhile, challenges Mark to a duel.
Elsewhere, Mark helps Ann Conant (Julie Adams), whose brother (Dennis Weaver) committed suicide after losing stolen company funds at Mark’s poker table. Ann falls mad for Mark, but he loves Angelique.
The Mississippi Gambler works best in its riverboat gambling scenes and, to some extent, in the interesting relationship between Mark and the elder Dureau, who finds in Mark a surrogate far worthier of paternal affection than his own spoiled and irresponsible son. The romance angle, however, is trite and uninteresting. Signed to a long-term contract at Universal when she was just 17, Laurie is pretty but still obviously a beginner; Laurie’s far more memorable performances were further down the road. Ironically, Julie Adams’s lovesick northerner is far more naturally appealing; I was rooting for Mark to wise-up and marry her instead.
The film leans heavily on Technicolor nostalgia for a rose-colored, imagined South that never existed, much like Gone with the Wind. Bales of cotton are stacked everywhere, yet African-Americans of any kind are nowhere in sight, let alone obvious slaves. I think only Bill Walker, cast as Dureau’s butler, has any lines at all.
What fun The Mississippi Gambler offers comes mainly from its cast, with many familiar actors unbilled. Future Zorro Guy Williams barely makes the cut, billed dead-last as one of Laurent’s friends; Hugh Beaumont turns up briefly and uncredited as an architect, Anita Ekberg pops up as a bridesmaid, and Dennis Weaver has one good scene as the doomed poker player. Most bizarre of all is the uncredited appearance of Gwen Verdon, the iconic Broadway dancer, appearing in blackface for a “Voodoo” dance number, which she apparently choreographed herself.
The picture also makes use of nearly every corner of the Universal backlot, including the Notre Dame front from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The riverboat and harbor area would be reused extensively for the enjoyable later television series Riverboat with Darren McGavin, and the Dureau mansion would see near-constant use in films as varied as This Island Earth and Written on the Wind.
Kino’s Blu-ray is touted as a “brand new 2K master.” The three-strip Technicolor production, with a correct 1.37:1 standard aspect ratio, is generally good, though I did notice some film damage here and there, most obvious for several seconds toward the end of Gwen Verdon’s dance number. Likewise, the DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono) has its own share of problems, at times sounding “scratchy” like a well-worn LP record album. Optional English subtitles are provided on this Region “A” encoded disc. Extras consist of an audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan, and an unusual trailer (1:10).
The Mississippi Gambler is a handsome production of the period, but nothing special, and while the underrated Tyrone Power and good supporting cast is fun to watch, interest for this one is limited to film fans drawn to this particular genre.
- Stuart Galbraith IV