“All you have to do is look wise, tie a bath towel around your head and tell the chumps what they want to hear. The whole world is full of hopeful suckers. Just keep promising things, they’ll believe you. And pay for it too. Pay big.”
So says Warren William’s hustling carny schemer just before taking his stage name from a package of Chandra brand cookies. No, Allen Jenkins, he doesn’t call himself Cookies. You sir are witness to the birth of The Great Chandra, mind reader extraordinaire.
The Public Eye
Warren William was still an actor on the rise by the time of The Mind Reader’s release in April 1933. But by now the public had an idea of what they would be getting when a new Warren William movie would come. His fans would surely be excited by the exotic advertising that heralded his latest, The Mind Reader, playing soon at their local theater.
After teasing them in Beauty and the Boss and then breaking out in The Mouthpiece there was more slick-talking in The Dark Horse before a loan-out to MGM proved that nobody can stare down the Depression like Warren William in Skyscraper Souls.
Next Warren William portrayed the rise and fall of Ivar Krueger in The Match King, a film that studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck referred to as “one of the biggest pictures on the Warner line-up” at the time (Film Daily). Warner’s next let loose their own version of the Skyscraper Souls Warren William in Employees’ Entrance, where he bossed a major department store through the Depression.
By the time The Mind Reader premiered on April 1, 1933 audiences had already met and fallen for the same Warren William we celebrate today. One could even say that The Mind Reader capped the most enjoyable and previously most forgotten part of Warren’s early run of films.
When Chandra first played in theaters Warren had yet to be seen in what are today two of his most fondly recalled big movies: Gold Diggers of 1933 and Lady for a Day were each coming soon. Both of those two later films soften the image some. I could almost imagine myself sitting in a theater wondering what happened.
Success happened. The scoundrels and cads became more likable. Commercialized for the masses.
Behind the Scenes
It was in August 1932, after being cast in The Match King but before being assigned to Employees’ Entrance, that Film Daily included Warren William atop the list of names slated to appear in the all-star cast of their latest purchase: 42nd Street.
This was before 42nd Street was even tabbed as a musical, back when it’s working title was spelled out as Forty Second Street. Kay Francis was to have the role eventually taken by Bebe Daniels; Joan Blondell had the Ginger Rogers part.
By the end of August production had begun on The Match King starring Warren William.
A month earlier Film Daily had reported that Warner Brothers had purchased something called The Mind Reader for William Powell.
Powell and Warren William were very similar types at the time. Warren had already previously replaced Powell on The Dark Horse, originally planned as a sequel to High Pressure which had starred Powell. About a year after The Mind Reader Warren would take over another William Powell part when he played Philo Vance in The Dragon Murder Case. Powell, at MGM by this time, had previously played Vance five times for both Paramount and Warner Brothers.
So at the start of September we have William Powell slated for The Mind Reader with Warren William still listed atop Forty Second Street’s all-star cast. By September 17 Warren disappeared from the revamped 42nd Street. Just a couple of weeks later he wrapped up work on The Match King with Employees’ Entrance hot on its heels but nothing yet lined up to follow.
Both William and Powell were being mentioned for The Keyhole with Kay Francis, a project we recently discussed when talking about Dr. Monica. Neither man appeared in that film.
William Powell wound up assigned to Lawyer Man and on October 26 Film Daily reported that Warren William had been announced to replace Powell as the lead in The Mind Reader.
After watching both movies this week it is hard for me not to compare The Mind Reader to later film noir classic Nightmare Alley. Both movies largely have a carnival setting, prominently feature fortunetellers and focus on a main character who has no respect at all for the suckers.
Each of these con men marries a young beauty who is too willing to believe in them. It is Constance Cummings as Sylvia in the case of The Mind Reader, a sucker herself at the outset. Cummings had been borrowed from Columbia for the Sylvia part, previously tabbed for Bette Davis (Film Daily).
Sylvia has her start as an unsuspecting patron. Just another member of the crowd as Chandra publicly reads her fortune, Sylvia’s boyfriend asks her if she really believes in this hooey. “I certainly do,” says Sylvia, leaving no doubt.
While Sylvia falls prey to Chandra’s charms she remains naive about his hoaxing when she first joins him as secretary. She’s outraged when she catches Frank (Allen Jenkins) delivering fortunes to Chandra via a wire that runs to a pair of headphones inside Chandra’s turban.
