Tuesday 23 March 2010

The Mind Reader (1933)

Director: Roy Del Ruth
Star: Warren William
Oh, how I've waited for this one! Every time I see a Warren William precode I wonder if anyone else should ever have been allowed to play a charlatan, a con man or an unscrupulous businessman. For four magical years he played all these things and there was a light on the screen that burned so brightly it was irresistible. Films like Skyscraper Souls, The Match King and Employees' Entrance show his blistering power but they're far from the only ones. He was still great once the Production Code clipped his wings but he was never quite the same. Imposing the Code on Warren William is like declawing a wildcat. I'm not missing many of his precodes now but this is the missing one I've burned for the most. William as the Great Chandra, professional fraudster and mind reader: how could I resist such a picture?

He hasn't become Chandra when the film starts. In fact he has so many personalities that we can't even be sure which is the real one, but I'm sure it's none of the ones we see. Later we find out his real surname is Chandler but we never find out what his first name is, his friends merely calling him Chan. By the railroad tracks in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, he's Dr Norman Le Blanc, the Painless Dentist. On the corner of First and Beal in Nashville, he's Dr Zukor selling his Wonder Hair Tonic, the miracle preparation of the age. In Emporia, Kansas, he's exhibiting the champion flagpole sitter of the world, of all things. His sidekick Frank Franklin, in the always welcome form of Allen Jenkins, has apparently been up there for 22 days, which probably really means half an hour, but they're not making any money.

They need a new racket and they find it, inspired by a successful competitor, Swami Mrajah, the Marvel of the Age. As the Great Chandra, the name taken from the front of a box of cookies, he starts raking in the dough, pun not intended. It's all crooked of course, with Frank and his other cohort Sam to back him up, designed not just to earn money but also to set up private readings later at a buck a pop. He even gets letters from women asking him questions, for another one dollar fee. It's hardly surprising its successful, given that it's Warren William, Allen Jenkins and Clarence Muse running this scam, but there's one more major character to come. Constance Cummings joins the crew in Kokomo, Indiana but she's not in on any of it and it takes her a while to really learn what's going on under her nose.

She plays Sylvia Reynolds, a paying customer in the Kokomo audience who wants to know if she's going to stay in town and get married or move to Chicago to look for work. 'A very great change is coming into your life,' he tells her, and for once he's right. She's a rather lovely young lady and once he realises who she is, he's smitten. Never one to fail to take opportunity by the teeth, he helps her out again after the show when her aunt loses her purse. He knows where it is because it's stuck under Frank's jacket but he sets up an elaborate plot to get it back and impresses her even more. When they leave town, she comes along with them as his secretary. It doesn't take long for him to propose. 'So love her! Why marry her?' asks Frank in one of many great precode lines.

It's in Danville that she discovers that the engagement ring he gave her was stolen by Frank back in Frankfort, a fringe benefit from a scam to let their scam go ahead. There are layers here, trust me. Frankfort has an ordnance against fortune telling and the chief of police is a smart cookie who's taken down charlatans before. So Chandler calls it a demonstration of science and persuades the journalists massed outside his train by starting and stopping his pulse at will. The chief of police has worked out his gimmick and broken it but Chandra reverses the move and ends up getting invited to dinner by the chief for a private reading. Warren William was never anyone to do anything by halves.
It can't last, of course, but Sylvia manages to persuade him to get onto the straight and narrow, at least for a while. He wanders door to door attempting to sell brushes in New York City but you know that's not for him, so when Frank drives past and proposes a whole new spin on their old racket, he's naturally up for it. 'Love. Marriage. Honesty,' sneers Frank. 'Now there's a combination guaranteed to get anybody into the poorhouse!' Did I mention I love precodes? Frank is now a chauffeur for Mrs Wilson Douglas Austin, a rich lady who lives for mediums and mind readers and he's being paid by both husband and wife already to keep quiet about their affairs. So enter Dr Andrew Munro, who promptly starts making news. 'Seven Park Avenue homes exploded since the first of the year,' says the paper. 'Isn't that terrible?' asks Sylvia when she reads about it and if you've seen one Warren William film you can already see his reaction.

To be honest William isn't quite as dynamic as I expected he would be here. He's certainly cast perfectly and he gets some great scenes, especially when he skips town and ends up as the drunk old Dr Divoni, finding a semblance of a conscience in the Goat's Nest bar in Juarez, lambasting the audience for being stupid enough to ask him questions, trust him to know things, watch him laugh at them. It's hardly the safest place to throw his crystal ball at the crowd but he's a little too drunk to care. Every time Sylvia finds something out he has a new excuse for her to persuade her back into line, even when Mayo Methot turns up in a short but powerful role as Jenny, a woman who sent him one of those dollar questions. He ruined her life and she takes a dive down the elevator shaft outside his room just to reinforce her point.

Yet when he's in character as the Great Chandra he tones down the charm and fragments his sentences. I think he's aiming at a suitably mystical tone but really we just want the sort of deep confident tones that only Warren William can bring to a con and they're not there. We have to wait until he's back out of character to see what he can really do. Constance Cummings is fair as Sylvia but Mayo Methot steals her thunder with that one brief scene and Natalie Moorhead is better too as Mrs Wilson Douglas Austin, though she doesn't have the part she could have had. Clarence Muse is excellent as Sam, but Allen Jenkins really steals pretty much everyone's thunder as Frank, with many of the best lines of the film and a more substantial part than he often got. He even gets the last word: 'It sure is tough to be going away just as beer's coming back,' he tells Chan. I love precodes.


old pajamas said...


I love reading your posts; they are like hearing the tea in the kettle, knowing something exquisite is soon to be savoured.....pajamas

Hal C. F. Astell said...

That's a truly awesome compliment. Many thanks!