“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” (1954) Review

“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” (1954) Review

A few years ago, I had reviewed an old 1953 Tyrone Power movie called “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. This 1953 movie proved to be a mixture of a costume melodrama and adventure that chronicled the adventures of a Northern-born gambler who moves to New Orleans to start his own casino. The following year saw the release of another movie with a similar theme called “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”

There are differences between “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” and “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”. The latter film featured a top film star – Tyrone Power. And I can only assume that it was one of Universal Pictures’ “A” films for 1953. It was certainly a big hit. On the hand, one glance at “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” and a person was bound to regard it as a “B” movie. The film’s lead, Dale Robertson, was never big as Power. He was mainly known as a television star during the 1950s and 1960s. And his Hollywood career had only started five years before this film.

“THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” began in 1848 Baton Rouge with the arrival of a discharged Army militia officer named Captain Vance Colby, who had fought in Texas and Mexico during the Mexican-American War. In response to a message from a close family friend, Vance planned to travel down to New Orleans on horseback to meet his father, a famous and successful professional gambler named Chip Colby. During his journey, he meets a beautiful Creole aristocrat named Ivette Rivage and comes to her aid, when her carriage’s horse becomes lame. She invites him to her family’s plantation, Araby, where he meets her brother Andre Rivage and her fiance Claude St. Germaine. The two men react coldly upon learning of Vance’s relation to his father, who has recently been accused of being a card cheat.

Following Vance’s departure from Araby, he is attacked by Andre’s hired thug, Etienne. Riverboat captain Antoine Barbee and his daughter Melanie, whom Vance had first met in Baton Rouge, come to the wounded Vance’s aid. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Vance learns that his father was killed and framed for card cheating by three men – casino owner Nicholas Cadiz, Claude St. Germaine and Andre Rivage. Colby Sr. had won half interest in a new gambling vessel that the three accusers had plans to launch. Upon learning this Vance vows revenge against his father’s enemies.

I first saw “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” on late night television when I was a teenager. Which means that MANY years had passed since my recent viewings. I wondered if my opinion of the film would change. To my surprise, I discover that it had not. As I had earlier stated, “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” struck me as a “B” swashbuckler. Although the film was released through Twentieth Century Fox, it was made by a production company called Panoramic Pictures that released a series of low budget films during the 1950s. And yes . . . it was quite obvious that “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” was a low budget film.

I noticed that for a movie set in the lower Mississippi River Valley, I cannot recall seeing any hint or sign of water in it, aside from the swamp (or a back lot pond) where Vance Colby was wounded and the body of water (or back lot pond) where one of the villains fell from a riverboat. I am still amazed that Chester Bayhi’s set decorations and art director Leland Fuller managed to convey the movie’s late 1840s setting with some plausibility – especially in scenes featuring the interior sets for the Araby plantation, Nicholas Cadiz’s New Orleans casino and the parlor of Andre Rivage’s new steamboat.

On the other hand, I had a problem with Travilla’s costumes. His costumes for the movie’s actors, especially leading man Dale Robertson. Travilla did an excellent job in recapturing the men’s fashion for that era, including the U.S. Army officer uniform that Robertson wore during the film’s first half hour. I wish I could say the same for the women’s costumes in the movie. Well, I found most of them a somewhat adequate representation of women’s fashion in the late 1840s – especially those costumes worn by actress Lisa Daniels. But Travilla’s designs for leading lady Debra Paget’s costumes . . . what on earth?

Paget wore at least two or three more costumes in the film that struck me as a bit more tolerable. But she wore the one featured in the image above more than the others Now, I realize that her character, Melanie Barbee, was the daughter of a man who owned and operated a minor steamboat. But this is the 1840s we are talking about. Melanie was definitely not a prostitute or daughter of a poor backwoodsman. Her father owned a steamboat, even if it was second-class. A woman of her background and time would never be caught dead wearing such an outfit out in the open for everyone to see, let alone in the lobby of an exclusive New Orleans hotel.

I might have some issues with “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”. But if I must be honest, my opinion of the film has not changed over the years. I still managed to enjoy it. During my review of “THE MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER”, I had complained about the film’s vague and episodic narrative. I certainly had no such problems with “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ”. I thought Gerald Adams and Irving Wallace had created a solid and entertaining story about a mid-19th century gambler who sought revenge against the men who had killed his father and ruined the latter’s reputation. In fact, I cannot help but feel somewhat impressed by how Adams and Wallace had structured the movie’s plot.

