Poker & Pop Culture: John Wayne Keeps the Game Square
Tall in the Saddle is a fast-paced and entertaining western from 1944 starring John Wayne. The film contains most of the elements one finds in "horse operas" of the era, with a complicated plot punctuated by stage coaches, saloons, shootouts — and poker.
Much like other early films we've been recently reviewing here like the silent comedy Dr. Jack from the 1920s and the crime drama Dead End from the 1930s, Tall in the Saddle uses poker to highlight larger themes of the film's story, in this case providing an opportunity for John Wayne's character, the independent Rocklin, to assert his authority as a keeper of order amid the lawless Old West.
Law and Order in the Wild West (or the Lack Thereof)
We first meet Rocklin arriving at Garden City by train, then catching a coach to Santa Inez. The driver, Dave, is played by frequent sidekick George "Gabby" Hayes. To Santa Inez he carries Rocklin — or "Rock," as Dave calls him — as well as two women, the pretty blonde Clara Cardell (Audrey Long) and her mean-spirited aunt Miss Martin (Elisabeth Risdon).
Dave and Rocklin engage in conversation along the route, with one topic being Dave's boss, Harolday, whom he dislikes.
"He's too darn sane, believing in law and order," says Dave of Harolday between swigs of whiskey. "What's wrong with law and order?" asks Rocklin. "Well, it depends on who's dishing it out. I never was much on taking orders myself, and as for the law... heh... you'll find out what that means around these parts."
Dave's words are confirmed even before the group reaches Santa Inez in a sketchy scene that shows law enforcement to be corrupt. Stopping over for a bite to eat, Dave ends up offending the sheriff — calling him a "four-flusher" (among other accusations) — and as a result gets pistol-whipped into unconsciousness.
Once they arrive at Santa Inez, Rocklin gets Dave some medical attention, then joins a poker game at the Sun-Up Saloon.
The Rules of the Game
The game includes several players, including Clint Harolday (Russell Wade), the stepson of Dave's boss who runs the Topaz ranch, and another named Judge Garvey (Ward Bond). Clint has been winning, they warn Rocklin, and soon enough he and the young gun get involved in a contentious hand of five-card draw.
After the deal, Rocklin opens for $3 and Garvey folds. Clint then raises to $20, forcing the others out. "Call you for six," says Rocklin, referring to the last bills he has left on the table. "Dig," says Clint, indicating Rocklin should go into his pockets to produce enough to call the raise.
Garvey reminds Clint they are playing table stakes, which would prevent introducing more money into the game than was present on the table when the hand began. But Clint objects. "Not if he wants to dig," he says with a sneer, and Rocklin does just that, saying "I got you beat" as he puts out the money to call.
Each player then draws one card, with the card delivered to Clint — the — being accidentally exposed. He quickly picks it up and fits it into his hand, grinning widely as he does.
"That queen is dead," says Rocklin evenly. "I can take it if I want it," Clint responds. "Sure, if you want," says Rocklin, still calm. "But you gotta beat my hand with four cards," he adds. "I'm playing these mister," says Clint defiantly, ignoring Rocklin's insistence upon the rule regarding the exposed card.
There's a pause as they look around at the others, and Judge Garvey suggests they consider splitting the pot. "I'm not splitting," says Clint with a smile. "I'm betting." He then puts the remainder of his stack of bills in the center. "You calling?"
"Nope," says Rocklin, and Clint begins to reach for the pot. Then Rocklin interrupts him. "I'm raising," he says, putting the rest of his money forward. Clint's face droops.
"Dig," says Rocklin.
Clint asks another player for more money, but when he refuses Clint says "I've called for all I've got" and turns over his hand. "Full house," he says proudly, but Rocklin ignores him.
"Kings up win," says Rocklin, describing his two-pair hand. "That third queen is dead."
As Rocklin starts to drag the pot, Clint rises up and draws his pistol. "Get away from that table and get out of here," he says. "Maybe from now on you'll know a full house beats two pair, you four-flusher," again using that great old poker epithet (even if literally not applicable here).
Rocklin quietly leaves, walking up the stairs to his room above the saloon. As Clint gathers the money, it is reiterated to him how the exposed card was in fact dead.
"When anybody plays poker with me they play my game or not at all," says Clint. They warn Clint that Rocklin is coming back, but he doesn't believe it. But of course, Rocklin returns, now sporting a full holster.
"I've come for my money," he says, and Clint immediately relents. "Sure," he says quickly. "I guess I was wrong about that queen," he continues, but Rocklin isn't listening. Instead he deliberately gathers the bills and bids the men good night.
Here's the hand, picking up things after the initial betting round as they are drawing cards:
Rock and a Hard Place
The scene supports Dave's earlier observation about the relative lack of "law and order" in Santa Inez. There are rules, sure, but not everyone cares to follow them, and ultimately what really matters is whether or not someone is willing and powerful enough to enforce the rules.
The scene also positions Rocklin as the one willing to take on the responsibility, which, as you might imagine, becomes very needful once he gets more deeply involved in the ranch wars happening in Santa Inez. In other words, the poker scene serves as an abbreviated version of the main plot, one which also is going to pit Rock against the Haroldays.
There's more reference to poker in the film, including an interesting back story involving Judge Garvey and the ranch owner Red Cardell, the latter having been murdered three weeks before Rocklin arrives. The pair were friends — poker buddies, in fact — although Dave tells Rocklin a tale that suggests Garvey might have been cheating Cardell with a marked deck of cards and Cardell found out (thus making Garvey a possible suspect in Cardell's murder).
The deceased Cardell gets compared to Rocklin more than once. Harolday refers to him as being "too fond of taking the law into his own hands" (not unlike Rocklin). Dave also speaks fondly of Cardell, calling him the "salt of the earth" and noting to Rocklin how "he was a big feller... tall in the saddle, like yourself."
Dave even thinks Rocklin "could pass as a blood relation." That's a bit of foreshadowing, actually, as later we'll learn that it wasn't a coincidence that Rocklin came to Santa Inez so soon after Red Cardell's murder — he's Cardell's nephew, there to find out about his killing (and the inheritance Rock stood to have gotten).
It's a complicated plot, additionally involving a love triangle that develops between Rock, Clara, and the tough cowgirl brunette Arly Harolday memorably played by Ella Raines. But in a way the poker scene neatly summarizes it all, showing Rock — a stranger to the game — coming in and setting things right when others try to play it less than square.
"Poker" = Problems
One other point worth making is how Tall in the Saddle additionally gives us an idea of what poker signified in America both during the Old West era and during the 1940s — namely, a potentially dangerous activity in which ideas of right and wrong (and/or law and order) are routinely challenged.
That same view comes up in both Dr. Jack where poker is presented as a kind of malady the good doctor has to cure, as well as in Dead End where the kids play poker as further evidence of their delinquency.
In Tall in the Saddle a poker game potentially becomes the cause of violence with the appearance of guns. The only reason it doesn't is because as it turns out young Clint was bluffing, not ready (yet) to challenge Rock.
The point about poker being a cause of problems gets underscored by a brief exchange coming a little later in the film. A day after the game Rocklin goes to meet with Clint's stepfather, the elder Harolday (Don Douglas), who has heard there was some sort of confrontation between Rock and Clint.
"Mr. Rocklin, what happened between you and my stepson last night?" asks Harolday.
"Poker," says Rocklin.
"Oh," replies Harolday with a nod. No other explanation is needed.
From the forthcoming "Poker & Pop Culture: Telling the Story of America's Favorite Card Game." Martin Harris teaches a course in "Poker in American Film and Culture" in the American Studies program at UNC-Charlotte.