The film Reno is a 1939 black-and-white drama starring B-List stars from the RKO stable. Although Richard Dix, Gail Patrick, Anita Louise and the rest of the cast deliver watchable performances, the film is weighed down by its need to preach a melodramatic moral line in keeping with the stultifying codes under which Hollywood operated at the time.
Nevertheless, Reno is a fascinating example of the way moral taboos shift. In 1939, the city of Reno, Nevada, was famous around the world for two things: legal gambling and quickie divorces. The film’s treatment of divorce is staunchly conservative and one-sided, while it appears tolerant, even supportive, of legal gambling. These days, of course, divorce laws are much more liberal all over the USA, while gambling is still restricted in many states.
Plot Told in Flashbacks
Reno takes place in a Nevada courtroom in 1939, with Dix playing Bill Shear, a respected owner who has featured prominently in Reno’s development as a thriving city. Shear is on trial for running a crooked roulette wheel, accused by out-of-state visitor Mrs Janet Ryder, played by Louise, of bilking her of money she planned to use to pay for her divorce.
Shear admits to rigging the game, but in a series of flashbacks, he explains why. We then see Shears’ rise from small-town mining lawyer to casino mogul, the mistakes he made and the deficiencies of his character that caused them. Janet turns out to be his long-lost daughter, whom he has not seen since he was divorced from her mother. He cheated her deliberately, so she could not afford to go through with a hasty divorce and make the same mistake that he did.
Reno was Unique in US History
To understand the point of Reno, the film, one needs to understand the history of Reno, the city. When first founded in the 19th Century, Reno was a small town serving local gold mining, and then a substantial silver rush. In the film, Bill Shear starts off as a small-time lawyer helping solo prospectors defend their claims against big mining conglomerates.
Although the state of Nevada still remains the third-biggest gold producer in the world, after South Africa and Australia, mining in the Reno area became less important in the early 20th Century, and the town declined. In 1931, however, Nevada enacted the most liberal divorce laws in the US and also legalised regulated gambling, and Reno prospered again.
Reno as Divorce Capital of the USA
Because a loophole in state law allowed Americans to claim Reno residency after a very short stay and thus qualify for an expedited divorce, the city became a mecca for unhappily married women especially, who could not be granted divorces against their husband’s wishes in the more restrictive states. When his mining work dries up, Shear becomes a highly successful divorce attorney.
However, the pressure of work and too much time spent with lady clients breaks up his own marriage. So he turns to Reno’s other tourist draw-card, legal gambling, and becomes a successful casino owner. But he’s always regretted letting his true love go without a fight, which is why he wants to change his daughter’s mind.
True to the Hollywood code of the time, all the divorcees are portrayed as greedy, thoughtless or irresponsible women, with no insights into the complexities of abusive relationships or failed marriages. Despite Reno’s out-dated moralising, though, at least for a change, gambling is not portrayed as a social vice.