Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The 1947 Blogathon: "Nightmare Alley"

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Edmund Goulding, Nightmare Alley (1947) tells the story of Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power), an ambitious and amoral carnival barker who engages in every imaginable deceit necessary to get ahead. Fascinated by everything there, particularly a grotesque geek, Stan works with Zeena (Joan Blondell), a phony psychic who performs a mind-reading act with her alcoholic husband Pete (Ian Keith). Sparking a romance with Zeena, Stan tries to convince her to develop a new mind-reading routine with him, using a secret code that once made Pete and her a top vaudeville act. Zeena declines, only to reconsider after Pete is killed when he drinks a quart of wood alcohol accidentally given to him by Stan.

Meanwhile, the carnies discover that Stan has been secretly involved with Molly (Coleen Gray), a naïve young girl who specializes in a sideshow attraction in which she appears to be infused with thousands of bolts of electricity. After Bruno the Strongman (Mike Mazurki) forces Stan into marrying Molly, he decides to leave the carnival and launch his own mind-reading act with his new-found wife. With the assistance of scheming psychologist Dr. Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), who provides him with confidential details about her patients, Stan convinces skeptical millionaire Ezra Grindle (Taylor Holmes) that he can communicate with his long-dead sweetheart. However, his plan falls apart when Molly, whom Stan persuaded to pose as the ghost of the deceased woman, breaks down during the act and admits the whole thing is a scam. Parting ways with Molly after his fakery is exposed, Stan sinks into alcoholism and the only job he can get is playing the geek at another carnival. Unable to stand his life any longer, Stan goes mad, but his hope is restored when Molly, who happens to be working in the same carnival, vows to nurse him back to health.

Stan Carlisle: I was made for it. I had all kinds of jobs before this one came along, but none of them were anything but jobs. But this gets me. I like it! All of it. The crowds, the noise, the idea of keeping on the move... You see those yokels out there it gives you sort of a superior feeling, as if you were in the know and they were on the outside looking in. 

When a 32-year-old Tyrone Power returned to Hollywood after serving as a transport pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II, he desperately wanted a change from the romantic and swashbuckling roles that had made him 20th Century Fox's biggest matinee idol. Since he was no longer a newcomer to the motion picture industry, he felt that it was someone else's turn to play the sex symbol and his turn to be an actor. Once Edmund Goulding's The Razor's Edge (1946) proved that he could still have box-office success while playing roles that gave depth and range to his glamorous and more lighthearted image, Power sought hard after a film he felt would present him to the public in a completely different way.  

In late 1946, Power persuaded Darryl F. Zanuck, head of production at Fox, to purchase the rights to William Lindsay Gersham's sordid best-selling novel Nightmare Alley. The book was born in the winter of 1938 in Spain, where the author served as a volunteer medic for the Loyalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. While Gersham was awaiting repatriation, he met a former carnival worker named Joseph Daniel Halliday, who told him about his work as a sideshow employee and mentioned an attraction called a geek, a drunkard who would bite off the heads of chickens and snakes in exchange for a daily bottle of liquor. As a man who walked down an "alley of nightmares" his entire life, Gersham found in the book a way to get rid of a story that horrified him, as well as an unconventional method to banish his own inner demons.

Power's make-up test for Nightmare Alley
Power wanted Nightmare Alley to be adapted especially to star him in the unsympathetic role of Stan Carlisle, a ruthless carnival worker who climbs "a ladder made of ladies" to get what he wants. Zanuck, however, was reluctant to risk him in such a part, as he worried that the amoral nature of the character would alienate his fans and destroy his handsome appearance and charming manner, which had been major assets for the studio. Zanuck eventually agreed to make the film, but not before giving Power A-list production values, for what would normally be considered a B-film, perhaps to guarantee that his heartthrob screen persona would stay somewhat intact.

