William Powell … John D. Marsden
Jean Arthur … Judith Marsden
Kay Francis … Alma Marsden
Regis Toomey … ‘Babe’ Marsden
Stanley Fields … Dorgan
Brooks Benedict … Al Mastick
Betty Francisco … Mrs. Mastick
John Risso … Tony
Joan Standing … Miss Abrams
Maurice Black … Nick
Irving Bacon … Harry
John Cromwell … Imbrie
Directed by John Cromwell.
Produced by David O. Selznick.
Based on the story by Oliver H.P. Garrett.
Adaptation by Howard Estabrook.
Original Music by John Leipold.
Cinematography by Charles Lang.
Film Editing by Otho Lovering.
Costume Design by Travis Banton.
A Paramount Picture.
Released January 31, 1930.
Though Street of Chance was the second of six parings between William Powell and Kay Francis, the film can be argued as the one which really established them as a recognized team. Their chemistry shines through in all of their scenes together, which have a sort of bitterness of broken promises to them. Their characters are John and Alma Marsden, whose marriage is unfortunately on the rocks because of John’s corrupt gambling lifestyle.
Of their four Paramount features, Street of Chance is undoubtedly the best of the whole bunch. But the majority of the credit goes to two men behind the entire production.
The film was produced by David O. Selznick, who not only had a strong belief that William Powell could really go somewhere as a leading man, but that Kay Francis could also establish herself as a leading lady. She had come to promise vamping out Walter Huston in Gentlemen of the Press (1929), Fredric March in The Marriage Playground (1929), and William Powell in Behind the Make-Up (1930), and now a year into her movie career, Selznick decided it was time for Francis to progress from her vamp roles.
“David Selznick did more to buoy my self-confidence than anybody else,” Kay later remembered. “He was the one who always believed I was capable of playing leads.” She remained grateful to him for the rest of her career.
The other man who is due a great credit is director John Cromwell, who did a lot for Kay within the course of her Hollywood years. This is not only the man who made her star by directing her in this film as well as For the Defense (1930), but he revived her fame ten years later when he gave Kay most of the attention in In Name Only (1939), her comeback vehicle after her battle with Warner Brothers.
Kay Francis fans owe both men a major recognition of respect.
Street of Chance was based on a story by Oliver H.P. Garrett, which many believed was based on the life of Arnold Rothstein. Nicknamed Mr. Big, Rothstein was one of the more notorious criminals of the first half of the twentieth century, even being speculated as to having fixed the 1919 World Series. His legacy was immortalized in Hollywood with not only Street of Chance, but also Samuel Goldwyn’s production of Guys and Dolls (1955). Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, and Howard Estabrook—who received an Oscar nomination for her work on the film—adapted Garrett’s story to the screen brilliantly. Street of Chance is one the most mature and adult dramas of the early talkie years largely because of their work on the script.
Many point to Street of Chance as the one which made a Kay Francis a star. It at least got her name out there to get Paramount to give her more important roles, but she still had a while to go before she really hit her stride. But of her first few years in Hollywood, this is one of her most important films. She’s not only more believable, but also more comfortable in front of the camera, which does photograph her favorably throughout most of the film. Critics gave her, and the entire picture, rave reviews which made it reasonably popular with audiences.
Four years later, Fox remade Street of Chance under the title of Now I’ll Tell (1934), which starred Spencer Tracy, Helen Twelvetrees, and Alice Faye. Three years after that, Paramount remade the film as a programmer with Gail Patrick and Ricardo Cortez. Titled Her Husband Lies (1937), it was the final film version of Garrett’s story. Paramount’s Street of Chance (1942) was a low-budget programmer which used the early elements of film noir—special lighting tricks, and melodramatic plot involving sticky situations. It was completely unrelated to any of the film versions of Garrett’s story.
Today, Street of Chance remains a forgotten treasure in the Universal film vaults. As Roger Bryant, the author of William Powell: The Life and Films, pointed out about Behind the Make-Up, “its relative neglect even by movie buffs is understandable, given the poor quality of videotapes, likely third or fourth generation transfers, that circulate on internet auction sites.”
The same can be said for this film.
The first two character we meet is Natural Davis, a gambler who poses as J.B. Marsden, a bondsmen. When he arrives at his bond office, the secretary hands him a telegram from his brother “Babe,” announcing his marriage to Judith. Two people arrive into the office: Al Mastic’s wife in desperate need to see Natural because her husband has been taken off to jail, and a man who runs in to hand a letter of separation from Alma, J.B./Natural’s wife. He hands Mrs. Mastic money to bail her husband out, and tells her to make sure he stays away from all of his future games.