Chan smooths things over quickly though comparing his fleecing of the public to big companies advertising every day products:
“My occult power is my stock and trade. I use a little ballyhoo to attract attention. Is it wrong for the manufaturers of soap, toothpaste, chewing gum, automobiles to ballyhoo their product? To advertise them in newspapers and magazines. To plug them on the radio.”
“But that’s different,” says Sylvia. “They’re trying to sell honest merchandise.”
“So am I,” says Chandra, his hand moving over heart. “There is no difference. I’m just trying to convice the public that it’s worth their while to pay for a private reading. And my dear, I assure you. When I’m alone with a client and it’s quiet. And I can concentrate. I don’t need any mechanical help.”
Sylvia buys it: “I’m sorry, Chan. I didn’t know what I was talking about. Will you forgive me?”
Now that’s a con man! Every bit as slick as Tyrone Power’s Stan in Nightmare Alley. The major difference between the two films would be the overall mood and tone. The Mind Reader is lighter and it doesn’t mind having a little fun as it races across the country from con to con.
It’s at a stop in Frankfurt, Kentucky that Chandra faces opposition from the law. The police won’t stand for a mind reading act, but Chandra assures them that what he’s doing is giving a demonstration of the “occult sciences.”
Chandra is relaxed, a cigarette dangling casually from his lips, while he gets ready to perform on a night with all of the potential for disaster. Assistant Frank has gone missing, presumed drunk. With the Chief of Police and two of his deputies sitting front row center it is Sylvia who is supposed to be feeding Chandra the questions, but the wiring malfunctions. Thankfully the clock strikes nine and Chandra describes a crime in progress that sends the police scampering away.
When it turns out that Chandra, through some of his own hocus pocus, had perfectly described the crime as it had occurred the Chief is won over. He even winds up asking Chandra over to dinner so he can give him and his wife a private reading.
Chandra puts himself over to Sylvia just enough for them to be married. Here’s the thing though: Chandra really is in love with Sylvia. He explains to Frank, who can’t understand why he’d want to bother marrying her, “Listen, that girl’s the first decent thing that’s ever come into my life. She’s a swell kid, Frank. I love her.”
But a character so crooked that he doesn’t even film on the level (see how crooked he is in all of the pics on this page?) isn’t going to be able to keep up that level of con when he’s genuinely in love.
Chandra reels from a double shot of misfortune when Sylvia discovers her wedding ring is hot merchandise and then a distressed former fan (Mayo Methot) pays what turns out to be a tragic visit. As Sylvia gets ready to hop the train out of town Chandra catches up with her and swears he’s going to get out of this crooked business.
Relocated to New York, not only does the Depression knock Chandra down to size, it sets him back even further than he was when the movie had just started and he was just barely scraping by with Frank.
Chandra’s turban is on mothballs while he pounds the pavement as a door-to-door salesman for the Gower Brush Company. We see Chan in action at one doorstep where a woman slams the door in his face as she tells him to “Go to hell.”
Our man Chan is doing his best, trying to survive, until one day who pulls up but old buddy Frank. Frank has landed a cushy job as a driver that he takes advantage of in every way he can. He lays it all out as he lights one of his boss’s cigars.
When Frank asks him what he’s doing now, Chandra holds up a brush and says, “Selling brushes.” I’ve never seen Warren William so disgusted with himself. Frank is just as put off: “A guy with your con, your larceny, sellin’ brushes? What’s the idea?” Chandra sounds like a shamed schoolboy when he replies, “I’m on the straight and narrow. You know. The wife.”
Frank wakes him up: “Don’t be a sucker, what are you gonna do, starve? The world owes us all a living. I’m geting mine and I’ve got a plan where you can get yours.”
Out of this Dr. Munro is born. “Mystic Baffles Scientists: Dr. Munro Gives Amazing Proof of Powers,” reads the dummy headline Chandra and Frank set up for their first sucker. Carny days and small towns are behind them. Rich and bored housewives are the new target and they pay out better.
Of course this can’t end well. Sylvia is kept in the dark and has to come upon the truth herself, but she doesn’t do so until it is too late. Retribution follows leading to what is a happy enough ending.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, in January 1933 director Roy Del Ruth called everyone back to The Mind Reader set to film a new ending. Warner Brothers payroll files show Warren back on The Mind Reader for extra scenes on January 11, so those would have likely been that new ending. Both endings were to be tried out in front of preview audiences before the print was shipped off to New York for The Mind Readers’ April 1 premiere. My guess is that we see what was filmed that January 11.
