erik lundegaard

Thursday August 05, 2021

Movie Review: The Mind Reader (1933)


The titular mind reader, Chandler, AKA Chandra the Great (Warren William), gives a speech near the end of the film that reminded me of a speech Jimmy Cagney gives as a PR rep in “Hard to Handle,” which was released by the same studio, Warner Bros., in the same year, 1933.

Cagney’s speech, near the beginning of his film, is peppier and more modern:

Sure, yaps, suckers, chumps, anything you want to call them—the public. And how do you get ’em? Publicity. Listen, Mac, here’s the idea: You take the bankroll, open a publicity agency. Exploitation, advertising, ballyhoo, bull, hot air—the greatest force in modern-day civilization. ... I’m telling you, Mac, the public is like a cow bellowing, bellowing to be milked. 

The poster selling pre-code sex
that isn't really in the movie.
“Tell the chumps what they wanna hear.”

Chandra’s speech is spoken directly to those yaps, suckers and chumps. He’s on stage, drunk, and tired of the scam:

You ask me to tell you things. You think I know! I’ll tell you what I know. I’m the guy who knows how stupid you are. You pay me money to wreck you, torture you, boil you up, play to you, and laugh at you. Sitting there like a school of fish with your mouths open!

It’s the movies letting us know how the world works—and what the people who pull the levers really think of us. There's even a kind of smuggled-in admission that the lever-pullers include Hollywood. Look at that “wreck you, torture you” line. Chandra doesn’t really do that in his act. That’s what the movies do in theirs. We pay them money to sit in the dark and be wrecked, roiled, played with.

So guess when Warners released “The Mind Reader”? April 1st. A bit on the nose.

The most interesting man in the world
What else do these two movies have in common? Screenwriters Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner. For the moment, let’s focus on Mizner.

Apparently he was one of the all-time great raconteurs and con men. The son of a diplomat, he was a 6’ 5” cardsharp, hotel man, dealer in fake art, prizefight manager, and roulette-wheel fixer. In the 1890s, he and his brother Addison joined the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada but to bilk the miners rather than pan for gold. (Bilking is where the real gold is anyway; it never runs out.) Afterwards, he became a playwright, opium addict, founder and co-owner of the world-famous Brown Derby restaurant in Los Angeles, and a wit who coined some of our great cynical phrases:

  • “Be nice to people on the way up because you'll meet the same people on the way down.”
  • “When you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; when you steal from many, it's research.”
  • “Never give a sucker an even break.”

Apparently he was both friends with Wyatt Earp and the model for Clark Gable’s restauranteur/gangster in the 1936 smash hit “San Francisco.” Remember Hyman Roth’s speech in “The Godfather Part II” about the kid who had a dream of building a city in the desert as a stopover for GIs? “That kid’s name was Moe Greene, and the city he invented was Las Vegas.” You could say the same about Wilson’s brother Addison and Boca Raton, Florida, which Wilson helped him create, and from which both men fled after their corrupt wheeling and dealing became known. Stephen Sondheim was so entranced by their story he wrote a musical based on them: Road Show. It was a helluva life.

Some of that life seems to be in “The Mind Reader.” The movie opens with Chandler, and his two right-hand men, Frank (Allen Jenkins) and Sam (Clarence Muse), making their itinerant way through the U.S. as they try to perfect their scam. Chandler plays a “Painless dentist” in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and a “Wonder Hair Tonic” salesman to Black folks in Nashville, Tennessee. In Emporia, Kansas, he talks up Frank as a champion flagpole sitter (50+ days, etc.) but the only ones stopping by are two kids who whisper their question. Chandler listens and repeats, “How does he what?” Which, yes, is our question, too.

It’s in Emporia where they see a grift that works:

The Marvel of the Age

Frank does some research, discovers that people spend about $125 million a year on fortune-telling, and the other shoe drops for Chandler. “It’s a sure cleanup!” he says. “All you gotta do is look wise, tie a bath towel around your head, and tell the chumps what they wanna hear. The whole world is full of hopeful suckers. Just keep promising them things.”

Their grift isn’t bad. Sam collects questions from the audience, seems to burn them on stage, but secretly funnels them to Frank below, who reads them via electronic hookup to Chandra. Then they set up private sessions for $1 a pop.