J.B. gets on the phone with Alma, telling her he’s torn up her request for a divorce. We first meet Kay as she talks on the telephone. She’s charming, with her hearty laugh and throaty voice. When J.B. gives her a phony excuse for not being with her that night, she tells him “it’s just no use, Jack. It’s just no use.” She hangs up the phone.
When Al Mastic shows up at the game, Natural tells him he told Mrs. Mastic to stay away from the next game. Al insists he hasn’t got a wife, even though she told Natural he lost exactly $2,150. Natural catches Al when he notices the mark he left on a dollar bill he had given to the wife. Natural wins the hand, and all of Al’s money.
Later on, Al tries to pay Natural back. “All but twenty bucks of it,” he says. When Al still refuses to admit his wife came into Natural’s office, Natural decides to have him murdered. The scandal is headlining news.
We next meet Babe and Judith. Jean Arthur is completely unrecognizable with that dark hair. It’s not until she opens her mouth and speaks that we can distinguish her. Babe tells Judith that he plans to gamble with Natural Davis, not even realizing that it’s his own brother.
Back at Alma’s, Natural begs her not to divorce. She insists it’s pointless because he will never change. She makes very logical points, especially when she says that her surroundings are only temporary, until he gets them so far into debt they have to sell everything they own.
He tells Alma that if she runs away with him to “any place you say,” he’ll quit gambling “tonight.” They agree to go on a second honeymoon in the morning.
Babe walks up to a newspaper salesman and asks him where he “can get in touch with Natural Davis.” After Babe leaves, the man tells Natural what happened. Natural insists he’s quit the racket, and asks for the man who’d like to gamble with him. He realizes it’s his own brother. He preaches to Babe about the idiocy of gambling. “You little fool, you don’t know what you’re getting into,” says Jack, who agrees to introduce Babe to Davis, as long as he agrees to get back home and never come back (or gamble) again.
Jack refuses to break his promise to Alma, and has one of his boys clean Babe out.
He goes to meet Judith where they’re staying, and tells her that Babe is about to lose all of their savings over gambling. She asks how he could let Babe do it, but he tells her that it’s a lesson he has to learn for himself. She promises to take him back to San Francisco, and keep him there.
While Alma and Jack are packing, Tony arrives at the apartment. It becomes clear that he can’t go away with her, and she begins to loose it. “You begged for another chance. I gave it to you. I opened up my arms to you.” When he tries to explain, she reminds him of how much he’s lied to her in the past, but he insists he will meet her on the noon train.
Back at the hotel, Babe realizes that Natural Davis is his own brother. Dorgan insists he wants his money back, and Natural gives his work that he’ll get it. They get into an intense game of card. Babe looses his money and learns his lesson. He and Judith go back to San Francisco.
Alma learns that Jack was telling the truth, and that his life is in danger for crossing Dorgan. She frantically phones for help, but it’s useless. He’s already been shot, and dies in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.
Street of Chance was an unexpected hit for everyone involved. Everyone profited off of the film. William Powell scored another meaty part. Kay diversified her career with her first sympathetic role. John Cromwell was praised for his excellent direction. And the film was nominated for a Best Writing Oscar.
Kay considered this one of her best movies, and it’s easy to see why. While a typical early talkie, the film is one of the most interesting of its era. Paramount movies from these years are so rare, and the opportunity to see films like Street of Chance or Manslaughter (1930) is a true honor for any movie buff.
William Powell’s “Natural Davis” was based on Arnold Rothstein, a Jewish gambler in New York in the early ‘20s. The Nathan Detroit character in Guys and Dolls was also molded after him.
Given more screen time, Kay is shown to full advantage here. It is her biggest role since Gentlemen of the Press (1929), and her first leading role. There aren’t any close-ups of her, but the part was enough for the struggling beauty on the Paramount lot. She does good for the most part, but she is a little theatrical in her emotional scenes. There are a few great shots of her and William Powell together, especially when they first meet in her apartment. Comforting her, he kisses her shoulder.
Fortunately for Kay, better parts in better films were forthcoming. But Street of Chance was a nice showcase the raven, dark beauty of the screen.
Judging by her billing, this was Kay Francis’ first real lead. It was her fifth film and the third time her name appeared in the top three billed positions. There aren’t any real closeups (of Kay or any of the cast besides Powell), but Cromwell gives her some interesting private moments, especially when she and Powell’s plans for a second honeymoon are interrupted by a phonecall from one of the gamblers.
