William Powell plays John Marsden, a bond broker who makes his money as “Natural” Davis, New York City’s premier gambler. The story sees him try an exit the gambling life and reconcile with his estranged wife, played by Kay Francis. Conflict arises when Powell’s kid brother arrives from San Francisco, eager to take on the legendary “Natural” Davis, unaware Davis and Marsden are the same man.
Powell’s shines in the Runyonesque role. There’s a great early scene where Powell arrives at a bustling, high-class restaurant. He asks the hostess, who knows him by sight, if he has any messages before making his way to his usual table. Along the way, every diner greets him with, “Hello, Natural.”
Another scene affords Powell a chance to show the character’s edge. Powell has just finished a long session where he’s cleaned out several other gamblers. They stand on the street, ready to call it a night. Another punter approaches Powell, apologetic and eager to repay some money he’d scammed Powell out of earlier. Powell accepts the money, saying, “You’re a little late.”
Panicking, the punter grabs Powell and asks, “What are you gonna do? What are you gonna do?”
Powell leans in glaring and says, “Guess.”
“Now wait a minute Natural, not that! Not that!” says the punter.
Powell turns and walks away with the other gamblers without another word.
“At least you’ve got your money back,” says one gambler as they’re walking.
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” replies Powell, stopping. “I don’t cheat, frame or double-cross. Nobody’s going to do it to me, even once. Returning the money doesn’t cure it. Either a guy’s on the up-and-up or he isn’t, and that’s final for him just as it is for you and me.”
This sits well. As Powell leaves, one gambler says to the others, “It’s a pleasure to lose your money to him.”
Meanwhile, the punter who scammed Powell remains on the curb, now aware of the two hoods moving toward him. Cut to a headline announcing the punter’s murder.
Powell’s seventh talkie proves notable for his character’s darker side. While villains dominated his silent roles, his diction and ease with dialogue elevated him to leading man status. This role gave Powell an opportunity to stretch beyond the squeaky-clean detective and melodramatic leads he’d been playing and show some venom.
And though Powell rises to the challenge, the film lets him down.
The script affords Powell little room to build chemistry with Francis. Their first scene has them talking on the phone, and when they finally share the screen, she delivers much of her dialog facing away from Powell, in a melodramatic affectation. This sequence proves their longest together, as Francis disappears to make room for Regis Toomey as Powell’s brother “Babe”.
Toomey torpedoes the film. His hayseed performance reminded me of the worst Wayne Morris roles—self-centered and chauvinistic. His introductory scene sees him in the bathtub, while his new bride, played by Jean Arthur, rings up Powell. As she’s talking, Toomey keeps yelling at her to toss him things, and Arthur attempts to do the impossible and carry on a conversation while passing undershorts. It’s a scene meant to play as comedy, but it only serves to make both characters seem like idiots.
This proves problematic as the script would have us believe Toomey is an experienced gambler who’s beaten all the big games in San Francisco, but doesn’t proffer a single scene to convince us.
Even the premise proves contrived. He comes to New York knowing which newsboy to ask about the underground games, but doesn’t know “Natural” Davis is his brother? Powell’s real identity is no secret, the scamming punter illustrated that early in the story.
Even more frustrating, Toomey doesn’t realize the spot he puts Powell in when he announces they’re brothers. Indeed, Toomey seems unphased from the entire escapade, save his ability to resist a poker game on the train back to San Francisco.
But worst of all, the script botches the climactic poker game. On the opening deal, Powell has the best hand and raises. Toomey re-raises. Powell re-raises and Toomey calls. Maintaining the advantage after the next card, Powell checks and Toomey bets, Powell raises. Toomey should fold, knowing he’s beat. He doesn’t even have the second-best hand. But he calls and draws one of his two outs. He didn’t outplay Powell, or even read a bluff, he just got lucky.
I did appreciate the film avoiding the telegraphed ending, and the bookend scene of Powell returning to the restaurant he visited in the opening, finding it deserted and getting a chilling reception from the hostess, conveyed a palpable sense of dread.
But these closing scenes aren’t enough. Though Powell’s character has no discernible arc, his mix of urbane charm and streetwise edge should please his fans. Casting a comparable actor as his brother and toning down the melodrama could have elevated this to an early classic instead of frustrating disappointment.