Grand Slam

 Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley


 Contract Bridge was born as a result of a game on October 31, 1925 on board a ship called the Finland.  While waiting to pass through the Panama Canal the next day, Harold S. Vanderbilt, the grandson of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, and the author of a revision of Yachting right-of-way rules, which are still known as the Vanderbilt Rules, and two friends needed a 4th to play a bridge-like game called Plafond.  They allowed a lady who was a fellow passenger to join their game.  She, however, attempted to suggest one exotic change after another based on a game she said she had learned in China.  This aggravated Vanderbilt so much that the next day, during the Canal crossing, he worked out the scoring table for Contract Bridge, which remains remarkably the same today, three quarters of a century later.  On that night, November 1, 1925, the first game of Contract Bridge was played, scored under Vanderbilt's new rules.

 Vanderbilt recalled later:


            We enjoyed playing my new game on board the Finland so much that, on my return to New York, I gave typed copies of my scoring table to several of my Auction Bridge playing friends.  I made no other effort to popularize or publicize Contract Bridge.  Thanks apparently to its excellence, it popularized itself and spread like wildfire.


As a result of the popularity of Vanderbilt’s new game, Warner Brothers in 1933, made Grand Slam, and gave it a terrific cast.  Paul Lucas was the leading man, opposite a rising star, Loretta Young.  Also in the cast were Frank McHugh and Glenda Farrell, well-established character actors.  I must confess that I had a terrible crush on Judy Lewis, Loretta Young’s daughter (by Clark Gable, although nobody knew that for years), when she was a freshman high school classmate of my sister and I was a fifth grader.  She was 14 and I was nine and she was just about the first real “woman” I had ever gotten that close to (I didn’t get that close, actually, but it was close enough for a nine year old).  Despite this, I never thought her mother was that beautiful.  Until I saw this movie, that is.  As a young, developing star, in Grand Slam Young was drop dead gorgeous.

 Unfortunately, this is a pretty silly movie.  There is nothing in the movie about playing the game, but there are some pretty good lines, which indicate that nothing much has changed in the last seventy years.  Here are two examples.  One man tells his wife, “The system doesn’t exist that would give me any pleasure from playing bridge with you.”  Does that sound familiar?  Another one I liked was, “Being a bridge expert is a step down from being a fake Cherokee Indian.” 

 Bridge was a hot activity in the ‘30s.  If this movie is to be believed, people got dressed up in White Tie and Tails to play Rubber Bridge at parties.  Of course, this is a Hollywood world where everyone had a butler in the depth of the Depression.  The script must have been written well before 1933 because McHugh tells a cabbie to take him to a “speakeasy,” even though Prohibition ended shortly after Roosevelt took office in March of 1933.  According to this film, major newspapers reported the goings on in the bridge world.  There is even a radio play-by-play of a match.  I imagine there’s a lot of literary license here.  If you’re going to watch the film to see some bridge playing, you’re due for a disappointment.  You see people playing, but you don’t see any of the play.

 Fortunately, however, the running time is just a little over an hour, so the weak plot doesn’t cause you to lose interest. How disinterested can you get in an hour?  I think this is worth seeing just as an historical artifact, to see the way Hollywood portrayed the world of 1933, to see the beautiful Lorreta Young, and to recognize how popular bridge must have been to present the game without any explanation.  The makers of the film just assumed that the audience would understand how bridge was played and scored, as if someone made a film today about baseball or basketball without having to explain.  The fun of watching this movie for a bridge player is to watch how the players interact with each other, and to realize that the more things change, the more they remain the same.

June 30, 2003

 The End