Today is the birthday of Tyrone Power (1914-1958). Despite his birth into an acting dynasty with roots all the way into the 18th century, despite having been one of the biggest box office draws of all time, to my mind Power ranks with Robert Taylor as one of the dullest, least distinguished screen presences ever to star in major American pictures. Good looking? Granted. An excellent swordsman? Great, thanks, if I want to watch movies about pirates all the time (I don’t).
However, there is one Tyrone Power film that I especially love, one well worth raving about. That is 1947’s Nightmare Alley. I first heard about this one from people who’d been in Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Ludlam had made it mandatory viewing, it was that much over the top. Indeed it is.
Power was looking for an image change, wanted to be taken more seriously as an actor, so he wanted to do something dark. On the one hand, why would someone ever think people would take him more seriously if he did something this wildly ludicrous? On the other hand, Tod Browning and Orson Welles made many movies rather like this and people took them quite seriously indeed. What’s the difference? I guess it helps if you have the stuff. Power’s acting style is just slightly stiffer than the guy who reads ad copy for local funeral home commercials. And look who produced this picture! Georgie Jessel. Now there was a tasteful man.
In Nightmare Alley, Power plays a sideshow talker who has a thing for Zeena the Fortune Teller (Joan Blondell). His ardor is further enhanced by the fact that she and her broken down husband the circus geek Old Pete (Ian Keith) have a secret code that helps them pass their mentalism secrets. Power wants that code real bad, bad enough to make sure that the old drunk Pete “accidentally” drinks kerosene and goes to that big carnival in the sky.
Now Zeena HAS to share her secrets with Power; she needs a partner for the act. Once Power has the secret, though, he’s not so keen on Zeena any more. He hooks up with a younger, prettier girl, and they go to the city where they start to work in big fancy nightclubs and make serious dough.
But that still isn’t evil enough! Now he begins to work for the big money, convincing the wealthy he can speak to their dead relatives. It finally reaches the point where his partner can take it no more. She rats him out, and he falls, falls…until he hits bottom and becomes a geek in a carnival, just like Old Pete. Is that not the best? It’s the best.
For more on film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo find out about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.