Western RoundUp: Frontier Gambler (1956)
This month I’m taking a look at Frontier Gambler (1956), a film that actually remakes a classic film noir, Laura (1944). Frontier Gambler was directed by Sam Newfield and filmed in black and white by Eddie Linden.
Laura, as many film fans are well aware, is the story of a beautiful woman, the titular Laura (Gene Tierney), who as that film opens is believed shot to death. The detective (Dana Andrews) investigating her death interviews several people in Laura’s orbit, including her mentor (Clifton Webb), her fiance (Vincent Price), and her relative (Judith Anderson), who also loves the fiance.
The more the detective learns about Laura — and stares at her portrait — the more he begins to fall in love with a woman who’s completely unattainable because she’s dead. Or so we think.
While Frontier Gambler gives no acknowledgment to either the 1944 film or the Vera Caspary novel which inspired it, screenwriter Orville Hampton’s heavy borrowing from the earlier film and/or novel is unmistakable.
As the Western begins, a gambling palace owner named Sylvia (Coleen Gray), nicknamed “the Princess” for her elegant appearance and demeanor, has just been shot and killed, after which her home was set on fire. Deputy Marshal Curt Darrow (John Bromfield) arrives in the frontier town to investigate her murder.
In short order we meet Roger Chadwick (Kent Taylor), who raised Sylvia after her parents were killed in an Indian attack, then fell in love with her; ranch owner Francie Merritt (Veda Ann Borg); and Francie’s inconstant lover Tony (Jim Davis). Roger, Francie, and Tony are clearly inspired by the Webb, Anderson, and Price characters in the original Laura story, with Deputy Darrow the Western version of Andrews’ detective.
Roger, like Waldo Lydecker in Laura, has groomed Sylvia to be his image of the perfect woman, then is frustrated when she wants her independence and shows interest in another man (Davis).
Roger echoes Waldo’s controlling personality, but there’s a certain creepy undertone unique to this version: Roger has basically raised Sylvia from childhood but then wants to trade in his paternal role for that of a lover.
I’ve always enjoyed Taylor, dating to seeing him in the classic “B” film Five Came Back (1939) as a young classic film fan, but there’s something distinctly unpleasant about his character and the unfatherly feelings he develops, though one might admit that Taylor nails the part as written.
Gray takes Sylvia from a frightened young girl to the self-assured, glamorous saloon owner nicknamed the “Princess,” complete with jewels in her hair. She gives a rather brittle performance as a woman who’s not particularly nice; truth be told, she’s outright manipulative, as she plays on Roger’s sympathy to obtain money to start a saloon which will be his competitor. That said, it’s easy enough to see how her personality developed, having withstood her parents’ murder and then grown up learning gambling on the one hand and following Roger’s exacting demands on the other.
At the end of the film, it’s suggested by Darrow that perhaps in the future Sylvia will be “herself,” meaning her own person, and one wonders if a more appealing, less tightly wound personality will go along with that.
Borg is appealing as the woman who loves Tony but is understanding of his foibles while acting as a friend to all. The cast also includes Margia Dean, Stanley Andrews, Frank Sully, Tracey Roberts, Pierce Lyden, and Rick Vallin.
Unlike Laura, there are multiple story threads that don’t really go anywhere; for instance, there’s initially some throwaway back story about Darrow’s father having a history in the town, but it never amounts to much. In addition to Darrow’s background, there’s also a story shoehorned in about a beleaguered newspaper owner (Roy Engel); the newspaperman and Tony have a shootout which makes Tony look quite the villain — but then Tony shifts to hero mode helping Darrow in the final scenes.
We also never really get any hints about Darrow harboring an attraction for the “dead” Sylvia, although a future relationship is hinted in the final moments. Instead, the film concentrates mostly on Sylvia’s relationships with Roger and, to a lesser extent, Tony. With just 71 minutes to tell the story, it’s a bit surprising the filmmakers didn’t drop the extraneous bits of plot and focus on developing the central relationships more completely. I suspect that these fairly random storylines were added to help differentiate the film from Laura.
Frontier Gambler is quite a low-budget film, with modest sets and location filming in nearby Newhall, but despite the lack of production values and the somewhat unfocused script, the cast and the repurposing of the classic Caspary story still give it considerable interest. As Laura is one of my favorite movies, I enjoyed seeing how various aspects of the story were used in a Western setting, as well as the ways the filmmakers deviated from the original.
I particularly enjoyed the chance to see a favorite actress, Coleen Gray, in a new-to-me film. When I had the good fortune to interview Gray in 2012 and told her of my admiration for another of her Westerns, Copper Sky (1957), she expressed some amazement that a relatively forgotten film like that — which she’d been proud of — was still being watched so many years later.
I’d like to think it would make her happy knowing that Frontier Gambler has now entertained a new viewer. I certainly wish that this film and Copper Sky would have authorized DVD releases so more classic film fans can easily watch and enjoy them.
– Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub
Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns. She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals. Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.