A Timid Stroll Down “Nightmare Alley”


Today a plug for one Tyrone Power movie that I especially love, and 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.

At this stage in his career, 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 he ever come to the conclusion that 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 Zancig style 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 (Coleen Gray), 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, an arc not unlike that of Venus in Freaks. Is that not the best? It’s the best.

Edmund Goulding, who directed, was an old silent film hand who had a flair for melodrama. Previous to this he had directed Power in The Razor’s Edge (1946), and also helmed such pictures as Grand Hotel (1932), Blondie of the Follies (1932), Dark Victory (1939) and Of Human Bondage (1944). The original 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham is, if anything, better than the movie. His others works include Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1954), Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959), The Book of Strength: Body Building the Safe, Correct Way (1961), and the posthumous collection, Grindshow: The Selected Writings of William Lindsay Gresham, edited by Bret Wood (2013). 

For more about traditional variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous


  1. Absolutely AGREE on Power’s dullness onscreen; am a little surprised (no, not a little, a lot) on how his rep has grown over the past few years. And also agree that Nightmare Alley is FABulous. Though, having read the novel (which is even wilder than the film), I think Power miscast himself as the central character, who in the book is younger, slicker, and projects a crude masculine energy that Power just didn’t convey (I can imagine a young Paul Newman in the role). The film really belongs to the three ladies, Coleen Gray, Joan Blondell, and Helen Walker, wonderfully ice cold as that evil shrink. And in the one big scene Ian Keith has, in which he ‘reads’ a fortune in a gin bottle, he has so much presence and focus, he wipes Power off the screen.


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