Every month, my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I go Pre-Code Crazy and pick one gem from this era that’s showing on TCM.
In The Mind Reader (1933, directed by Roy Del Ruth), Chandra the Great, Doctor Munro, The great Divoni are all stage names used along the rise and fall of Chandler (if that’s even his real name), con man extraordinaire who freely states, “everything about me is crooked.” Chandler moves up from small-time travelling shams and quackery, to targeting wealthy society marks, and crashes down to doing drunken readings while on the lam in Mexico. His skill at phony fortune-telling nets him a good wife, Sylvia (Constance Cummings) and loads of cash, but he also makes a woman kill herself (Mayo Methot, great in a small part), breaks up several homes, shoots a disgruntled husband and leaves Sylvia to take the rap. His return to responsibility renews Sylvia’s faith and makes a prison stint a light and redemptive end to a comically dark tale.
I’ve seen this many times and always enjoy, thanks mostly to Warren William’s wonderful work enacting Chandler’s brash ambition, charm, cynicism and intelligence. He’s great fun as a crook and sympathetic when he attempts to reform and earn honest money Sylvia’s way. There’s less money in honesty, and it’s easy to understand his frustration as he wastes his talents for grand showmanship and faces constant rejection in a regular door-to-door salesman job. The thrilling risks and rewards of the fake clairvoyant racket prove irresistible. Allen Jenkins is great as Chandler’s faithful and canny sidekick, and Clarence Muse completes Chandler’s crew. They work hard to cook up clever schemes and contraptions and Chandler uses real mental powers to wiggle out of scrapes with suspicious lawmen and audience members robbed by Frank. William is as convincing shady as he is shameful, when leaving Sylvia’s life in ruins has him confessing the error of his ways. Chandler’s story moves fast, packs a lot of punch, and makes a nice companion to Stan’s story in the great noir Nightmare Alley (1947). The Mind Reader more directly addresses the question of who’s to blame in a craze: the gullible, willing customer or the provider who’d be a fool not to profit in such a booming industry ($100’s of millions, according to Frank’s research). Warren William the Great will likely have you rooting for his side of the transaction.
See! Master con-men milk their marks! Marvel! At The Mind Reader on TCM, Aug. 24!