Cast & Crew
In Paris, down-and-out Marthe Preston is saved from a sixty-day jail term by fellow American Richard Dorval, a gambler who sees her as the "woman of class" he needs to seduce his New York betting rival, "Diamond Johnny" Silk. Dorval transforms Marthe into a glittering widowed countess and takes her to "Longchamps," a Paris racetrack, where he knows Johnny will be betting. As hoped, Johnny falls in love with Marthe and, following a two-week courtship, proposes. At Dorval's urging, Marthe marries Johnny on the boat to New York, unaware that Dorval and his bookmaker partner, Joe Farley, plan to use her against him. After a few months of marriage, Marthe, who has experienced Johnny's unabashed attachment to his racehorses and his generous, warm nature, realizes that she has fallen in love with her husband and confesses her feelings to Dorval at the racetrack. Dorval plies Marthe with a story of sudden poverty, and out of pity, she slips him a tip about Johnny's horse. Dorval then relays Marthe's tip to Farley, who bribes the horse's jockey to throw the race. After two weeks of disastrous betting, Johnny suspects a traitor within his gambling network but is stunned when Marthe confesses that she has been the unwitting accomplice in Dorval's scheme. When Marthe then confesses the truth about her past, Johnny accuses her of being a "rat" and throws her out of the house. Devastated, Marthe goes to see Dorval and, after calmly accepting his marriage proposal, agrees to help him ruin Johnny further by poisoning his favorite horse before a big race. Tipped off that his horse has been tampered with, Johnny curses Marthe and watches in dismay as the betting odds suddenly increase. When Johnny's horse wins the race, however, Johnny, realizing Marthe's double cross of Dorval, rushes to apologize to her and convinces her to return home to him.
Pandro S. Berman
Count Allan De La Falaise
Joseph Walters Jr.
Men of Chance
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.
Men of Chance
The working title of this film was Exposed. In an RKO ad published in May 1931, Exposed is listed as an upcoming RKO release, and Lester Cohen and Samuel Ornitz are listed as the writers of "Law of the Night," the film's supposed source. Neither of these writers, however, received screen credit, and Louis Weitzenkorn is credited on screen as the story writer. It is possible that the earlier Exposed reference was for a picture that was never produced. According to an October 1931 Film Daily news item, Count Allan de la Falaise, brother of director Henri de la Falaise, was hired as a technical advisor for the production. Film Daily news items also note that exteriors were to be shot in San Francisco and other scenes were filmed at the RKO ranch.