Nightmare Alley (1947) Directed by Edmund Goulding. Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Grey, Helen Walker (110 min).
Tyrone Power, his handsome hunk days behind him, plays a conniving drifter who covets a job as a carnival mentalist, wooing earthy Joan Blondell for the secrets of her racket. His scurrilous ambitions lie beyond the circus tent, and he purveys his mind reading deceptions into a fortune, after linking up with an unscrupulous Park Avenue psychologist. Helen Walker’s icy vixen, Dr. Lilith Ritter, exploits her wealthy, troubled clientele, while redefining femme fatale, in this lurid tale. Power is brilliant as the seedy hero. “Spectacularly sordid” Dave Kehr, New York Times.
Director Edmund Goulding and matinee idol Tyrone Power collaborated successfully on the film version of the best selling novel The Razor’s Edge in 1946. Somerset Maugham’s soul-searching book struck a chord with weary post-war audiences. This was Power’s first film after returning from his Marine service, and it was nominated for Oscar’s Best Picture of 1947. For both Goulding and Power, Nightmare Alley would be a thematic departure in their careers. William Lindsay Gresham’s trashy—and best selling—novel had plenty of raunch, unfilmable under the Production Code, where you could not use words like “bitch” “screw” or “douche” or mention that one character had been sexually abused by her father, and another died of a back alley abortion. Studio head Darryl Zanuck was persuaded to keep the proven team of Goulding and Power together, even though neither of them had never made a movie quite like this one.
Power read Gresham’s book, which had been well reviewed for its hard-boiled prose style, and wanted to star in the screen version. Zanuck was appalled that his golden boy wanted to play in such a downbeat film, with only Joan Blondell for any box office sparkle. Director Henry King, who had championed Power from the beginning of his screen career, was summoned to try and talk some sense into him. King said there were plenty of other serious dramatic roles he could play on the lot, and Power challenged him, “Name one.” King could not think of any (Guiles 221).
Power personally asked bon vivant director Edmund Goulding to direct, so the project would not become too grim. Goulding had been working in Hollywood since the silent era, as screenwriter, director, composer and designer. A butcher’s son from London, like many British citizens of his era, he was limited by his working class background and his Cockney accent, and found the US much more hospitable to his theatrical ambitions. He developed a reputation as a “woman’s director” which was coded language for his bisexuality. Goulding’s appetites for drink, drugs and sex in all its polymorphous permutations had already caused trouble at MGM (where he had a big hit with the first hit musical, The Broadway Melody, and the multi-starring Grand Hotel with Great Garbo and Joan Crawford) and Warner Brothers (where he crafted several smashes for Bette Davis, including Dark Victory) and he was now working his box office magic at 20th Century Fox, while the studio publicity department worked busily covering up his personal excesses in the press.
Tyrone Power was one of the most popular movie stars of the 30s and 40s, Fox’s #1 leading man. He came from a distinguished theatrical family, and his father, Tyrone Power, Sr. was a famous stage actor. His son, the third Tyrone Edmund Power, was born in Cincinnati in 1913. His parents began preparing him for a theatrical career in his childhood he made his stage debut at 9. At Purcell High School in Cincinnati, the yearbook stated he would be a successor to John Barrymore. Power, Sr. deserted his young family (Tyrone had a younger sister) and they were raised by his mother. But, father and son reunited when Tyrone was a teen, and both went to Hollywood when Power, Sr. was cast in the title role The Miracle Man in 1931. Tyrone Power, Sr. died of a heart attack on the set of that film in Tyrone Jr’s arms, and afterwards, his son made the rounds of the theaters and studios looking for work. His good looks and family name got him little parts on both stage and screen, until he was wooed to sign a contract with 20th Century Fox in 1936. Studio chief Darryl Zanuck had scoffed at his screen test, his thick eyebrows and low hair line. “He looks like a frightened monkey” Zanuck decided, but his wife, Virginia, thought differently (Belafonte 12). Power’s eyebrows and hairline were reshaped, and he suddenly, he was gorgeous on screen. He was dashing in Lloyds of London, and suddenly, a big star at 22, with 1000 fan letters a day. He wore period clothes with ease, and the studio cast him in a series of popular costume dramas and romances, including In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band and The Mark of Zorro. Darryl Zanuck wanted him single, better to fan the flames of his female admirers, but he married the French actress Annabella, whom he met while filming Suez.
It’s hard to choose one scrapbook publicity photo of Power, they are all so beautiful.
