Proof That It’s Pre-Code
- A film completely dismissive of its audience, the government, and the public at large. “At five cents a head this is ten bucks in sucker money!”
- One of the cons that Warren William tries to pull is by having Allen Jenkins pole sitting for a bit. One kid comes up and whispers a question in his ear, and, from William’s reaction, it’s obvious that the kid asks how the pole sitter goes to the bathroom while he’s up there.
- There’s a lot of implied infidelity between married couples, especially the rich and famous ones.
- Allen Jenkin’s complaint about women: “The minute they get in court, they’re all 16 and under!”
- And the final line of the film, oddly enough: “It sure must be tough to be going away just when beer’s coming back!”
The Particulars of the Picture
Roy Del Ruth
A Bastard Born Every Minute
“Everything about me is crooked. Everything about every mind reader is crooked!”
The Mind Reader opens up with a man promising painless tooth surgery for a mere pittance. One fool gets into the chair, and the pseudo-dentist extracts his tooth, using a nearby orchestra playing “Stars and Stripes Forever” to cover up the patient’s screams until he passes out.
The audience buys it, and that’s how the movie encapsulates itself in its first few seconds. America will buy anything with enough show, even if the truth is very plainly in front of their eyes.
We watch the dentist transform into other cons, from selling hair tonic to trying to get people to see a pole sitter, all with mixed results. When he hits upon mind reading as a profession, he can’t help laughing. This is going to be the easiest con, and it’s going to make him rich.
Christening himself Chandra, he gathers up his criminal buddies Frank and Sam and takes them on tour. Using a bunch of tomfoolery, he has Frank tell him the audience’s questions via microphone and supplies answers.
The movie has a lot of fun with this chicanery as director Roy Del Ruth fills it with dutch angles galore. The movie is just as crooked as the titular man!
Too bad for him that he soon meets a beautiful true believer named Sylvia who he advises that she ditch her boyfriend and join him on the road. She does, but she stumbles on just how he cons the rubes, which makes her more than a little suspicious about his truth telling. He assures that he is still really psychic, that he just does that as an aid to get people to do private readings, and she buys that. Sylvia is not a smart cookie.
This is compounded when a woman named Jenny confronts Chandra and Frank. She tells him that his prediction ruined her life, melts down and throws herself down an elevator shaft– more on this below.
Sylvia almost leaves Chandra after this incident, but instead gets him to promise to reform. He becomes a door-to-door salesman, which, shockingly, it he finds wholly unfulfilling. A chance run in with Frank gets him back into the game, though, as he sets himself as the seer to the socialites of New York City.
This does not go well, nor does it end well. Chandra must choose between his beloved wife and prison, all because he loves to lie just so damned much.
Acting and Anger
There are two main attractions here, besides the always fun Warren William getting to play a huckster.
The first I wanted to mention is Allen Jenkins, who plays the dimwitted sidekick to Chandra. Jenkins began his motion picture career in 1931 after being imported from Broadway and spent his career playing dimwitted sidekicks of all stripes. He was extremely prolific in the early 30’s at Warner Brothers, in everything from Havana Widows to Three on a Match.
His job in The Mind Reader is a lot more than his usual dumb thug role as he’s instrumental in keeping Chandra in his work, not only as a sidekick, but as an enabler. While Chandra attempts to be respectable, Jenkin’s Frank never wavers from his belief of his own life’s calling to con the rubes. He needs someone with Chandra’s charm to be the front man, but he loves playing the backup man.
There’s a lot of nasty joy in his performance, and Jenkins makes his character balance a tough line between caring and pragmatic. In one early scene he steals a woman’s purse at a performance, and his eyes glow as he describes how much money he imagines it may contain. The look of barely contained disappointment as Chandra gives the purse back to the poor elderly owner is sublime.
The other outstanding performance I wanted to make note of is Mayo Methot as Jenny, the suicidal woman who confronts Chandra about his fibs. She’s only in the movie for a few minutes, but she manages to draw an incredible power from her role.
Mayo Methot is an actress whose personal life is far more well known than her acting career. While she starred on Broadway and made motion pictures all throughout the 1930’s, it’s her tumultuous marriage to Humphrey Bogart that forms most of the common knowledge about her. They were both nasty alcoholics, fought constantly, and had nasty predilections towards waving guns around. Methot even stabbed Bogart in the 40’s, which is usually a clear sign to get all the locks in the house changed.
Her role as Jenny, though, is haunting, a moment of complete seriousness and the only scene in the movie that really considers what the sham of mind reading can do to a person’s life. Methot nails it here, her character torn between grief and madness. There’s one moment I liked, where her characters hand reaches up towards her brow after she leaves the room– a pretty common ‘I must be going crazy!’ gesture for female actors of the 30’s– but Methot stops it and waves it off. She isn’t going crazy. She’s already left the building.
Connections to the Future
I’m going to spoil the film’s climax here, so skip ahead if you don’t want to read about it.
The last few scenes have Chandra hiding out in Juarez with Frank and Sam. Chandra’s become despondent and drunk upon hearing that his wife has found out that he was lying to her, and that she’s being held on charges for the murder he committed.
He takes to the stage, but finds himself unable to concentrate on his performance. His once immaculate poise and beautiful garments replaced with staggering and a hat that appears to be made out of pillowcases. He gets the first question and completely melts down, showing the audience not only how he performs the trick but calling them out on their own stupidity.
The way that director Roy Del Ruth cuts this scene is remarkably ahead of its time. Sure, we’ve had plenty of dutch angles up to this point, but here he actually experiments with the way the editing effects our perception of Chandra’s rant. He cuts not with the delicacy normally associated with this era, but allows Willams’ teetering to hold sway. The lines during his rant are cut scattershot, so he’ll finish one line in another position, and then cut with him standing in a different place still yelling and screaming.
This sort of thing would actually become quite prominent to films of the 60’s and 70’s to show disconnection and anger, throwing the audience off balance as the sense of internal continuity the film has built up melts down just like the character on screen. Seeing this technique in the 30’s is pretty shocking, since it’s just further proof that most of claim’s of this era’s tendency towards static shooting is a lot of hogwash.
I just briefly wanted to mention that there’s a number of similarities between this movie and the 1948 film noir Nightmare Alley. Both involve mind readers and the same confidence trick, though Nightmare Alley is more of a morality play than Mind Reader.
You should definitely check both out and compare them for yourselves, but both reveal a lot about both what the characters were allowed to get away with in their respective time periods. And both remain a good mix of fun and nasty indictments to an audience that deserves to be fooled– whoever they may be.
Trivia & Links
- Cliff Aliperti over at WarrenWilliam.com takes on this one with his usual eye towards detail and trivia.
- I’m just going to label this poster as ‘pretty freaking awesome’:
- This one is available in the Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume Five.