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The Lady Gambles (1949) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

joan booth gambling ruth

Principal social themes: addiction (gambling), suicide/depression

Universal. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston, Stephen McNally, Edith Barrett, John Hoyt, Elliott Sullivan, John Harmon, Phil Van Zandt, Leif Erickson, Curt Conway, Housely Stevenson, Don Beddoe, Nana Bryant, Frank Moran, Tony Curtis. Written by Roy Huggins. Cinematography by Russell Metty. Edited by Milton Carruth. Music by Frank Skinner. Produced by Michel Kraike. Directed by Michael Gordon. B&W. 98 minutes.


This film patterned its approach to the issue of gambling addiction along the same lines as The Lost Weekend tackled alcoholism, perhaps with an added dash of A Rake’s Progress . With legalized gambling recently established in Nevada, it is noteworthy how this film ties the Vegas casinos to organized crime, corruption, and the seductive lure of gambling. Moreover, the addiction is treated not as a moral failing but as a genuine illness.


The Lady Gambles opens with a startling and violent “attention getter” as a man is caught using loaded dice in a back-alley crap shoot. He runs off, but his partner, a woman played by Barbara Stanwyck, is caught by the outraged players, and they beat her until she is unconscious. When she is brought to the hospital, a Chicago reporter named David Booth (Robert Preston) shows up asking about the case. The doctor in charge tells Booth that he may not be able to release her into his custody as there may be some police charges against her. Booth reveals that the woman is his wife, Joan, whom he has not seen in over a year. Intrigued, the doctor asks about her background. A lengthy flashback begins as Booth explains that she is a warm, intelligent woman and that they had a happy marriage, until Joan’s sister moved in with them. Since Ruth raised Joan, his wife felt very beholden to her.

Booth brought Joan with him on a trip to Las Vegas so he could write a series of articles about the Hoover Dam. Joan decided to do a photo essay about people who gamble at the casinos. When she is caught with her hidden camera, the casino owner, Horace Corrigan (Stephen McNally), agrees to cooperate and provides her with worthless “house chips” so she could blend in with the other gamblers. Soon however, the gambling bug bites Joan, and she starts playing with real money, losing $600 she sneaks out of her husband’s business expense envelope. Desperate, Joan pawns her camera and manages to win back her losses. When Booth finishes his assignment, Ruth shows up in Vegas. Booth decides to drive back to Chicago, leaving his wife to stay with her sister. Then Joan goes on a serious gambling binge. She only makes money when Corrigan stakes her in a private poker game. When Booth calls, he is surprised when Ruth tells him that Joan spends all night at the casino. He returns to Vegas and discovers that Joan has become a gambling addict. He decides to quit his job, take all their savings, and rent an oceanfront cottage in Mexico where he intends to write a book and devote his time to Joan. When he takes a short trip to do library research, Joan is again bitten by the gambling bug, takes all of their savings, and loses it. Booth is crushed when he finds out. He splits the remaining funds he has left with Joan and decides to drive back to Chicago. He tells Joan she can either use her share of the money to return home or go elsewhere. Joan decides to go to Las Vegas and work for Corrigan.

Corrigan uses Joan as a front for a gambling syndicate that intends to make a fortune at the racetrack. They buy an outstanding horse, but deliberately run it “slow” when they enter it in a race. Joan continues to gamble on the side and always loses. The syndicate decides to make their move when the odds against their horse make it a long shot. They plan to place huge wagers at the last minute with bookies around the country and then run their horse to win. Joan is warned to stay away from the track on that day, but she gets a letter from Booth asking her to sign divorce papers. She decides to return to him and goes to the track to bet on the horse. Sharp-eyed track regulars spot her placing the huge wager, and they decide to place large bets on the horse. Rumors spread through the stands, and soon the 30-to-1 odds drop to 8-to-5, and the payoffs on the syndicate’s winnings are meager. The gambling racketeers are outraged. They catch Joan calling her husband, and threaten to hurt her. Corrigan tells them to back off and drives Joan into a small town in the middle of nowhere and dumps her.

Booth begins an intensive search for her, but is never able to locate her before she moves on. He discovers that she is living a vicarious existence taking, odd jobs and gambling away her earnings. The lengthy flashback concludes. Joan is barely conscious when Ruth arrives at the hospital and tries to persuade her sister to send Booth away. Deeply depressed, Joan steps out onto the ledge of her hospital room and threatens to jump. Booth saves her, and she finally tells Ruth to leave her alone. The doctor is convinced that the crisis has passed and that Joan will be able to recover under her husband’s care.


The Lady Gambles is a powerful, effective film, although viewed today some of the plot points appear rather perverse, such as the nebulous police charges pending against Joan who is found beaten in an alley. Also, after David Booth urges the doctor to tend to Joan’s treatment, he spends a long time distracting him with his story. John Hoyt delivers a stunning performance as the cynical, rather cold-hearted doctor, who only develops a trace of compassion when he sees how Ruth tries to manipulate the battered Joan. Stephen McNally is also quite good as the rather sardonic and world-weary mobster who takes an interest in Joan. Robert Preston is not fully believable as David Booth, who is too easily deceived too often by his wife. Barbara Stanwyck, of course, dominates the entire film with her compelling portrayal. She develops a genuine fire in her eyes when she rolls the dice, and she depicts the gambling compulsion as an uncontrollable physical need. The major weakness in the film is the subplot of the rivalry between Ruth and David in their attempts to influence Joan, which leads to her suicidal state. The reason behind this conflict is never clearly explained in the plot. The gambling becomes a form of self-punishment for Joan, and even her gangster employer detects that she really wants to lose. An examination of Joan’s psychology would be useful as one of the keys to her gambling addiction. Can self-loathing be the major reason behind any addiction? Naturally, the turn of events in the story also highlights the issue of legalized gambling as the state enables gangsters to control and ruin the lives of average citizens.


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