The two screenwriters set up the plot by allowing the protagonist, Vance Colby, to encounter a series of mysteries surrounding his father. From the fight he participated in with another gambler during his arrival at Baton Rouge via steamboat to the discovery of Chip Colby’s death, Vance seemed encounter one mystery after another. Midway into the film, Adams and Wallace allowed Vance to finally discover the true mysteries behind Colby Senior’s recent reputation as a card cheat, Andre Rivage’s murder attempt on his life and Colby Senior’s death. Upon this point, the plot for “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” focused solely on Vance’s desire for revenge against the three men responsible for his father’s death. Through it all, Adams and Wallace created a light love triangle between Vance and two women – the steamboat captain’s daughter, Melanie Barbee; and Ivette Rivage, who proved to be more superior than her morally bankrupt brother.

The movie also benefited from a first-rate cast. By 1954, Dale Robertson had been around Hollywood for five years. Although he never became a big star like Tyrone Power, his excellent performance as the strong-willed and determined Vince Colby made it pretty obvious why his acting career lasted for the next four decades – mainly in television. He also managed to create a strong screen chemistry with his leading lady, Debra Paget. She gave a very entertaining and superb performance as the feisty Melanie Barbee, who quickly fell in love with Vance while saving his skin on at least two or three occasions. Robertson also had a strong screen chemistry with Lisa Daniels, the British actress who portrayed the Creole aristocrat, Ivette Rivage. I believe Ivette proved to be a more complex character than any other in this film. She had to be regarded as the wrong woman for Vance, yet portrayed in a more sympathetic light than her brother. And I believe Daniels managed to skillfully achieve this balance in her performance.

I find it odd that Kevin McCarthy ended up in a low-budget film some three years after appearing in the film adaptation of Arthur Miller’s play, “DEATH OF A SALESMAN”. Well . . . regardless of how he must have felt at the time, McCarthy proved to be the first-rate actor and consummate professional who portrayed Andre Rivage as the charming, yet violent aristocrat whose temper and gambling addiction set the story in motion. Another excellent supporting performance came from Thomas Gomez, who portrayed Vance’s new friend and Melanie’s father, steamboat Captain Antoine Barbee. Gomez did an excellent job in conveying Captain Barbee’s friendly and pragmatic personality . . . and providing a brief father figure for Vance. The movie also featured solid performances from Douglas Dick (who portrayed the spineless Claude St. Germaine), John Wengraf (who portrayed the intimidating Nicholas Cadiz), Jay Novello, Peter Mamakos, Donald Randolph, and Henri Letondal. And guess who else was in this film? Woody Strode, who portrayed Josh, one of Captain Barbee’s crewmen. Or only crewman. Hell, I am not even certain whether he portrayed a free man or a slave. But his character did help the main hero defeat the “Big Bad” in a way that will prove to be very surprising for a film made in the 1950s.

I realize that “THE GAMBLER FROM NATCHEZ” is not perfect. But for a low-budget film, it proved to possess a very well-structured and well-written narrative, thanks to screenwriters Gerald Adams and Irving Wallace. Although I regard the story to be the backbone of any film, director Henry Levin could have have ruined it with bad direction. But he did not. Instead, I believe Levin and a cast led by Dale Robertson did more than justice to the screenplay. Perhaps this is why after so many years, I still managed to enjoy this film.

Advertisements

“THE OREGON TRAIL” (1976; 1977) Retrospective

image03

“THE OREGON TRAIL” (1976; 1977) Retrospective

Nearly forty years ago saw the premiere of the NBC Western series called “THE OREGON TRAIL”. Produced by Carl Vitale, Michael Gleason and Richard Collins; the series told the story about the westbound journey of an Illinois widower named Evan Thorpe and his family in the 1840s.

NBC aired a ninety (90) minute pilot episode of “THE OREGON TRAIL” in 1976. Rod Taylor portrayed Evan Thorpe, a widower with three children who had recently remarried. Blair Brown portrayed his newly married second wife, Jessica. Douglas Fowley portrayed Evan’s widowed father, Eli. And Andrew Stevens, Tony Becker and Gina Smika Hunter portrayed his three children – Andrew, William and Rachel. Set during the year 1842, the pilot episode featured the Thrope family’s journey to the Oregon Territory from Illinois to as far as Fort Hall in present-day Idaho.

