All-Day Double Feature on Thurs July 21 at Film Forum [Program & Tix]
EMPLOYEES ENTRANCE 2:25, 5:20, 8:15
THE MIND READER 1:00, 3:55, 6:50, 9:45
As Pre-Code continues at Film Forum, make sure you catch Brynn White’s feature for Alt Screen. Brynn praises Warner Bros as the leanest, meanest, Pre-Code-iest picturehouse there was, and today’s double feature embodies that irreverent, raucous ethos.
Both films are directed by the great unsung Roy Del Ruth, and star Warren William, who Film Forum is showcasing every Thursday of the series.
The Mind Reader is shot at cantilevered angles, a playful assertion from director Roy Del Ruth that this is a literally crooked world. Del Ruth plays with the dual nature of William’s affectations, a man that sings songs of Experience and songs of Bologna. William travels the country from Pine Bluff, Arkansas to Kokomo, Indiana to Danville, Kentucky posing as a bogus dentist, hair relaxer salesman, and carnival barker. Dependent sidekick Allen Jenkins laments their penny-pinching, “No customers? Must be a Depression or something,” but notices folks flocking to a fortuneteller attraction.
The boys learn that 125 million American smackers a year go towards the crystal ball gazers; all William has to do is throw a bath towel around his head and “tell those chumps what they want to hear! The whole world’s full of hopeless suckers and they’ll believe you, and pay too. Pay Big!” Preying on people’s need for hope and direction proves lucrative for the newly crowned Chandra (named after a box of cookies) until William meets “young, fine, and on the level” Constance Cummings; Jenkins makes the film’s sole accurate prediction, “those village belles are dynamite… Hello, Jail!” Appalled that she’s been answering lonelyhearts letters for a decidedly non-clairvoyant William, and after the elevator shaft suicide of one of his trusting followers (glimpse the volatility of Humphrey Bogart’s ex-wife Mayo Methot, whom he nicknamed “Sluggy”), Cummings forces William to go on the level in the epicenter of dishonest living: New York City.
Jenkins, now comfortably chauffeuring Wall Streeters to their afternoon liaisons (afterall, the stock exchange closes at 3:00), is appalled to find William wandering door-to-door pawning brushes. “A guy with your con?! Your larceny?” He echoes the philosophy advocated by many Warners films: “The world owes us a living.” If the con is is the only knack they’ve got, use it. When they hire a newspaperman to help them get William back in the racket he reminds them “I’m taking a big risk.” ‘You’re getting paid for it, aren’t ya?” Jenkins disgustedly barks. Do your gig, take the dough. Integrity lies in those that go all or nothing, regardless of ethics. Even when decidedly in the money the boys never live extravagantly, all they want is some spare cash to bet on the horses and pay for the next train ticket. Amidst the ballyhoo of The Mind Reader lies some poignant commentary on the politics of survival, friendship, and instinct. A man of many aliases (Dr. Munro, The Great Gaboni), William’s ultimately nameless character is even referred to as “Chan” by his wife. He confesses, in a rare moment of honesty that he doesn’t even recognize, he wouldn’t ever know how to stay in the same place for over a week. But just as the film inches towards conscientiousness, with William off to join their convicted pal Lotus the Fire Eater up the river, it ends on a lackadaisical lulu, care of Jenkins: “Sure is tough to go away just when beer’s coming back!
For the rundown on Warren William, look no further than Imogen Sara Smith’s essay at The Chiseler:
He was a wolf among sheep; a tall, arrogant embodiment of skyscraping ego and the carnivorous instincts of Capitalism. He was Warren William, who looked like a handsome stock-company Mephistopheles; a 19th-century melodrama villain done over in deco; a leaner, meaner John Barrymore. His eyebrows slanted up, his eyes narrowed into scheming slits, his shark’s grin was finished off with a dainty pencil mustache. He spoke in the rich, orotund baritone of politicians, matinee idols and confidence tricksters, drawing out such phrases as “my vast holdings in Chicago” like rabbits from a silk top hat.
[…]At the pinnacle of William’s career and the nadir of his on-screen ethics lies a matched pair of films, Warner Brothers’ Employees’ Entrance and MGM’s Skyscraper Souls, which turn a department store and a high-rise tower into crosses between the Grand Hotel and one of hell’s lower circles. In the former he’s Kurt Anderson, a callous, misogynistic, slave-driving department store manager who lays out his philosophy baldly: “There’s no room for sympathy or softness – my code is smash or be smashed!” He fires a long time employee, driving the man to suicide; far from expressing even insincere remorse, he explains that “a man who has outlived his usefulness ought to jump out a window.” What makes the movie interesting is its suggestion that if it takes a merciless bastard like this to save a business and the jobs it provides, then what are a few wrecked lives? Better to work for the devil than be unemployed.
Audiences might root for Warren William or succumb to his mixture of bombast, shameless fraud and sly humor, but that puts them in a league with the suckers he tramples on. “Beginning to like me, eh?” he asks his protégé in Employees’ Entrance. “I despise you for that.” While William’s characters construct lies with all the flourishes and luster of rococo sculpture, they wield the truth like a baseball bat to the skulls of their defenseless victims. Sometimes he dies for his want to tact: a cast-off mistress shoots him after he bluntly tells her that “a man needs youth,” and brushes her off with, “Sorry, old girl.” (She then throws herself off a penthouse terrace, though surely no jury would convict her.)
The wolfish Warren William could even overpower Bette Davis, here in Satan Met a Lady.