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.
(Tyrone Power)

The first step towards turning an otherwise B-film into an A-picture was the hiring of veteran screenwriter Jules Furthman, who had been partly responsible for the film noir classics To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946), to pen the script for Nightmare Alley. Although Power fought hard to maintain the integrity of the novel, Zanuck insisted that Stan be given some good traits so that the public could relate to him. He also instructed Furthman to create a new ending for the film, believing the original version would be too cynical for audiences to take. As a result, instead of having Stan end up alone and destined to work as a carnival geek for the rest of his life (as Gersham had originally written), Furthman concluded his screenplay on a redemptive note, with Molly holding Stan in her arms, reassuring him of her love and his future. 

Tyrone Power and Joan Blondell
At Power's request, Fox hired Edmund Goulding to direct Nightmare Alley. Since The Razor's Edge had been a success, earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, the studio was easily persuaded to keep the team intact. The veteran director of "woman's pictures" such as Grand Hotel (1932) and Dark Victory (1939) had never worked on anything resembling Nightmare Alley, but Zanuck trusted that this "astute Englishman with a taste for elegant romanticism" could prevent the film from becoming "a throughouly fetid entreprise." 
To play the world-weary Zeena, Zanuck initially considered Celeste Holm, but ultimately assigned the role to Joan Blondell. One of Warner Bros.' biggests stars during the 1930s, the 38-year-old Blondell was now redefining herself as a character actress, having recently received great praise for her performance as the free-spirited Aunt Sissy in Elia Kazan's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945). While she thought the story of Nightmare Alley was "morbidly fascinating" and found Power a pleasure to work with, she considered the bon-vivant Goulding a strange choice for director. With his playing of woman's scenes during rehearsals, short attention span and affection for afternoon tea and evening scotch, Blondell referred to Goulding as "that nut." 

Coleen Gray and Tyrone Power
Although June Allyson was Zanuck's original choice for the ingenue Molly, the role eventually went to the 25-year-old Coleen Gray, a part she had to "threaten and bully" Fox executives into getting. A newcomer to the film industry, Gray had just scored her first billed role in Henry Hathaway's noir classic Kiss of Death (1947), after making her screen debut in a bit part in Walter Lang's musical State Fair (1945). Gray viewed her role in Nightmare Alley as one she was "born to play", especially since it gave her the opportunity to co-star opposite the handsome Tyrone Power, on whom she admitted having a crush since her high school years.

That was sheer heaven. He was the most handsome man, I think, that had ever been in motion pictures. He had this charisma of nobility. I had the feeling that when he walked, he was an inch or two off the floor. I held him in utmost respect. He was a joy to work with and, of course, being in his arms and being kissed by him was just unbelievable.
(Coleen Gray)

For the role of the unscrupulous society psychoanalyst Dr. Lilith Ritter, a character Gersham created while undergoing psychotherapy, Zanuck considered casting Marlene Dietrich, Luise Rainer or Constance Bennett, before ultimately deciding on the much younger Helen Walker. Nightmare Alley was also a big departure for the 27-year-old actress, who had earned a solid reputation as a commediene since making her film debut in Frank Tuttle's Lucky Jordan (1942), but she found Lilith to be just the kind of "grown-up" role that she had longed for earlier in her career. On New Year's Eve 1946, five months before Nightmare Alley began production, Walker was involved in a car crash while driving from Palm Springs to Los Angeles, after having picked up a soldier and two other hitchhikers. The car hit a divider and turned over several times, killing the GI and caused serious injuries to Walker and the two other passengers. Although she was absolved of all guilt in the accident, her career never fully recovered from bad press and the stigma of the veteran's death. She appeared in only a few after Nightmare Alley, including Call Northside 777 (1948) and The Big Combo (1955), before her early retirement from acting at the age of 35.

