What’s one to do when snake oil-selling and faux-dentistry don’t work out as career paths? Become a future-seer, of course. Chandra the Great (Warren William) travels from town to town pretending to read minds, assisted by his pal Frank (Allen Jenkins), who gives him prompts through a hidden microphone.
In one of the towns, Chandra sees a beautiful face in the crowd: Sylvia (Constance Cummings), whose aunt has come to the mind reader in hopes to find her missing purse. When Chandra and Sylvia meet, he manages to convince her that he genuinely has a “gift” and is using it to help people.
Sylvia offers to work with him as a secretary, and the two fall in love, but as the consequences of his con begin to pile up, can Chandra keep his secret?
Roy Del Ruth directs 1933’s The Mind Reader. The film is based on an unproduced play by Vivian Crosby, adapted for the screen by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner.
If you weren’t already afraid of the dentist, Warren William’s “painless dentist” act here will be certain to spark a new phobia. Horrifying! William’s character is a total swindler, taking up any scheme he can, from awful dentistry to selling “miracle” medicine, in order to make more dough.
Though his character is a scheme-y swindler, William doesn’t come off quite as smarmy here as he does in many of his other roles. Chandra is not an upstanding fella by any means, and he does plenty of unlikable stuff… but he isn’t scamming on young women or assaulting anyone, as many of William’s other characters do. The inclusion of Sylvia, for whom Chandra genuinely seems to care, adds a touch of sympathy to his character. His desperate want for money is somewhat understandable, too, with the film firmly rooted in the Depression era.
He kind of descends into madness by the end of the film, and I actually found myself feeling bad for him at one point — not exactly a common experience for me when watching William’s films! (He’s a great actor, as proven by the fact that he frequently makes me despise his characters rather than feeling a single ounce of care for them.)
It’s a combination of romantic drama and crime drama as the man struggles to keep up his faux “Chandra” persona, while facing heavy consequences of his schemes through the lasting impact that he has on his clients, and falling in love with Sylvia. The film is much darker than I expected it to be when I chose it from WatchTCM, emphasizing the trouble “Chandra” causes for his clients, including one woman who is driven to suicide after taking the advice of the “psychic.”
But with all of that darkness and drama, there are also many moments of snark and wit. TMP favorite character actor Allen Jenkins has another delightful appearance added to his filmography, playing sidekick to Warren William’s con man supreme.
The Mind Reader is an interesting little pre-code tale of the art of scamming down-and-out people for all they’re worth, and the consequences of doing so. Recommended for Warren William lovers, pre-code fiends, or anyone simply looking for a fascinating look behind-the-scenes of a traveling racketeer’s operation.