Films like Employees’ Entrance rely on an almost bottomless pessimism, but they also reflect a desperation unique to the worst years of the Depression. The cut-throat atmosphere in the streamline-moderne offices from which William wields power is not so different from that in a flop-house where bums fight over bowls of soup and steal each other’s shoes. Demonstrating that Big Business is really just another branch of gangland, he brings the slippery lies of the con man and the raw aggression of the hoodlum into the boardrooms of high finance. What makes this film interesting is the suggestion that if it takes a bastard like Kurt Anderson to save a business and the jobs it provides (the store’s owners and shareholders are self-serving incompetents) then what are a few wrecked lives? Better to work for the devil than be unemployed.
Employees Entrance mixes elements of Grand Hotel, Twelve O’Clock High and Executive Suite, but does it without any wasted time for psychological delvings. It’s all done in rapid-fire development, like a slick magazine short story, all surface dramatics, but such intelligent dramatics and with sufficiently off-beat motivations and characterisations, that the lack of real depth is neither bothersome nor even very apparent. Warren Wiliam, a real Warner workhorse who switched from dramas like this to a Gold Diggers and thence to Perry Mason, is as powerful a performer as always, a second-string Barrymore perhaps, but an excellent actor nonetheless. (What a pleasure to watch mature actors at work again, as opposed to today’s overaged juveniles (and under-aged juveniles, too) aimed solely at the teen-age market. Troy Donahue et al just wouldn’t have stood a chance in the 30’s against Messrs. William, Warner Baxter, Edward G. Robinson etc. Never a great admirer of Loretta Young, I was here quite won over by her charm — and perhaps largely by the fact that she has never looked lovelier, Employees’ Entrance is a curiously parallel film to the same year’s 42nd Street, and if it never manages to be quite as important, it’s probably only because department stores haven’t quite the drama or the excitement of a Broadway revue by Busby Berkeley!
This 1933 film focuses on life in a huge department store from the vantage point of the employees, whose lives are made miserable by a heartless, amoral manager (Warren William). As an attack on ruthless capitalism, it goes a lot further than more recent efforts such as Wall Street, and it’s amazing how much plot and character are gracefully shoehorned into 75 minutes. Adapted by Robert Presnell from a play by David Boehm, and directed by the reliable Roy Del Ruth.
Jaime N. Christley for Slant:
The Mind Reader is a more modest, down-to-earth tale from the Americana vein that ran between D.W. Griffith and Preston Sturges. William’s another dapper rapscallion, this time out of the wryly affectionate, Damon Runyon catalogue. Del Ruth once again profitably demonstrates his savvy handling of whip-cracking, roughhousing dialogue, and no other director could have kept the picture balanced on the scales as William switches from mid-Atlantic-accented blueblood to Bowery-bred, hard-boiled swindler and back again. It was often merely a question of what angle to shoot him from; the right framing could spell the difference between broad-shouldered Julius Caesar—whom he played for DeMille—and an oily, three-in-the-morning blackjack loser. The Mind Reader’s episodic structure allows the 69-minute, inverse-Capra-esque yarn to feel as if it’s stretching its legs: Even a bumpy train ride takes a moment for a pastoral interlude.
Brian Cady for TCM:
Cult actor Warren William, the man you called in the early 1930’s for deliciously sleazy and cynical characters, has a field day in one of his greatest roles as The Mind Reader (1933). Here he’s a carnival barker with a gift for suckering gullible audiences who launches his greatest scam: crystal-ball reading. His act separates many a credulous rich woman from her husband’s hard-earned Depression-era dollars.
Now, when you want to write the story of a professional con artist, who better than someone who is not only a great con artist himself but one of the 20th Century’s greatest wits as well? Famed raconteur Wilson Mizner co-authored The Mind Reader during his short stay in Hollywood while on the lam from an elaborate hoax he perpetrated in Florida a few years before.
Wilson was one of Broadway’s leading lights during the Teens and Twenties, rising to scandalous celebrityhood after the 29-year old married an 80-year old heiress. From there he dove headlong into managing boxing matches (which he fixed) and the Rand Hotel. What made Wilson even more memorable, however, was his well-known wit. At his hotel, patrons were greeted by the sign “Guests must carry out their own dead.” When one of his boxers met a violent end, Mizner merely said, “Tell ’em to start counting ten over him, and he’ll get up.”
Wilson set up shop at Warner Brothers, usually sleeping on a couch in the writers’s quarters and being awoken whenever his writing partners needed a tasty quip with a hard, cynical edge. Wilson must have been wide awake for most of the writing of The Mind Reader as it is full of such lines, mostly spoken by Warren William’s partner-in-crime Allen Jenkins. When William hooks up with a girl that may be underage, Jenkins reminds him, “You ever heard of a guy named Mann? He’s got an Act and it ain’t in vaudeville!” Jenkins’ closing line is a corker as well but you will have to watch the movie for that one.
Director Roy Del Ruth was obviously as wired as Wilson, taking the then unusual option of filming all the con artist scenes on strongly canted angles. In this movie, nothing is on the level, literally! Unfortunately, critics at the time saw little extraordinary in The Mind Reader, limiting their praise to Warren William’s on-target performance. Mizner died of a heart attack before the film was released, following his brother who had died shortly before. Even in the months before his death, Mizner’s cruel wit never deserted him. When his brother Addison telegrammed to say he was gravely ill, Wilson sent one back from Hollywood stating, “STOP DYING. AM TRYING TO WRITE COMEDY.”