To be honest, the movie doesn’t do nearly enough with the grift. It momentarily wrecks it for a one-note gag—when Chandra tells a dude he won’t have any children but his wife will have three, which isn't exactly what the chump wants to hear—then permanently wrecks it by having Chandra fall for Sylvia (Constance Cummings) in Kokomo, Indiana. She’s an innocent kid, but he woos her anyway and brings her along. So now we have three scam artists and an innocent. What happens when she finds out?

Initially, not much. In fact, she joins the scam, reading the notes to Chandra while Frank is busy breaking into a jewelry story—a crime Chandra will “predict” to those present. In the act, Frank can’t help himself and also lifts a diamond, which Chandra then uses for Sylvia’s wedding ring.

If he had corrupted her, the movie might’ve stayed interesting. Sadly, the opposite. A woman (Mayo Methot, Bogart’s wife before Bacall) shows up at their hotel, says Chandra gave her advice that led her to give up the man she loved, who subsequently committed suicide, and what's what she does immediately after leaving the room: down an elevator shaft. That’s enough for Sylvia. She's about to leave town when Chandler shows up at the train station on bended knee promising to reform.

Cut to: Chandler in New York City, trying to sell brushes door to door in the snow.

Not a bad gag. A tame Chandler, though, is a dull Chandler. Thankfully, he runs into Frank again, who’s now a chauffer:

Frank: A guy with your con, your larceny, selling brushes? What’s the idea?
Chandler: I’m on the straight and narrow. You know. The wife.
Frank: The wife. Love. Marriage. Honesty. Now there’s a combination guaranteed to get anybody in the poorhouse.

Which leads to the second successful grift. Same deal, but now he’s Dr. Munro, and he gets the inside dope from chauffers like Frank, who know about the peccadillos of the powerful men they drive around. It’s actually a more honest grift. Instead of making up lies about the future, Chandler is telling the truth about the present—and the wives are buying it.

But same deal again. One husband who’s been fingered shows up, tries to get tough, there’s a gun, it goes off, he dies. Chandler scrams to Juarez, New Mexico, where he’s now “The Great Divoni,” while Sylvia, who was also at the scene of the crime, is railroaded by the cops into taking the murder charge. That leads to Chandler’s drunken rant. And that leads to his 11th-hour return to New York and confession at the DA’s office. Then under police guard he visits her hospital room—she collapsed at her murder trial—tells her he wants her to divorce him, but no, she’s sticking by him. Out in the hall, he runs into Frank and Sam. As the cops pull him away, Frank gets in the last line: “Sure is tough to be going away just when beer is coming back.”

More on Muse
A few words on Clarence Muse, who played Sam, and who was one of the few Black actors during this time that didn’t contort himself into the stereotypes of the day. Here, again, he’s his own man. A running gag is Sam and Frank arguing about horse racing, with Sam usually getting the best of him. More startling is when Sylvia shows up backstage at the carny and Sam checks her out—tilting his head to the side as she enters Chandra’s trailer. “That’s a nice-looking girl,” he says afterwards. Pre-code or no, I’m shocked this got through censors. At the least, I assume it was relegated to the cutting-room floor by a lot of local censors in the South and Midwest. Shame we don’t see more of Muse in the movie. Not to mention the movies.

Vivian Crosby gets a story credit, while Lord and Mizner share screenplay credit, as they do on “Hard to Handle,” “Frisco Jenny” and “20,000 Years in Sing Sing.” According to Philippe Garnier’s book Scoundrels & Spitballers: Writers and Hollywood in the 1930s, Lord did all the typing and most of the writing, though Mizner “could be counted upon to inject some authenticity or wit in whatever prison or gangster yarn the studio was churning out.” Mizner lived only two days past the film’s premiere, dying of a heart attack at the Ambassador Hotel on April 3, 1933, age 56. His final last words, most likely apocryphal: “I’m dying above my means.” 

This one was directed by frequent Cagney collaborator Roy Del Ruth, with cinematography from Sol Polito, and we get some nice shots in the early going. I also like the map interludes. Probably played well in those places, too. It gave the people what they wanted—themselves.

Overall, “The Mind Reader” is worth watching and comes close to being quite good. But I gotta go with Frank: love, marriage, honesty? Now that’s a combo guaranteed to ruin a nice larcenous picture.

Posted at 06:59 AM on Thursday August 05, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1930s  
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