Saturday, August 12, 2017

Tonight's Movie: Any Number Can Play (1949) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Clark Gable heads an all-star cast in the absorbing drama ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY (1949), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY was written by Richard Brooks, based on a novel by Edward Harris Heth. The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who had previously worked with Gable on the excellent, underrated HOMECOMING (1948).

Gable plays Charley Kyng, owner of a high-class gambling establishment. The town police look the other way, thanks at least in part to Charley's substantial patronage of the annual policemen's ball; one infers that they also respect Charley's ethical management and the fact that many of the town's leading citizens patronize the business.

Charley has just been told by his doctor (Leon Ames) that his weak heart requires that he give up his high-stress occupation and live a quiet life. Over the course of the next day and a half or so we watch Charley as he deals with his family, friends, and coworkers while he also determines what he's going to do with the rest of his life.

This film would be interesting if only to watch the stunning parade of faces go by. Some of the roles are fairly small and one might be tempted to say the actors are underutilized, but added together the effect is quite powerful, as they drift in and out of Charley's day. I don't believe the film was as popular as some of Gable's other work, but perhaps in a way the movie was ahead of its time, engaging in the "elliptical" storytelling of later classic TV series such as HILL STREET BLUES or MAD MEN.

Gable is as tough, bold, and charming as ever, tempered with intimations of his mortality, as he periodically pops nitoglycerin for his chest pains. (It's a bit painful seeing Gable in this, given how he would die 11 years after this film was released.) He's in a majority of the scenes, and as good as the rest of the cast is, the film wilts a bit in the moments he's offscreen, he's that compelling.

Alexis Smith plays Gable's wife of 20 years; we initially see her as a bit weak or lonely, but as the hours pass we learn she's built of tougher stuff than we think. It turns out she hasn't missed anything going on in her home, including the disloyal behavior of her sister (Audrey Totter) and brother-in-law (Wendell Corey); we calculate she felt sorry for them and that they weren't worth bothering about, rather than seeing her as a victim. Moreover, she's tenacious about supporting her husband.

Darryl Hickman -- who was a guest at last year's TCM Classic Film Festival -- plays Gable and Smith's troubled teenage son. He's embarrassed by his father's profession and feels he doesn't measure up to his father's expectations; for his part, his father unabashedly wants to see his son settle certain conflicts with his fists, which isn't the son's style. The son has been sheltered from seeing his father's business up close until one fateful night when his mother decides he needs a life lesson.

Barry Sullivan registers especially strongly as Gable's bespectacled aide, who dotes on an unseen wife who seems to have emotional problems. If I could have learned more about any of the supporting characters in the film, it would have been him. In one of the best scenes in the movie, he shows another another side entirely when a fellow employee disses his boss; the loyal Sullivan calmly removes his glasses and gives the man what looks like a couple of near-lethal punches before having him carried outside the premises. He certainly makes the viewer wonder about his back story! Edgar Buchanan, Mickey Knox, and Caleb Peterson are the other employees.

Mary Astor has a single scene as an old flame who stops by and has a heart-to-heart with Gable. Frank Morgan nearly breaks the house bank; William Conrad tries to rob it; Lewis Stone plays an alcoholic patron Gable supports; and Marjorie Rambeau plays a well-off poker player who's one of Gable's biggest fans. Look for Griff Barnett as the police sergeant and Art Baker a restaurant owner.

Like LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA (1962), reviewed earlier this week, ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY was one of a handful of dramas produced by MGM musical producer Arthur Freed.

The remastered DVD's print quality is good, showing off the fine black and white photography by Harold Rosson. Thanks in part to Rosson's photography, the film has great mood, opening on a rainy night. Later there's an iconic shot of Gable smoking a cigarette while he takes in the activity around him that is simply stunning...even if the smoking is also another reminder of both Charley and Gable's heart issues.

I wondered if some of "Charley's" ornate interior might have been repurposed from the MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) house, although a comparison of the staircase bannisters showed they're different. The ST. LOUIS staircase was seen in the same year's LITTLE WOMEN (1949), and the entire interior also turned up in 1947's CYNTHIA and CASS TIMBERLANE; it would be interesting to know if some of it was used in ANY NUMBER CAN PLAY or the set was built from scratch for this film.

I really enjoyed this movie, which ran a well-paced 112 minutes. For more on this interesting film, please visit a post Jacqueline wrote a few years ago at Another Old Movie Blog. I've been interested in seeing this ever since I read her post and am glad I finally caught up with it!

The Warner Archive DVD includes the trailer.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you for the mention and the link, Laura. I really enjoyed your review, and was especially interested in your noticing the possible re-use of sets. That completely escaped my notice, but I always get a kick out of things like that. How nice that Warner Archive is throwing some attention on some of these, what I suppose we could call lesser films even if they had big stars like Gable in the cast.

4:25 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

I think this is one of Gable's greatest performances and when it is understood that it is Edward Heth's autobiography, a young man dealing with being gay, and having a father like that, the show becomes just that more compelling. Claude was dealing with heart disease herself by the time she saw Any Number Can Play and her moment of truth came in the sequence in which Charley is seated alone bouncing spoons into a glass. I don't know why, but it works the way screen acting should.

9:04 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Jacqueline, for putting this movie on my "radar"! I love to spot familiar sets also. I'm going to do some more research and see if I can learn anything more about this one.

Barrylane, I also found that "spoons" scene quite compelling. Completely silent, yet in Gable's acting it seems to speak to the loneliness of confronting a serious health issue and mortality, no matter being surrounded by loyal family and friends. He's so good, and it seems like it was also a rather brave character for the vigorous "King" to tackle.

Best wishes,

11:31 AM  

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