Gambling With Souls (1936)

“You filthy operator of a sex exchange.”

Strict censorship rules of the Hays Code spawned the production of many sexploitation films–films that were presented as exposes of the lurid charms of various human vices. These films took a strong moral stance against these vices and illustrated the inevitable consequences of sin while indulging the audience with an excuse for puerile voyeurism.

In Gambling with Souls, Mae Miller (Martha Chapin) is married to a doctor (Robert Frazer). He’s devoted to his career, and she’s left to her own devices for long periods of time. She becomes friends with Molly Murdock (Vera Steadman) who quickly introduces her to gambling. Gambling is just the first step into luring Mae into prostitution to pay off the money she owes to gambling club owner, Lucky Wilder (Wheeler Oakman).

Gambling with Souls from director Elmer Clifton contains a strong strain of Victorian melodrama (“you who thrive in the slime of life”)–with the righteous husband appearing (“women are not always to blame for their downfall”), and the wicked, repentant wife sobbing her way through a confession of her life of sin.

For camp fans, there’s a mild degree of entertainment here. Some of the lines are very funny, and there’s one scene in a club that shows a girl dancing, but she’s more of a contortionist than a dancer. She gets up on top of one of the tables, and hikes her skirt up, displaying her undies as she performs contortionist acts. It’s supposed to be sexy–at least that’s the impression I get from the men in the audience drooling as they watch her performance. There’s another scene with a chorus line, and the camera focuses on the girls’ bottoms for an inordinate amount of time. One scene (reminiscent of Hylas and the Nymphs) shows a country bumpkin lured off to a bedroom by a gang of pushy prostitutes. My favourite scene shows Mae returning from a drunken night out. She strips in her bedroom, and even her underwear has become fancier as her sins increase. Those moments provide a vague amusement, but that’s about all. The moralizing is too heavy handed and the characters serve to fill their stock roles only.

The Alpha Video print isn’t that great–there’s some skipping and crackling, but it is watchable.

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