Sunday, September 16, 2012

PRE-CODE PARADE: Warren William in THE MIND READER (1933)

Roy Del Ruth's follow-up to Employees' Entrance, released just two months later, begins with an implausibility: Warren William can't get himself over as a carny barker. Believe it or not, he and his faithful stooge Frank (Allen Jenkins, who went unbilled as a security guard in the previous picture) can't stir up interest in patent medicines, flagpole sitting, or anything, it seems, until they jealously watch the crowds streaming into a tent for a mind-reading show. Then our Mr. Chandler realizes that a good gimmick is all he really needs. He acquires an additional stooge (Clarence Muse) and sets up shop as Chandra the Great. His is the simplest variation on the racket and the one most dependent upon technology. Muse, done up in eastern-mystic regalia but speaking in his most cultivated voice, collects written queries from the audience. Chandra directs him to dump the queries into a cauldron and set them on fire. With sleight of hand, Muse first turns a knob that drops the papers into Jenkins's waiting hands under the stage. Jenkins then reads the questions into a speaker, and William hears them through an earphone inside his turban. The rest is up to him as he plays up the mysterioso. Having proved his mental powers by knowing the questions without reading them, he can trust that his vague answers will satisfy the marks. This isn't the sophisticated code Tyrone Power uses in Nightmare Alley, nor is there that film's hint that the canny protagonist can do a "cold reading" and impress marks with accurate insights into their personalities. William's character is a complete fraud and depends entirely on his gimmick. This represents a devolution of the Warren William persona from a masterful talker who at least has the gift of gab, but Mind Reader is far from the worst variation on that theme -- we'll encounter that soon enough. The interplay of William, Jenkins and Muse keeps this one entertaining; all three are more or less lovable rogues, and the always-interesting Muse does something rare for a black actor of the period. Blacks were usually relegated to dialect roles, but here Muse gets to play somebody who can put on airs, who can act and speak more classy than he actually is, the truth of his character coming out in his arguments with Jenkins over horse racing. Jenkins, meanwhile, is great as the devil on William's shoulder, the supreme cynic always egging him on to another con.

The trio make a fun team until a girl gets involved. Sylvia (Constance Cummings) starts as an irate audience member -- Jenkins has been taking advantage of the act to do some petty larceny -- but she's won over and starstruck by "Chandra's" apparent psychic knowledge of the whereabouts of some lost money. Soon she's Chandra's girl, and after an initial disappointment when she discovers the truth, an assistant who takes Jenkins's place when he fails to show up one night. Chandra tells her Jenkins must be drunk, but the stooge has an important role to play when the act comes to a town where the cops are tough on "fortune tellers." With the cops waiting to arrest him at the first hint of fraud, Chandra ignores the questions and claims to have a vision of a break-in at a downtown jewelry store. The head cop soon gets word that such a crime is apparently taking place. Chandra becomes a hero for thwarting a major heist -- but it turns out that Jenkins, who'd put a brick through the window as ordered, did keep a trinket. Some challenges can't be brushed off so easily. When a crazed woman (Mayo "Mrs. Humphrey Bogart" Methot) accuses Chandra of driving her old boyfriend to suicide by advising her to dump him, the mind reader has no answer. After she throws herself down an elevator shaft, Sylvia browbeats Chandra into quitting the racket.

Again, without the gimmick Chandler is a failure, this time as a door-to-door salesman. Jenkins has fared better, landing a job as a chauffeur and taking bribes from his boss to keep quiet about the boss's mistress and her love nest. Jenkins rather than William is the mastermind here, coming up with the idea that he and his chauffeur and servant buddies can provide Chandler with inside information that he can sell to society wives as psychic knowledge. When Chandler hesitates, Jenkins reminds him that "the world owes everyone a living." Convinced, Chandler tells Sylvia, now his wife, that he's landed a sales-office job, but opens an office as the psychic "Dr. Munro." The mysterious Munro -- he allows no photographs, soon becomes a gossip-column sensation blamed for numerous high-society divorces. Munro is playing with fire, however, and just as Sylvia grows curious about his daytime habits an angry husband comes to the Munro office seeking vengeance. Not knowing that Sylvia has snuck into the office, Chandler has to kill the husband to save himself and flees, leaving his wife to be framed for the shooting. A heel of heels, he revives the Chandra act with Muse and Jenkins (who has inexplicably quit his chauffeuring job) in tow while Sylvia is put through the legal mill, trying to drown his conscience in booze. Only when he reads through a drunken haze of Sylvia's nervous collapse in court does Chandra break, delivering a debunking denunciation of himself to a confused crowd before hastening home to confess his crime. The film ends with the couple reconciled and Jenkins and Muse seeing our hero off as he starts a two-year stretch in jail -- he did shoot in self-defense, after all. Jenkins has the last word, a timely observation of the irony of his pal's imprisonment just as booze is becoming legal again.

With this, Employees' Entrance and the forthcoming Upper World, a case can be made that Roy Del Ruth is Warren William's best director. Mind Reader is definitely the most stylish of those films, with plenty of dutch-angle shots to keep everything off-balance. If William himself is less masterful here than in his greatest performances, he works his roller-coaster role for all it's worth from rags to riches to rags to riches to rags. This picture tends toward the tragic mode of The Match King, but Jenkins consistently lightens the proceedings despite being the most nearly evil character in the movie. Warners clearly wanted the William character to suffer a fall from grace but the writers may have felt that the utter destruction that ended Match King took things too far. Better if William seems to touch bottom only to rise once more, even if rising means learning his lesson and doing his time. It's a tricky balancing act, and you'd think Chandler would rescue his wife from legal jeopardy sooner than he does. But William's charisma dissipates any outrage audiences might have felt; if he was a star, it was because they wanted to see him win, and during the Depression they weren't too particular about how their heroes succeeded. That William ends up in jail this time only reinforces Mind Reader's comic nature. We enjoy seeing someone get away with stuff so long as he gets his comeuppance later; then the joke's on him. Some of the films we'll see later won't be so funny, and maybe that's why his star started falling.

But now for our usual wrap-up:the original trailer for The Mind Reader from TCM. com.

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