King of Gamblers is a stylish low-budget crime drama about a slot-machine racket and the crusading reporter who uncovers it. Though a “B” picture, this almost noir was given an “A” treatment by director Robert Florey. Louise Brooks’ role was cut from the film’s final release.
The film was part of an unofficial Paramount series based on crimes and criminals suggested by the J. Edgar Hoover book, Persons in Hiding. Despite its source material, the film’s gritty realism shocked some. The Christian Science Monitor stated “Sociological aspects of the theme are quite overshadowed by melodramatics which may prove too violent for the more sensitive.” Fox West Coast Bulletin said the film was “Not wholesome. Waste of time.” Motion Picture Review wrote “Such a picture as this has no constructive social value.” The Kansas City Star added “. . . the subject hardly can be recommended to the attention of the youth and future glory of the land.” While Mae Tinnie, the onomatopoeically named film critic of the Chicago Tribune, suggested “If you like a grisly little programmer, King of Gamblers is that.”
Though considered a B-movie (typically shown as part of a double bill), the film received very good notices from both exhibitors and the public alike. The manager of the Cory Theater in Winchester, Indiana stated, “I thought when I showed Night Key I had given my patrons the best picture ever made, but this King of Gamblers is even better than that. Played last two days of week to big business.” Other exhibitors agreed: comments published in Motion Picture Herald included “Excellent entertainment in any spot. Well liked by all,” and “Was afraid of this one, but found it packed with suspense and action.”
In reviewing the film’s New York City opening, Irene Thirer of the New York Post wrote “Criterion goers are clutching their chairs these days, because this is probably the most blood-thirsty picture in several seasons. . . . Supporting the principals (and Lloyd Nolan’s job as the reporter in corking), are Larry Crabbe, the late Helen Burgess (who strangely met her untimely death immediately after she had died in this picture via script requirements), Porter Hall, Harvey Stephens, a couple of walloping shots of the capable Evelyn Brent, and others. Robert Florey directed – which accounts for the picture’s unusual camera angles.”
The Washington Post had a similar sentiment. “The cold chills and icy thrills of King of Gamblers make the Metropolitan air-conditioning quite superfluous. If you are one for hard-boiled homicides mixed in with your entertainment, this show will give you a good time and a half.”
The film reunited Brooks with Evelyn Brent. The two actresses had first appeared together in Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926), when each were emerging stars. For the two faded stars, King of Gamblers was seen as a comeback opportunity. And indeed, studio publicity promoted their appearance as such. Around the time of the film’s release, the Los Angeles Times ran a picture of Brooks and Brent under the headline, “Two actresses resume screen career.” The caption noted their “return to the silver sheet.” Brooks’ scene and character were cut from the film before its release.
“A barbershop, caught between competing slot-machine combines, is bombed by a passing car. Discovering that children were killed in the explosion, gangster Steve Kalkas executes the man responsible. Kalkas arrives at the Palm Parade nightclub to hear Dixie Moore sing and is greeted by maitre’d Eddie. J. G. Temple, a former associate of Kalkas, who is in debt, propositions Dixie’s friend Jackie Nolan for a quick trip to Havana. Eddie interrupts Dixie to auction her kisses, but she chooses a drunk reporter, Jim Adams, over Kalkas. After Eddie has Jim knocked out, she takes him home and the next morning calls his editor, George Kramer, and gives him her own $500 to make up for what he spent at the auction. Kramer then sends Jim to London on assignment to help him forget his fiancée, Joyce Beaton, who is marrying another man. Meanwhile, Dixie and Jackie quarrel over her unexpected departure to Havana with Temple. Kalkas, who sincerely loves Dixie, offers to marry her, but she does not love him, so he buys her an expensive apartment. After Kalkas receives word that the governor is appointing a special prosecutor named Briggs to investigate the bombing, he has Temple killed and sends Temple’s girl to Big Edna, an experienced moll, without realizing she is Jackie. Back from London, Jim visits Dixie, and when Jackie’s body is found in the river, he goes with Dixie to the hospital to identify her. Kramer assigns Jim the slot-machine story and he investigates Big Edna’s seedy dive and finds Jackie’s clothes. There he hears Big Edna dialing “Circle-1010” on the telepone phone before escaping. Dixie asks Kalkas for his help, but Jim is wary of him, so they agree to meet the police commissioner at Kalkas’ office. Despite Dixie’s involvement with Kalkas, Jim wants to marry her. After Jim has left, Dixie remembers hearing the number “Circle-1010″ and, dialing it, discovers it is Kalkas’ private line. Kalkas prepares to execute Jim by pushing him down an elevator shaft, as he did with Temple; however, when he realizes the police are on their way, he calls the elevator up for a quick escape. A gunfight ensues, during which Dixie rushes to save Jim from the elevator. Unaware it has moved, Kalkas falls to his death. Relieved that Jim has survived, Dixie leaves with him.”
Production of the film took place at the Paramount Studios (5555 Melrose Avenue in Hollywood) between late February and mid-March of 1937.
NOTES ON THE CAST & CREDITS:
The extensive list of uncredited actors in the film largely derives from IMDb.
Under its American title, King of Gamblers, documented screenings of the film took place in Australia, Canada, China, Dutch Guiana (Surinam), India, Ireland, Japan, and the British Isles (England, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, and Scotland). The film was also shown in the United States under the title Czar of the Slot Machines, as well as under the Spanish-language title Rey de los jugadores. Elsewhere, this motion picture was known to have been shown under other-language titles including O Amor é como um Jogo (Brazil); Král hazardních hrácu (Czechoslovakia); Storbyens sjakaler (Denmark); L’homme qui terrorisait New York (France); and Król graczy (Poland).
The film is extant. The film has circulated on non-commercial VHS.
RELATED ARTICLES & REVIEWS:
— “Two Stylish B’s” (Program notes: Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, October 6, 1975)
— “A Tribute to Robert Florey” by William Everson (Program notes: New School, November 16, 1979)