Power, Walker and Goulding on the set
Over 90 elaborate sets, including an extensive and fully functional carnival, were built on the Fox studio lot to give authenticity to the film and create the right contrast between poverty and opulence that is so constant throughout the story of Nightmare Alley. The film's stars found the sets invigorating, as did the prestigious cinematographer Lee Garmes, crucial in making the picture look "properly dark and mysterious." Working with some of the greatest directors in the business since pioneering sharp-contrast lighting in the 1920s, Garmes was the skilled and versatile cameraman behind the rich exoticism of Josef von Sternberg's Morocco (1930), also written by Jules Furthman, and the Technicolor splendour of King Vidor's Duel in the Sun (1946). Like Power and Zanuck, Garmes already knew Edmund Goulding, but had never worked with him before. While he thought the director had an odd personality, he understood and admired Goulding's "utterly spontaneous" and "distinctly theatrical" methods.

[Goulding] had no idea of camera; he concentrated on the actor. 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 a 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.
(Lee Garmes)

Filming Nightmare Alley
Wrapping principal photography on July 31, Nightmare Alley opened at the Mayfair Theatre in New York on October 9, 1947 to general mixed reviews from critics. Thomas M. Pryor of The New York Times, for instance, considered that "despite some fine and intense acting by Mr. Power and others, this film traverses distateful dramatic ground and only rarely does it achieve any substance as entertainment." He added that "Mr. Power has a juicy role and sinks his teeth into it, performing with considerable versatility and persuasiveness. [...] Joan Blondell [...] gives a good, earthy characterization. Helen Walker [...] is cool and poised as the role demands. But Coleen Gray, while appealing as the innocent sideshow girl Stan is forced into marrying, betrays lack of experience and dramatic expression in her one pivotal scene with Mr. Power."

Nightmare Alley did not favor with the larger moviegoing public of the time, who shied away from its scandalous content, just as Zanuck had predicted. Although Power received the best notices of career for this film, Fox pulled it from theatres after two weeks and rushed the release of Henry King's Technicolor costume drama Captain from Castile (1947) to give fans the Tyrone Power they remembered, "in tights and looking good." It was not until Nightmare Alley was re-released a decade later to less impressionable audiences that it began to be appreciated as an extraordinary motion picture, for as odd and wonderful as it is. Although the picture emerged from filmmakers and production values not generally associated with the genre, Nightmare Alley is now considered to be one of the greatest examples of film noir and many agree that it is the most remarkable work of both Goulding and Power's career. Power himself always thought that Nightmare Alley was his best film and I, in my very humble opinion, tend to agree.

This post is my contribution to The 1947 Blogathon hosted by Shadows and Satin and Speakeasy. To view all entries, click the links below.

Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory: Hollywood's Genius Bad Boy by Matthew Kennedy (2004) | Encyclopedia of Film Noir by Geoff Mayer and Brian McDonnell (2007) | Femme Noir: Bad Girls of Film by Karen Burroughs Hannsberry (1998) | Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy (2007) | Nightmare Alley by William Sidney Gersham [introductory notes by Nick Tosches] (2010) | The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger (2009) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times review


  1. Thanks for providing all this background info for Nightmare Alley. This post was a fascinating read.

    I saw this movie for the first time about a year ago. It's a haunting story, isn't it? This is a movie that really sticks with a person long after they've seen it.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read it. :)

  2. People who think there is no such thing as perfection have not seen Tyrone Power's performance in "Nightmare Alley".

  3. Thanks Tyrone Power, for fighting to get this made against all doubts about his ability. He was amazing :) Great post, enjoyed reading it and thanks for joining us in the bloagthon.

  4. Great choice for the blogathon! I recently caught this film and it was mesmerizing. Ty Power did such an incredible job, and it's nice to see you credit him for trying to be an actual actor instead of riding on his looks, which he definitely could have done. All the other actors do wonders too. There were twists I didn't see coming either. I appreciate the ending as well--I'm too much of a romantic, I would have been so sad to see Stan go through all this hell and end up alone. I almost couldn't believe that Molly was actually allowed to be with him, but both characters deserve it.

    1. I know. Ty was such an amazing actor and I just wish the studio had allowed him the chance to show that more often. Thanks for reading. :)

  5. Great review of this noir - now considered one of the best in the genre. And as you point out probably Tyrone Power's best work. Still, I wonder what attracted him so much to this unusual book. It was a bold choice.