Power enlisted in the Marines in 1942, seeing action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He signed a new contract with Fox after the War, but never regained his former popularity. His first post war film, The Razor’s Edge, was not well reviewed, but extremely popular. The studio considered the swashbuckling Inquisition-set Captain from Castile a sure thing, a hearkening back to his pre-War successes. Made before Nightmare Alley, it was released afterwards in the hopes of reviving his flagging popularity. Finally free of the studio he called Penitentiary Fox, later in his career he got superb notices for a staged reading of John Brown’s Body, directed by Charles Laughton and co-starring with him, Judith Anderson and Raymond Massey, in which he toured for a year. Power’s last film was Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution, with Laughton. Like his father, he died of a heart attack on a movie set, after a strenuous dueling scene with George Sanders in Solomon and Sheba. He was only 44 years old. He didn’t like many of his films, he wanted to be a better actor than perhaps he was, often returning to the stage as an antidote to many of the formulaic parts he played on screen. When his Fox contract expired, he said ruefully, “I’ve done an awful lot of stuff that’s a monument to public patience” (Shipman 453).
Here is a publicity photo in his uniform.
Coleen Grey always said she was “luckier than anyone I know” (Hannsberry 193) Born Doris Jensen in Nebraska, she made her show business debut singing on the radio when she was 4 years old. She was ridiculed when her middle school teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up and she did not answer teacher, nurse or housewife, the only acceptable answers. Doris wanted to be an actress. She moved to LA and got a job at the YWCA. She auditioned at a theater for a role in a play she’d done in college, and got the part. Signed by Fox in 1944, she changed her name, taking one “l” out of Coleen to be different, and adding Grey because it was marquee short. She had bits in State Fair and Red River, her first important role was in Kiss of Death, which we’ll be showing later on in the season. In Nightmare Alley, she got to act with Tyrone Power, an actor she’d had a crush on since she was a teen. “That was sheer heaven. He was the most handsome man, I think, that had ever been in motion pictures…he was a joy to work with, and, of course being in his arms and being kissed by him was just unbelievable” (ibid 196). Towards the end of her career she made new fans after starring in the campy horror film, The Leech Woman.
Power and Grey
Grey enjoyed her experience on the set of Nightmare Alley, although, “Mr. Goulding spent most of his conversational time with Mr. Power or Miss Blondell or Miss Walker. I was, more or less, a scared little bunny” (Kennedy 248). She appreciated that Goulding did not film romantic scenes before 11:00 am, “as no one wants to make love so soon after breakfast” and that the director was helpful to a relative newcomer. “There was one long, very critical scene where Ty’s character persuades me to go along with his deception, and I say, “You’re going against God!” He was after me like a spider with a fly, encircling me around a trunk. It was beautifully staged. I was naturally distraught and Mr. Goulding cried, ‘Cut!’ He took me to a corner and said, ‘I want you to think of cabbages.’ But, I just couldn’t think of cabbages at such a dramatic time. So again he said, ‘you will think of cabbages.’ Finally, I thought of cabbages and he said ‘Beautiful.’ This had been his way of telling me I was doing too much in the scene and correcting it.”
Helen Walker was born in Worcester Mass “on the very far side of the railroad tracks” (ibid 546). She fell in love with acting in high school, and did stock and Broadway shows before being spotted on stage by a Paramount talent scout. Her debut was in Lucky Jordan with Alan Ladd in 1942. She worked regularly, but developed a fondness for alcohol and partying that did not help her career. In 1946, she picked up some hitchhiking GIs, and while driving 90 miles an hour flipped her car and killed one of her passengers, while fracturing her pelvis and collarbone. She was eventually absolved of guilt (the Hollywood studios could cover up anything) and in spite of good parts and good reviews in films like Call Northside 777, Impact and The Big Combo, her career dissolved and she died at 47, a has-been.
Joan Rosebud Blondell was born in a New York City hotel room, while her father played a vaudeville matinee. Her cradle was a trunk, her nursery a dressing room, and her baby sitters fellow performers. Her father had a successful comedy act he played all over the world, co-starring his family, including Baby Rosebud who debuted as a toddler. The family fortunes declined with vaudeville, and there were some desperate times. She left the family act for a small part in a Broadway play, Maggie the Magnificent, where she co-starred with another brash newcomer, James Cagney. It only lasted 32 performances, but it was her ticket to a long Hollywood career. Blondell worked like a dog at Warner Brothers, along with everyone else there. Between 1931-1933, she made 27 movies, as many as Garbo did in her entire career. By the late 1940s, she was redefining herself as a character actress, and had just received great praise for her part as Aunt Cissy in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. She was basking in its success, as well has her recent marriage to Mike Todd. She knew Nightmare Alley was special, and thought Power “a darling.” She thought Goulding was an odd choice for director, as he played the women’s parts (in drag) during rehearsal and had an extremely ADD personality. He insisted on drinking a proper tea in the afternoon on set, and then drank rivers of Scotch at night. She called him “that nut” (Kennedy 137). The part was excellent for the persona of her maturing streetwise broad, an image she’d nurtured for years.
