Wednesday, February 27, 2013


The notion that 1939 was the greatest of all movie years has been around for so long that it's pretty much an accepted fact these days. A while ago, as I was roaming the blogosphere, I happened upon a post by Peter Bogdanovich on his Indiewire blog (appropriately called Blogdanovich) titled "The Greatest Year?"  I read on, having always respected what Mr. B has to say about films and filmmaking. He not only possesses an encyclopedic knowledge and intimate understanding of the subject, but has also made some classics of his own that I much admire - The Last Picture Show (1971), What's Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973).

With "The Greatest Year?" Bogdanovich looked back on one of his 1972 columns for Esquire magazine. In that article he'd selected and reviewed a great movie year of the past to illustrate his contention that films of the early '70s weren't measuring up. He zeroed in on 1939 in particular because in addition to the fact that it had been a banner year for movies, it was also the year he was born (as were Francis Coppola and William Friedkin, two other major filmmakers of the time). Not long after Bogdanovich's column appeared in Esquire, he recalled, a lengthier, more elaborate piece on the films of 1939 appeared in Life magazine written by film critic Richard Schickel. Schickel once and for all declared '39 to be the great year. The rest, as we know, is history.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Nightmare Alley (1947)

Woodcut print by Guy Budziak

Coney Island's opened its first "freak show" in 1880, but the heyday of its sideshow attractions came nearly 25 years later when Samuel W. Gumpertz opened "Lilliputia" at Dreamland, one of the three major amusement parks onsite. Wildly popular with tourists, "Lilliputia" was a miniature city scaled to accommodate its 300 midget and dwarf residents. When Dreamland burned in 1911, Gumpertz built the Dreamland Circus Sideshow and would travel the world constantly seeking "freaks" (usually those with congenital anomalies) and people from exotic lands (Filipino blowgun shooters, actual "wild men" from Borneo, Ubangi women with plated lips) for his shows. In no time Gumpertz would have competition from The World Circus Freak Show, Wonderland Circus Sideshow and other copy-cat venues large and small.

Geek show, Nightmare Alley
During Coney Island's peak, these bizarre sideshows  drew great crowds. Naturally, young people were especially awed by the "human oddities" on display. One boy, whose family had just moved to Brooklyn, became enthralled with these freak attractions. He haunted the sideshows and reportedly held a job on the midway for a while. His name was William Lindsay Gresham and he was born in Baltimore in 1909. His family had moved from Baltimore to Massachusetts in 1916 before coming to New York and, for most of his life, Gresham would live in the city. He worked as a reporter after high school and for a time made a living in Greenwich Village as a folk singer. In the late '30s he served in the Spanish Civil War, fighting the good fight against Franco. While in Spain he met a fellow American who regaled him with memories of life on the carnival circuit. It was through this man, 'Doc' Halliday, that William Lindsay Gresham learned all about 'carny culture' and first heard of the sideshow act known as 'the geek.' Halliday's description of this creature, a man who crawled around in filth and bit the heads from live chickens and snakes for booze money, revolted and intrigued Gresham. He could not get the image out of his head and later said, "to get rid of it, I had to write it out."
William Lindsay Gresham
After he returned to the states, Gresham found work editing and contributing to pulp magazines. With a steady income providing some financial stability, he was able to begin his first novel. Nightmare Alley appeared in 1946. A soul blistering tour of third-rate Depression-era carnival life and the "spook racket,"  the novel follows the story of a young layabout named Stan Carlisle. Stan takes a low-level carny job and becomes driven, at first by lust and then by the burning ambition, to make it big. Coolly conning nearly everyone who crosses his path, he makes his way up, up, up as a bogus clairvoyant and on to even greater heights as a religious charlatan. But he meets his match in a high-end grifter even more cold-blooded than he is. Stan's fall is fast and far and horrific. 
Author Gresham, a tormented soul ever in search of peace of mind, had, by the time he was writing Nightmare Alley, already dabbled in Marxism and psychoanalysis and was now studying the Tarot (each chapter of the book is named for a Major Arcana card). He would go on to delve into and abandon Christianity, Zen Buddhism and Alcoholics Anonymous. None of these pursuits would alleviate his struggle with his demons. The depth of Gresham's personal sense of desperation was reflected in Nightmare Alley; later in life he would claim in a letter, "Stan is the author."

The novel was a success and the film rights were quickly snapped up by Tyrone Power, who'd read the book and saw in Stan Carlisle a potential role of a lifetime. He pressed his boss, 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, to produce the adaptation and allow him to star. The film Power badgered Zanuck to make would be directed by Edmund Goulding and co-star Joan Blondell, Helen Walker and Coleen Gray. It was released in 1947.

Tyrone Power makeup test for Nightmare Alley

If William Lindsay Gresham was a troubled misfit, Tyrone Power would seem his very opposite. Born into a legendary theatrical family and graced with good looks, onscreen presence and talent, Power became a movie star by age 22 - a decade or more younger than most leading men of the late '30s. But, as the years passed, Power grew frustrated with the too-often shallow roles Fox offered him and had begun to have misgivings about his career. He told a girlfriend, "Someday I'll show the @!&%!*s who say I was a success just because of my pretty face..." and famously commented on charisma, "The secret of charm is bullshit." By the time Nightmare Alley came along, Tyrone Power was ready to play Stan Carlisle.