Unlike Nightmare Alley there is no geek in The Mind Reader, but Warren William’s Chandra or Dr. Munro finally becomes the booze soaked Great Divoni performing in a New York dive seemingly nestled in a Mexican-American ghetto. Minus the happyish ending it would not have been too great a stretch to imagine booze driving the Great Divoni even further over the top than it takes him in his final performance.
Perhaps even into geekdom.
This is what happens when you take the suit off Warren William. In The Match King his Paul Kroll started low but rose fast. Chandra of The Mind Reader never makes a rise of that magnitude.
As Dr. Munro he does manage to rent his own offices, but even as Munro this Warren William character only drives himself. He has no employees to use as his pawns as he does in Skyscraper Souls, Employees’ Entrance or even, eventually, in The Match King.
Allen Jenkins’ Frank and Clarence Muse’s Sam are closer to equals than subordinates. They might call him boss, but their loyalty only carries as far as the next job. What William’s Chandra/Munro/Divoni/etc. runs is really a sole proprietorship with freelance employees, stress on the free.
The schemer Warren plays in The Mind Reader is closer to what his character became in The Mouthpiece and what he was much more so of in The Dark Horse. Self-absorbed and self-motivated. With no true underlings to use towards advancing his fortune Warren unleashes his wrath on the public at large in The Mind Reader. For his Chandra that public is suckers and yaps.
“Ahaaa, acute hemorrhoidal laparotomy!” diagnoses Warren as Le Blanc, proprietor of a very public painless dentistry act that we see him operate before he discovers the mind reading racket.
This opening scene shows how absolutely shameless he is as he rips a tooth from the head of a volunteer, cuing an Allen Jenkins’ led brass band to drown out the screams of his patient who is eventually rendered unconscious by the pain. “Did I or did I not cause you any pain my friend?” Warren asks. His patient is out cold, so Warren leans in and makes up the answer: “The gentleman says he never even felt it.”
Warren carries this character of many aliases–and we never do find out his real name–like no other could.
William Powell could have done it for more laughs perhaps, but even pre-Thin Man you wouldn’t get the sense of danger and desperation from Powell that you do from Warren William. That’s one thing Warren had over any similar leading men of the early 1930’s. You could never be sure if he was going to turn out to be a good man or just the best man when he was starred in a film.
Sometimes his only redeeming value is his drive, accentuated as a positive all the more for the Great Depression audiences he won over in films like The Mouthpiece, The Match King and, especially, Skyscraper Souls.
But never is a Warren William pre-code mover and shaker more tamed by a woman than he is in The Mind Reader where he at least makes a serious attempt to give up his larceny for Sylvia.
If not for Sylvia he’d be just as irredeemable as he is in Bedside, where again love of a woman is the only thing making him someone we can relate to as a human being though it may be just barely so in that case. The difference is that in Bedside Warren’s Bob Brown wouldn’t try to reform until a life and death situation forced him to do so. In The Mind Reader he does try, for no other reason than to please Sylvia. She makes him human.
Being human the elements keep him from staying good for too very long and so Dr. Munro is born. But now, even though he’s as much of a rascal as he’s ever been, just as bad as when he was pulling teeth, we’ve seen him disgraced by hard knocks and respect him more for having tried to reform himself solely for the sake of the woman he loves.
“I’m on the straight and narrow. You know. The wife.”
We might be fascinated by William’s character before he’s pounding the pavement selling brushes, but that very honest chance meeting with the Allen Jenkins character is why, despite everything, we walk away liking him.
The Mind Reader (1933) is one of five films recently released on Made to Order DVD in the Warner Archives’ Forbidden Hollywood Collection, Volume 5. Buy it HERE.
Content accessed from inside the following issues of Film Daily and The Hollywood Reporter via the Media History Digital Library.
- Film Daily. Vol. 60: Jul-Dec 1932: Aug 4; Aug 8; Aug 19; Sep 17; Sep 24; Oct 12; Oct 26; Oct 29; Nov 10; Nov 21.
- The Hollywood Reporter. Vol. 12-15: Jan-Jun 1933: Jan 17.