Men of Chance
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The film career of Mary Astor spanned 45 years, and, like other stars from the Golden Age, she survived by adapting and tweaking her star image to the demands of aging. Astor was a teenager when her father took advantage of a beauty contest to launch her career in motion pictures during the silent era. In the early sound period, she ground out dozens of films that took advantage of her creamy skin, delicate beauty, and classic profile, which earned her the nickname the Cameo Girl. Her erect carriage and elegant demeanor gave her an aura of confident sophistication whether she was playing a wronged woman, a chorus girl, or a femme fatale. In the late 1940s, she began playing calm, composed matriarchs who always knew what to do when her family was in crisis. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the roles were fewer but more colorful--insane murderesses, country club wives, grande dames.
Men of Chance (1931) offers an early example of Astor's image as the self-possessed woman who is classy on the surface but is tainted by a larcenous agenda or a hidden past. Astor stars as Marthe Preston, an aspiring painter and student down on her luck in Paris. When she allows herself to be picked up by an older man in a café, Marthe has decided to cross that moral line that all destitute women face after their money runs out. Unfortunately, the man turns out to be an undercover cop, and Marthe is taken to jail for soliciting. Richard Dorval, played by John Halliday, watches the entire episode unfold and then comes to her rescue. He bails her out of jail and offers to turn her into a grand lady if she teams up with him. He wants to outmaneuver big-time gambler Diamond Johnny Silk, played by Ricardo Cortez, by planting someone inside his operation. "Men of chance" is Depression-era slang for gamblers who frequent racetracks, making and losing their fortunes on horse racing. Dorval tutors Marthe in the role of a countess and moves her into the Royal Hotel. Faux countess Marthe meets and marries tough-talking Johnny Silk so she can inform Dorval about Silk's bets and tips. Marthe falls in love with Johnny after realizing that the gambler may be rough on the outside but he is honest on the inside--the opposite of the smooth-talking Dorval.
Astor's porcelain beauty and graceful carriage give the character of Marthe an air of refinement even when she is about to prostitute herself or when she betrays Johnny. It also helps to make her impersonation of a countess believable, though Marthe is just a poor art student. Marthe's elegant, polished surface but tainted reality foreshadows Astor's later, more memorable characters, including Brigid O'Shaughnessy of The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Sandra Kovak of The Great Lie (1941).
Considering Astor's personal life at the time of the film's production, her performance is remarkably solid. Men of Chance was shot in late 1931 and released in January 1932 during a particularly difficult stretch in the actress's life. The decline began in 1928 when Astor was informed by her studio, Fox Film, that she had to take a sound test. In her autobiography, My Story (1959), Astor admitted that she was nervous, which may have affected the outcome of the test, or it could have been the poor quality of the early sound equipment. Her voice was "ridiculously low," as she noted, and Fox dismissed her from her contract. News of her failure ensured that other studios would not hire her, and she was out of work for ten months. She used the time to study her craft and to appear in a play. The good notices for the play helped bring her back into the good graces of the studios though at a reduced salary. Astor married director Kenneth Hawks in February 1928. The couple had been married barely two years when Kenneth, the brother of Howard Hawks, was killed in a plane crash. He was directing an aerial film when his plane collided with the other aircraft used in the shoot. Astor blamed the industry, growing increasingly bitter "that ten men should die for the sake of one miserable little scene in a picture no one would remember a week after he had seen it," as she bluntly stated in her autobiography.
Despite her bitterness, Astor continued to star in films, working freelance for Paramount and Warner Bros. She grew ill from exhaustion and grief, contracting malnutrition and a form of tuberculosis. After a few weeks rest, she signed a contract with RKO and began appearing in one film after another. Later, Astor would refer to the string of films from this period--including Men of Chance--as the "dreary 18," because she made them in rapid succession during a time when she was less-than-enthusiastic about the film industry. Just a few months before Men of Chance went into production, Astor married the doctor who saw her through her period of illness, though it was not a marriage made in heaven. In addition, her parents, whom Astor had cut off financially after supporting them for years, began to pressure her. Eventually, they took her to court and sued her for "maintenance." Working in films may have been the one constant for Astor during this turbulent period, though the horrific events of her personal life must have been a distraction.
Aside from its significance to Astor's career, Men of Chance is also noteworthy because of the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca, RKO's premiere cameraman during the 1930s and 1940s. Though the cinematography in Men of Chance is conventional, Musuraca managed to give the Parisian exteriors a charm or spark--notable because they were shot in Encino. In the 1940s, Musuraca would help define the visual conventions of film noir, including the expressive use of shadows and the striking high-contrast lighting.
By Susan Doll
Producers: William LeBaron and Pandro S. Berman
Director: George Archainbaud
Screenplay: Louis Stevens and Eddie Welch based on a story by Louis Weitzenkorn
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editor: Archie Marshek
Art Direction and Costumes: Max Ree
Cast: Marthe Preston Silk (Mary Astor), Diamond Johnny Silk (Ricardo Cortez), Richard Dorval (John Halliday), Joe Farley (Ralph Ince), Gertie (Kitty Kelly), Clocker (James Donlan), Provincial Frenchman (George Davis), French Detective (Andre Cheron), Magistrate (Albert Petit), Hotel Manager (Jean De Briac)
1932 B&W 67 mins.