Street of Chance was remade by Fox in 1934 as Now I’ll Tell, with Spencer Tracy, Helen Twelvetress, and Alice Faye. Paramount remade the movie again in 1937 as Her Husband Lies with Gail Patrick and Ricardo Cortez. Paramount’s Street of Chance (1942) was not a remake of this film, but an early, low-budget film noir.
Kay’s eyes were permanently damaged during production. “It took a day and a half for them to set up the equipment,” Kay later told reporters, “and as the arc light came nearer and nearer for the close up, I didn’t want to break the scene by complaining. It hurt my eyes, but we did the scene. It never had to be reshot. When it was over, tears came streaming down my eyes, and I had to spend ten days in a dark room.”
This was Kay’s first sympathetic role, and to prepare her for it, Paramount had her “butch” hairstyle—which had such an impact on her look while playing vamps—transformed into what the authors of Kay Francis: A Passionate Life and Career called “a sophisticated coiffeur.”
Kay credited David O. Selznick as being the first person to really believe she could be more than just the supporting vamp. She always credited him as being the first person to believe that she could be made into a star, and Selznick rightfully claimed credit as having given her a nice showcase (and career boost) with Street of Chance.
William Powell, who has had his innings as Philo Vance in the films of the S. S. Van Dine stories, is now to be seen at the Rialto as “Natural” Davis, a prototype of the late Arnold Rothstein. This talking film, known as “Street of Chance,” is admirably acted and its incidents are so craftily devised that they compel attention.
It is a picture charged with excitement growing out of the stealth suggested in its scenes of Times Square and other sections on Broadway. There are instances where it might have been still more impressive, but, even so, there is no little originality in the handling of the high-stake gambling games.
John Cromwell, the director, with the aid of the author, Oliver H. P. Garrett, gives the breath of life to the persons involved in this adventure. There are the welchers, the faithful one-armed newsboy, the square-jawed money-grabbers who think no more of the death of a welcher than they do of the smoke from their cigars. The law of these “grand” gamblers is that a man must “go for a ride” if he’s in the way, and while the killing of an individual is entrusted to a couple of thugs, they pile up big money on a roll of the dice or a turn of the cards.
“Natural” Davis, whose real name is John B. Marsden, is the gambling leader and his orders are carried out until he finds himself in the same predicament as others and he is “put on the spot,” which means that his chances of continuing to live are about one in a hundred.
Davis, of all men, is caught with an ace in his palm and the poker players refuse to listen to his ex- planations or to his offer to refund the money. He is to walk the plank, so to speak.
Davis has a more human side to his nature where his own brother is concerned. He sends that young fellow $10,000 as a wedding present and “Babe,” as this brother is called, unknown to “Natural,” turns the $10,000 into $50.000, by gambling in California. He comes to New York, having heard all about “Natural” Davis, but never suspecting that this king of gamblers is his own brother. “Babe” fancies himself with the cards, and when John B. Marsden tells him not to gamble, “Babe” returns the $l0,000 to his brother. When John B. knows that “Babe” is going to get into a game with his own colleagues, he asks these hardened veterans of the round table and the dotted bones to fleece the kid. But it happens otherwise, for “Babe” has a run of luck that brings “Natural” Davis to the gambling table. Prior to “Natural’s” arrival, “Babe” looks forward to meeting this foeman worthy of his steel, and when he realizes a little later that Davis is his own brother, he decides to make the older man eat humble pie or go broke.
“Babe’s luck continues. Do as he will Davis can’t help adding to his brother’s stacks of chips. “Grands” are poured into the game as if they wore pennies and something like $250,000 decorates the table in one pot. Davis himself is being wiped out by this “Babe,” and although others are in the stud pot, Davis palms an ace. And Mr. Davis might just as well have stood up then and there and permitted himself to be peppered with bullets as to wait a day, for his name is mud.
And a little later, “Natural” Davis is seen staggering at the front door of a big hotel and is finally taken to a hospital in an ambulance. At that moment “Babe” and his bride are aboard a train bound for the West.
Mr. Powell does extraordinarily good work as the power among Broadway gamblers. Kay Francis is believable as the gambler’s wife. John Risso makes the most of the crippled news boy, Tony. Regis Toomey almost rivals Mr. Powell in his interpretation of “Babe.”
Mordaunt Hall, February 3, 1930. The New York Times.
From a 1930 issue of Motion Picture
From the May 1930 issue of Screenland.