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The script of Any Number Can Play (1949), by Richard Brooks from an Edward Harris Heth novel, centers on a casino owner who is "a nut for human dignity," as one character describes him. He also has a heart condition and family problems, with an estranged wife (Alexis Smith) and son (Darryl Hickman). Several storylines unfold in the casino and eventually he realizes he can have his casino or his family but not both.
Though Clark Gable gives a commanding performance in Any Number Can Play, and is backed up by a strong supporting cast, the movie was not a great success. Even Mervyn LeRoy wondered why. The director later wrote, "Any Number Can Play is one picture that didn't turn out as well as I had hoped. I don't know what went wrong. You start out with what you think is a good script and you get a good cast and you end up with a film that is less than you expect. Something happened or, more likely, something didn't happen - the chemistry didn't work and the emotions didn't explode. Whatever the reason, Any Number Can Play was a disappointment to me."
LeRoy had one of the most diverse resumes of any A-list director in Hollywood, having racked up an impressive array of fine war, women's, gangster, musical and social consciousness films over the years. By the time of Any Number Can Play, LeRoy's credits included Little Caesar (1931), I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Waterloo Bridge (1940), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and Little Women (1949).
Screenwriter Brooks made an impression on LeRoy, who later recalled, "While I was shooting, a young man with directorial ambitions asked me if he could stay with me on the set while I worked. I remembered how I had learned by observing, so I agreed. His name was Richard Brooks, and he was on the set every day. Brooks became a fine director and I hope that watching me at work was of some help to him." Brooks, who had also written screenplays for John Huston, John Sturges, Robert Siodmak and Anthony Mann, directed his first feature, Crisis (1950), immediately after Any Number Can Play. He went on to helm Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960) and The Professionals (1966).
Any Number Can Play features an excellent supporting cast, with Audrey Totter, Frank Morgan, Lewis Stone, Edgar Buchanan, William Conrad, and Mary Astor, who was following up her role as Marm in Little Women (1949). This would be Astor's last film for several years. She was suffering through alcoholism on both Little Women and Any Number Can Play, and after working on this film she did not renew her MGM contract. Instead, she entered a sanitarium for several months. She resumed her career in 1952 when she returned to the stage; her next film role did not come until A Kiss Before Dying in 1956.
Co-star Alexis Smith was a beautiful Warner Bros. contract star who was loaned out to MGM to play the wife who wants Gable to give up his casino. She was convincing as Darryl Hickman's mother despite the fact that he was 18 and she was just 28. This was the first time Smith had worked away from Warner Brothers. Years later she remembered how different it felt: "Warner Bros. used to be a very congenial lot. There was a very democratic atmosphere, as opposed to Metro, where the star system was so evident. At the time, it seemed so much more exciting to be working at Metro. That's where all the glamorous stars were. But now, thinking back, Warners was a very progressive studio and did courageous things. Metro was merely a glamour factory."
Gable married his fourth wife, Lady Sylvia Ashley, about five months after Any Number Can Play was released. The widow of Douglas Fairbanks, Ashley bore a strong physical resemblance to Gable's third wife and great love, Carole Lombard, who had died in a 1942 plane crash. This marriage lasted 2 years. One more marriage would follow for Gable, to Kay Williams Spreckels, in 1955.
Producer: Arthur Freed
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Richard Brooks, Edward Harris Heth (novel)
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Film Editing: Ralph E. Winters
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Music: Lennie Hayton
Cast: Clark Gable (Charley Enley Kyng), Alexis Smith (Lon Kyng), Wendell Corey (Robbin Elcott), Audrey Totter (Alice Elcott), Frank Morgan (Jim Kurstyn), Mary Astor (Ada).
by Jeremy Arnold