Another year passed before “THE OREGON TRAIL” returned to the television screen. A few changes had been made to the cast. Evan’s second wife Jessica had died and he found himself attracted to an Irish-born woman named Margaret Deviln, who was accompanying her gambler father to the west. In other words, Blair Brown had been replaced by Darlene Carr as the series’ leading lady. Eli had completely disappeared from the cast of characters. And Charles Napier had joined the cast as Luther Sprague, a former mountain man recruited by Evan to serve as scout/guide for the wagon train. At first, it seemed that the Thorpes’ destination had changed from Oregon to California . . . and back again. NBC aired six episodes of “THE OREGON TRAIL” before the latter was permanently yanked from the network’s line-up. The series faded into obscurity for thirty-three years, until the Timeless Media Group (TMG) released the entire series – the pilot and the other thirteen episodes – on DVD in 2010.

For the next five years, I ignored “THE OREGON TRAIL”, despite a deep interest in movie and television productions about mid-19th century western emigration. I was more interested in finding a DVD copy of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS”, of which I owned a VHS copy. But eventually, I could not ignore “THE OREGON TRAIL” and purchased it at a reasonably cheap price. I must admit that I was impressed. It struck me as a decent series that featured excellent drama and some first-rate performances. Rod Taylor did a superb job in carrying the series on his soldier – which is not surprising. And he clicked very well with not only his two leading ladies – Blair Brown and Darlene Carr – but also with Charles Napier, Andrew Stevens, Tony Becker and Gina Smika Hunter. The series also featured excellent performances from guest stars such as Kim Darby, Gerald McRaney, Stella Stevens, Robert Fuller, William Smith, William Shatner, Nicholas Hammond, Linda Purl, Claude Akins, Clu Gulager and Kevin McCarthy. The series featured story lines regarding racial discrimination, religious beliefs, Native American culture, military oppression and especially survival. I am not saying that “THE OREGON TRAIL” was perfect. But I believe that it was a solid television drama. So what went wrong? Why did it fail to draw viewers after six weeks on the air?

First of all, “THE OREGON TRAIL” had the bad luck to compete against ABC’s new ratings hit, “CHARLIE’S ANGELS”. But I suspect that in the end, the series’ premise – wagon train emigration – proved to be the series’ Achilles’ heel. If the Thorpes had spent the series merely traveling from one location to another, without any real fixed destination – for example, the 1960-64 series, “ROUTE 66” – perhaps the series could have survived. But the Thorpes had a definite destination – Oregon (or possibly California). If “THE OREGON TRAIL” had been an anthology series, like NBC’s “WAGON TRAIN” (1957-1965); and Rod Taylor’s character could have been some frontiersman that guided wagon trains across the continent on a yearly basis . . . perhaps it could have survived. But “THE OREGON TRAIN” was about a family’s westward journey to Oregon (or California). And Taylor did not portrayed a wagon scout. The traits behind this particular series made it difficult to last as a long-running series, let alone one that could last more than one season.

What made the premise for “THE OREGON TRAIL” even harder to swallow were the number of characters that the Thorpe train encountered during their journey. They encountered outlaws, Army personnel, mountain men, Native Americans, settlers, miners, etc. Encountering Native Americans and mountain men during a wagon train journey in the 1840s struck me as plausible. Encountering settlers, miners and Army personnel during that same period did not. “THE OREGON TRAIL” was set either in the early or mid-1840s. There were no non-Native American settlements between western Missouri and Oregon (or California) . . . at least as far as I know. The only Army outpost in this region was probably Fort Leavenworth, established in northeastern Kansas in 1827. Fort Kearny was established in 1848 and Fort Laramie became a U.S. Army post in 1849. I could see the Thorpes encountering outlaws in present day Kansas. But further along the Oregon Trail? I just cannot see it.

Despite these hiccups, I still enjoyed “THE OREGON TRAIL”. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I was able to list five episodes that truly impressed me, as shown below:

1. (1.01) “Pilot – The Oregon Trail”

2. (1.04) “Trapper’s Rendezvous”

3. (1.07) “The Man Who Wouldn’t Die”

4. (1.02) “The Last Game”

5. (1.11) “Evan’s Dilemma”

It is a pity that “THE OREGON TRAIL” did not last beyond thirteen to fourteen episodes. And it is even more of a pity that NBC lacked the good sense to either make it an anthology series or a miniseries. Oh well, I still have my DVD box set to enjoy.