Helen Walker
A 1947 film adaptation of Nightmare Alley could never have been entirely faithful to the novel - the book was just too raw, sexual and disturbing. So the story was streamlined and cleaned up. Noir veteran Jules Furthman's screenplay could only imply or allude to what was far more perverse and explicit in the novel.
Furthman did manage to incorporate a good dose of Gresham's rich and authentic huckster jargon into the script and Goulding evokes, as much as he was allowed, the novel's underlying savagery. An A-budget noir, Nightmare Alley's ink-black look came courtesy of Lee Garmes, one of the developers of "Rembrandt lighting," with art direction by five-time Oscar winner Lyle Wheeler, effects by two-time Oscar winner Fred Sersen and makeup by Fox veteran Ben Nye. Joan Blondell is a natural as blowzy Zeena, the mentalist, and Helen Walker as an unscrupulous psychiatrist, Dr. Lilith Ritter, is razor-blade sharp and deadly. But it is Tyrone Power's portrayal of Stan Carlisle that is the eye-opener. Power's Stan credibly evolves from opportunistic naif to oily hustler, slick headliner, relentless schemer, jumpy man-on-the-run and, finally, vulnerable rumdum.

Darryl Zanuck did not like Nightmare Alley. Power was his box office bonanza of a leading man and Zanuck hadn't wanted to risk casting him in so dark a film. But was it a risk? The post-war era brought stars like Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend), Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Ronald Colman (A Double Life) and others new success - and sometimes an Oscar - for less than sympathetic roles in downbeat films. On release, Nightmare Alley received mixed reviews (a New York Times reviewer complained, "this film traverses distasteful dramatic ground") but Power's performance was widely praised. That was not enough to reassure an already nervous studio and the film's run in theaters was brief. It was a commercial failure.

 Pete (Ian Keith) reads Stan (Tyrone Power)

Zanuck's reluctance to support Nightmare Alley is often blamed for its failure. But his caution makes sense given the times and his understanding of Tyrone Power's place in movie goers' hearts. Audiences could handle the handsome star as a skirt-chasing carnival Lothario sporting a cocky attitude and a tight tee-shirt. But once Stan's seamy nature begins to creep to the surface - a wad of chewing gum always in his cheek, a cigarette behind his ear, a spiel always on his lips - the audience might start to get jittery. When he slips a bottle of hooch to Pete (Ian Keith), a carny alcoholic who is an obstacle to Stan's dreams, there's no denying his ruthlessness. It becomes clear soon enough that Stan is a nastier more cynical sort than Dion O'Leary (In Old Chicago), a romanticized Jesse James or Clive Briggs (This Above All). By film's end, when an unhinged Stan runs through the midway, wild-eyed and vacant, swinging a club at anyone who comes near, Power's multitude of fans might well have stared in stunned disbelief. Could they bear to believe that Tyrone Power (Zorro, that Yank who joined the RAF, Jamie Waring of The Black Swan) could be the pathetic, disfigured wretch on the screen? They may not have realized or cared that they had just witnessed the performance of his career. Darryl Zanuck must have breathed a deep sigh of relief when Captain from Castile, a Technicolor swashbuckler Power finished just before Nightmare Alley, was released a few months later to blockbuster business.

Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle
The publication and reception of Nightmare Alley was the one great success of William Lindsay Gresham's career. His second and final novel was a commercial flop. He went back to writing for pulp magazines and published only three more books, all non-fiction. With his health failing and low on cash, Gresham took his own life in a cheap New York hotel in September 1962. He is best remembered by some as a footnote in the life of C.S. Lewis; Gresham's second wife, Joy Davidman, later married Lewis. Shadowlands, a TV movie, play and film, was based on the Lewis/Davidman relationship.  Others place Gresham in the pantheon of noir legendss like Nathaniel West, James M. Cain and Jim Thompson. Nightmare Alley's reputation has grown steadily through the years and in 2010 New York Review Books published a new, uncensored edition. This publication boasts an introduction by Nick Tosches, who was then working on a Gresham biography. The NYRB edition of Nightmare Alley was hailed by critics; reviews were filled with glowing adjectives - and one constant noun: masterpiece.

Tyrone Power would never have another film role quite equal to Stan Carlisle, but his last completed performance, in Billy Wilder's Witness for the Prosecution (1957), was as a character not unlike Stan. Once more he received critical praise, something he'd nearly given up on ("They still don't take me seriously," he complained a year or so earlier). Power had spent the intervening years making movies of varying quality, working in the theater, traveling the world - and going through a succession of women and a lot of money. His death at age 44 occurred in Spain when he was filming Solomon and Sheba. Perhaps fate thought it better to spare him that biblical swashbuckler. Of all the films he made, Nightmare Alley would remain Power's favorite, the one he screened at home for friends.

Nightmare Alley developed a cult following that continued to grow over the decades. Because of legal wrangling between the estate of its producer, George Jessel, and 20th Century Fox, it was kept out of the home video market for years. Finally released on DVD in 2005, the film was greeted with a new wave of enthusiasm from critics, film buffs and film noir fans. Once overlooked and undervalued, Nightmare Alley is now considered a noir classic, one of the bleakest films in a bleak genre, singular for its carny setting and absence of thugs-with-guns and outright murder.

This piece is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon. Click here for links to all participating blogs.

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham, Introduction by Nick Tosches, New York Review Books (2010)
Noir Fiction: Dark Highways by Paul Duncan, Oldcastle Books (2000)
Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir by Eddie Muller, St. Martin's Press (1998)
All Those Tomorrows by Mai Zetterling, Grove Press (1985)
The Films of Tyrone Power by Dennis Belafonte with Alvin H. Marill, Citadel Press (1979)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

31 Days of Oscar: The Rains Came (1939)

There is no mistaking that drama on a grand scale is about to take place even before the first scene of The Rains Came (1939) begins. Alfred Newman's commanding score pounds, the title sequence rolls over the dark image of a rain drenched ancient city, and as each hand-lettered title appears it is soon washed from the screen as if swept away in a downpour.