The cinematographer was Lee Garmes, who spoke of collaborating with Goulding, “He had no idea of camera, he concentrated on the actors. He had the camera follow the actors all the time. He was the only director I’ve known whose actors never came in and out of the sideline of a frame. They either came in a door or down a flight of stairs or from behind a piece of furniture. He liked their entrances and exits to be photographed. I like that; they didn’t just disappear somewhere out of the frame line as they so often do” (Kennedy) 249.
Over 90 sets were built, including an extensive carnival set that, according to a fanciful studio publicity release, “Joan Crawford pitched rings to win a Kewpie doll. Lana Turner brought her daughter, Cheryl, to see the Fat Lady and Thin Man. Gregory Peck tried out his muscle and rang the bell when he brought the sledgehammer down on the ‘Test Your Strength’ machine. Rex Harrison got the Fire Eater to give him a couple of lessons. Dana Andrews tried his hand at shooting ducks. Goulding and (producer George) Jessel, who ran the carnival midway for six weeks straight, complete with hot dogs and taffy, kept the Nighmare Alley troupe in high spirits throughout the filming” (Kennedy 246). I suggest that you take that for the piffle that it is.
The reviews were mixed, although more positive than negative. Time said, of the team, they “have seldom forgotten that the original novel they were adapting is essentially intelligent trash and they have never forgotten that on the screen pretty exciting things can be made of trash” (Kennedy 251). Although there is somewhat of a studio imposed happy ending, it does not compromise the downbeat nature of the project. Production Code negotiations forbid many incidents in the novel. “As a result of such interference, the entire production has an indefinable off-kilter quality, making it all the more ironically pleasurable to watch. Production Code restrictions submerged blatant images and made Nightmare Alley more, not less, kinky by suggestion” (ibid). But, this film, made under the studio radar when Fox put their energy into promoting Power in Captain From Castile was likely also the most remarkable film of Goulding’s long career, as well as Power’s .It played only one week before Fox pulled it, and the film’s reputation developed only when appreciated by later, less shockable audiences.
A movie star in uniform posed for photo shoots intended to show both that you yourself were a regular guy, and as an inducement to recruit other regular guys into the armed services. This is part of a two page newspaper spread supposedly depicting Power’s induction and training in the Marines.
Tyrone Power begged to play the lead in Nightmare Alley for a simple reason: “Stan Carlisle fascinated me. He was such an unmitigated heel. I’ve played other disreputable fellows…but never one like Carlisle. Here was a chance to create a character different from any I had ever played before. But aside from Carlisle himself, the story had the tough realism and the dramatic impact that many modern novels lack” (Arce 208). Fred Lawrence Guiles speculated that Power was inspired because he identified with Stan, a character with charm to spare, and a streak of self destructiveness. Power struggled with the hypocrisy of being a movie star, a manufactured deity whose access to lazy luxuries scuttled any chance of the greatness on stage that his father’s theatrical dynasty enjoyed. And, although he was married three times to three beautiful women, and had many high profile romances (a particularly tempestuous one with Lana Turner was going on while filming Nightmare Alley) he was also discreetly bisexual. It’s hard to believe that he is only 34 in this film, his war experiences, and his complicated private life seems to have aged him prematurely. He seemed to feel, according to his most perceptive biographer, that being a movie star was just another kind of con game. The honesty of the part, and the character’s comeuppance, was a validation of some of his conflicted feelings about his career.
All photos from Moviediva’s collection of movie star scrapbooks, except for Power and Grey from Films in Review. Sources include: Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry, Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy by Matthew Kennedy, The Secret Life of Tyrone Power by Hector Arce, Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz, “Tyrone Power” by Robert C. Roman in January, 1959 Films in Review, The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years by David Shipman, Films of Tyrone Power by Dennis Balafonte with Alvin H. Marill, Tyrone Power: The Last Idol by Fred Lawrence Guiles, Killer Tomatoes by Ray Hagen and Laura Wagner, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy.