1951 – Never Trust a Gambler

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Never Trust a Gambler (1951) is a film noir thriller. Vladimir Nabokov has observed: “In an Anglo-Saxon thriller, the villain is generally punished, and the strong silent man generally wins the weak babbling girl.” Let’s see how closely this movie cleaves to Nabokov’s rule-of-thumb.

Opening with a night-time shot of cars streaming across the Bay Bridge, the action cuts to a couple of Sheriff’s deputies speeding to an apartment building wherein resides their quarry Steve Garry (Dane Clark) who is, at that moment, attired in a natty dressing gown, looking at the front page of the San Francisco Post.

In large type, the lead story blares the unwelcome news: “Key Witness Missing / Steve Garry Fails to Appear in Gould Wife Murder Trial.” Obviously, the lawmen are on their way to pick up Garry so that he might be forced to take the witness stand. For some reason, Garry wants to avoid that.

Garry springs into action. As he is quickly shoving neatly-folded clothing into a valise, he hears a car pull up in front of the apartment building. He peeks out the window of his second-story studio apartment and bolts down the fire escape as the deputies enter the room.

What does Garry’s precipitously-vacated room tell us? It is well-furnished: we see a fine Biedermeyer chest of drawers and a number of bronze statuettes. Garry has a discerning eye and has surrounded himself with nice things.

Back at HQ, the Sheriff puts out the alert: “To all western cities – make it strong!” The Sheriff pounds his desk – “Steve Garry has got to be found!”

Just as the iconic Bay Bridge anchors the opening scenes in the Bay Area, so the iconic art deco City Hall of Los Angeles locates Garry’s subsequent misadventures.

In the Los Angeles Homicide Department, officers are instructed to help out their brothers in San Francisco by keeping an eye out for Steve Garry.

Scene switches to Virginia Merrill (Cathy O’Donnell) walking down a residential street on her way home from her teaching job. Virginia is wearing a modest two-piece suit. She looks exactly what she is: “a nice girl.” She is affectionately greeted by a neighbor seated on his porch, and another woman who is also out walking.

Note again these mundane details: Virginia is on her way home from her teaching job: she is walking down the street, not driving up to her front door. Does she teach at a neighborhood school, within walking distance? Or, did she take take a City bus to work?

We can’t see her feet, but we can reasonably assume that she is not wearing Converse All-Stars, that she has not switched her office shoes for sneakers in order to walk home (a trend that started in New York City, during the transit strike of 1981).

In 1951, pink-collar working women like Virginia wore sensible shoes to the office or the classroom: oxfords with kitten heels, comfortable for standing in all day and for walking home in. To work, Virginia certainly would not have worn sexy stiletto-heeled pumps nor tall chunky ankle-strap shoes; she would not have worn casual wedgies, nor sandals, nor espadrilles, nor mocs.

Her serviceable low-heeled shoes were leather, not plastic (see-through plastic shoes were all the rage amongst some young trendies). When her leather soles were worn thin, she would have taken the pair to the local shoe-repair shop and had them refurbished, for less than the cost of a new pair.

Later, we find that Virginia does indeed own a car.

Thanks to FDR’s War Production Board edicts, civilian car production in America ceased in February1942 and resumed in the Summer of 1945. The 1946 cars were simply 1942 models with cosmetic changes.

Virginia’s car appears to be a 1946 Ford Fordor. If she purchased it second-hand in 1950, this used car would have set her back about $500 – about ten thousand dollars in today’s currency.

As a public school teacher in Los Angeles, Virginia’s annual income would have been around four thousand dollars (today’s equivalent: eighty thousand). Virginia’s monthly pay (before taxes) would have been less than $330 per month, but she could easily have saved the money $500 needed to pay cash for a good used car, one of a glut of new models had which rolled out of Detroit shortly after the war ended … one which a more affluent purchaser snapped up in 1946 and then traded in a few years later for a newer model.

Virginia’s trim white house is rendered vaguely Colonial Revival in style (not Spanish Colonial Revival, a more common Los Angeles architectural look) simply by the addition of classical columns on the porch. The house was probably built in the 1920s for around one thousand dollars, today’s equivalent of twenty thousand dollars. Similar neighboring houses indicate that it is situated in a subdivision, probably constructed for aspiring middle-class workers who put their Roaring Twenties paychecks into the American Dream — to own a private single-family house.

It is unknown whether Virginia owns or rents her home, which would sell for around ten thousand dollars in 1950, today’s equivalent of two hundred thousand dollars. Note that, in actuality, today this house in Los Angeles would go on the bubblicious West Coast real estate market for much more that a quarter-million dollars; rent today would run a tenant close to three thousand dollars a month (an amount up a whopping 65% since 2010).

As a public school teacher, in 1951, Virginia’s annual pay topped around four thousand dollars (today’s equivalent of eighty thousand dollars), making her monthly pre-tax paycheck less than $330 (six thousand, six hundred dollars today).

Never Trust a Gambler is set in 1951. A year or two if Virginia had wanted to, she might have been able to purchase a tract house in the vast new planned community of Lakewood City, near Long Beach.

The “instant city” of Lakewood, near Long Beach, was quickly populated by young GI families, who were able to attain the American Dream (home ownership) thanks to the GI Bill and low mortgage payments. A GI Bill family could move into a new house in Lakewood for $44 (less than nine hundred dollars in today’s currency).

Both Virginia’s Colonial Revival home, built sometime in the decade after WWI somewhere in the City of Los Angeles, and the burgeoning “instant city” called Lakewood, built in the decade after WWII, point up the attractiveness of the West Coast throughout the Twentieth Century: the climate salubrious and the economy strong, it was a good place to live and easy to make a living.

Later in the story, Garry shows Virginia his bankbook, pointing out to her that he has been depositing a steady six hundred dollars per month.

Virginia is impressed with this documentary proof that her ex-husband is banking $600/month (twelve thousand in today’s dollars). Virginia believes that perhaps her wastrel ex-husband has changed …

Have you ever had a bankbook?

Have you ever even seen a bankbook?

Mid-century: bankbook coexists with plastic.

In my last post (D.O.A. – 1949), we learn that the first credit card, Diner’s Club, was introduced in 1950. In Never Trust a Gambler (released in 1951), we see that Virginia – somewhat out of character perhaps, owns a credit card.

There is much more to be said about the material culture evinced in Never Trust a Gambler (1951), but we will touch on those topics in analyzing other mid-century films.

Before closing, we will look at one more aspect of this film noir 1951 gem: Virginia and the one other important actress, her friend Dolores (Myrna Dell). Virginia is a stereotypical “good girl” while Dolores is a stereotypical “good-time girl,” The heavy-handed symbolic import of the names Virginia and Dolores is unmistakable: “virginal” and “sorrows.” Although Virginia was amongst the top-ten most-prevalent girls’ names in the early 1920s. Dolores was merely amongst the top-hundred. It is inconceivable that the names of the “good girl” character and the “good-time girl” character could have been been switched: that would have been jarringly unacceptable to mid-century mores.

Please bookmark this site and check back soon for the next look at a mid-century movie.

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