Western RoundUp: Frontier Gambler (1956)

Western RoundUp: Frontier Gambler (1956)

Last December I wrote about Noir-Tinged Westerns, frontier films such as Blood on the Moon (1948) and Pursued (1948) which have a distinctly dark film noir vibe.

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.

Frontier Gambler (1956)
Frontier Gambler (1956)

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.

Coleen Gray in Frontier Gambler (1956)
Coleen Gray in Frontier Gambler (1956)

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.

Coleen Gray, John Bromfield, and Jim Davis in Frontier Gambler (1956)
Coleen Gray, John Bromfield, and Jim Davis in Frontier Gambler (1956)

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.

Coleen Gray and Kent Taylor in Frontier Gambler (1956)
Coleen Gray and Kent Taylor in Frontier Gambler (1956)

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.

Kent Taylor, Coleen Gray and John Bromfield in Frontier Gambler (1956)
Kent Taylor, Coleen Gray and John Bromfield in Frontier Gambler (1956)

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.

Kent Taylor and Coleen Gray in Frontier Gambler (1956)
Kent Taylor and Coleen Gray in Frontier Gambler (1956)

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.

Kent Taylor and Coleen Gray in Frontier Gambler (1956)
Kent Taylor and Coleen Gray in Frontier Gambler (1956)

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.

Frontier Gambler (1956) Lobby Card
Frontier Gambler (1956) Lobby Card

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.

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9 Responses to Western RoundUp: Frontier Gambler (1956)

  1. Vienna says:

    Gosh, Laura, how come I don’t even know this western or its connection to LAURA. Must see it. Thanks for reviewing it. Good cast.

  2. I stumbled on this by accident a while ago and enjoyed it. An interesting take on Laura.

    I like Coleen Gray and she’s very good in this role. Her outfits are so beautiful. I assume that’s where most of the budget went.

    However, Sylvia is a much less likable character than Laura. Actually, I found her downright unpleasant most of the time.
    In another reversal, Roger is a lot more likable than Waldo Lydecker. Most of the time I felt simply sorry for the guy.

  3. Jerry Entract says:

    “FRONTIER GAMBLER” is no western classic, goes without saying really, but is what I call a ‘bread ‘n’ butter’ western.
    Growing up in England in the 1950s I started going to local cinemas on a regular basis from age 12 onwards. I remember noticing that the double bill of features was starting to decline at the major cinema chains but locally I had access to two ‘fleapit’ cinemas in the Essoldo chain that a,ways played double bills still, mostly films 2 or 3 years old. And so it was that “FRONTIER GAMBLER” (1956) turned up in 1960 at one of these.
    The fact that I remembered seeing and enjoying this western some 50 years later says something about the film, I think. I know John K shares this same experience of those happy days in Essoldo cinemas!

  4. John Knight says:

    Yes,like Jerry I remember seeing FRONTIER GAMBLER at the time but not at an Essoldo,which were mainly “flea pits” but at a big Odeon cinema,in fact FRONTIER GAMBLER got a major circuit release it played as second feature to a British comedy UP THE CREEK I guess, but I’ll have to delve into the archives to confirm this.Essoldo was a play on the names of circuit owner Sol Shekman,wife Esther,and daughter Dorothy. FRONTIER GAMBLER is lots of fun if you know LAURA. Really I always felt that Coleen Gray deserved much better films especially later in her career,she is much better than FRONTIER GAMBLER actually deserves. I think it was made back to back with THE WILD DAKOTAS another micro budget Western,and not bad as these cut and paste things go. I met Dick Jones several years before I caught up with THE WILD DAKOTAS and would have loved to have discussed his memories of the film.

  5. Jerry Entract says:

    I did go to see “UP THE CREEK”, John, so maybe I’m wrong about where I saw “Frontier Gambler”, although I did see quite a lot of shoot-’em-ups at those Essoldos.
    Actually I suspect I would have gone to see the western and the A film was an add-on for me!

  6. Laura Grieve says:

    Thank you all so much for your comments!

    Vienna, I hope you can check it out soon. I’m always interested in your thoughts.

    Margot, I’m glad to know you also saw and enjoyed it. I think you’re right about Gray’s character, as I tried to capture a bit in my description of her as brittle and not very nice. She’s interesting and Gray is good to watch, but the character doesn’t draw audience sympathy like Gene Tierney does in LAURA. I did feel sorry for Roger at times although his “role switch” creeped me out enough it didn’t last long!

    Jerry and John, I always love your memories of seeing Westerns in your childhood moviegoing days, and your comments are great! What fun. I’m always amazed at how you remember the years and the double bills. And “Bread ‘n’ Butter” Western is a great term, Jerry. John, I saw THE WILD DAKOTAS in 2012 but just had to go back to my own review to remind myself what it was about. So great you met Dick Jones!

    Best wishes,

  7. Jerry Entract says:

    Hi Laura!
    John and I both met and chatted with Dick Jones, and his lovely wife Betty, at the same occasion but hadn’t yet met!! Wish we had as, between us, we might have thought of countless questions to ask Dickie.

  8. Walter says:

    Laura, I enjoyed reading your good write-up of FRONTIER GAMBLER(1956). Somehow, or other, I’ve managed to have never seen this movie. Jerry and John actually saw it back in the day. I’ll have to seek it out in the future.

    Look forward to your next write-up.

  9. Laura Grieve says:

    Jerry, that is so fantastic about your chat with Dick Jones and his wife. Wouldn’t it have been fun if you’d known John then? It sounds like me and our friend Blake, we figured out we attended the same screenings in Los Angeles decades before we met!

    Walter, thank you, I appreciate that very much. I hope you get a chance to see it soon.

    Best wishes,

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