By: Megan McGurk
Tyrone Power’s beauty invites discussion. Unlike other uncommonly handsome men in Hollywood who seemed uneasy with nature’s gift, Power wore his good looks with the elegance of a bespoke suit. He always had a relaxed fit with women onscreen. Robert Taylor, on the other hand, was profligate with his handsome face, which he treated like a burden he couldn’t wait to outgrow (and he did—just look at him in the late 1950s where he looks like a dissolute husk of his glory days). Somehow it de-sexed Taylor, left him unmoored, made him feel effeminate and open to questions about his masculinity. Taylor had to butch it up at every turn in manly outdoor pursuit. He hid behind his looks in a smirking remove from leading ladies, and rarely sent up his screen image or displayed any degree of humour about his screen idol status, unless you count the brief scene in Her Cardboard Lover (1942), when he slips into Norma Shearer’s silk pyjamas, something he probably only did because Cary Grant had pulled it off in Bringing Up Baby (1938), without accusations of weakened manhood.
For actors such as Taylor, or Errol Flynn, a louche charmer in the 1930s, yet whom Olivia de Havilland failed to recognise two decades later for a dead-eyed vampire he had become, beauty was the province of muliebrity, not a trait for red-blooded he-men. Their beauty caused concern, it jarred the macho template Hollywood stamped on celluloid with stars like brawny Clark Gable or rangy Gary Cooper. Only perhaps Douglas Fairbanks, Jr compares as another male screen idol from the 1930s who wore beauty like an accessory rather than reluctant iron shackles worn to meet their doom. (I’m not including Archie Leach here because he grew more handsome with age. In the 1930s, he was good looking but not on par with Power, Taylor, Fairbanks or Flynn. And Charles Boyer stands in a class by himself).
Before Monty Clift discovered a post-war embodiment of manhood that was strong yet gentle, there was Ty Power. Slender, dark (but not brooding), with a wide, generous grin. His features defined symmetrical, with a nose rounded into a lively Celtic bulb, and strong v-shaped brows from his father that offer dramatic window dressing for deep chocolate eyes. Power bore his looks with such gracious ease because he never appeared in a hurry to grow tough or hard, praise him. He was famously quoted as wishing a car accident would smash his face so it resembled Eddie Constantine and thereby remove a reason to dwell on his visage, but that sort of disdain with his allure fails to translate on the screen like it did for other handsome men. When he played next to beauty queens such as Linda Darnell and Gene Tierney, he didn’t try to overtake or outshine them. Ty only made them look more radiant. Women adored him. Lana Turner called him the love of her life. Loretta Young was so distraught at his death that she rushed from the studio in full costume and makeup to pay her respects, as George Sanders noted in his memoir.
Maybe one of the reasons Ty Power was keen to play Stan Carlisle in Nightmare Alley (1947) stemmed from a reversal of fortune that turns on his good looks. If not for an achingly swoon-worthy appearance, his character’s fall into bottle a day oblivion, with eyes that bulge and sag, not to mention grease-soaked hair that clings about his skull like seaweed on a drowned corpse, and shabby clothes of a man who knows only shades of former luck turned sour, his unravelling wouldn’t feel so tragic. A face full of calamity, viewers lament when Stan descends to the blood-streaked geek pit.
Oftentimes, when a screenplay adapted from a novel departs from the original plot, fans metaphorically queue with a sack of tomatoes to protest its deviation. On rare occasions, pictures improve upon the original plot, as it does for Nightmare Alley. William Lindsay Gresham’s grubby tale of carnival rackets, full of pungent colloquialisms, renders a noir Icarus from card sharp protagonist Stanton Carlisle, a man who soars from sleight-of-hand magic tricks, to mentalist parlour routines, to a full-blown spiritualist, using rigged séances and apparitions while he empties the mourner’s pockets. Gresham’s novel builds Stan into a tragic figure on par with those from Greek mythology, even if he appears less classical in a post-war underbelly. For most of the novel, although brilliant, Stan’s the smartest person in the room, a quick study and adapter, who susses out the angles in any situation, where cards always turn in his favour. He’s a bit too perfect. Jules Furthman’s revisions in the screenplay for 20th Century Fox, directed by Eddie Goulding, rubs Stan’s hero polish down to a dull noir patina, and in the process creates something damn close to a woman’s picture.
Gresham presents the two-person code racket as the invention of Pete (played by Ian Keith), stored in a notebook along with a series of one hundred questions which Stan memorises cold in a few hours. Jules Furthman edits the code’s provenance for the screenplay by framing it as Zeena’s creation, put aside for a nest egg. She devised the secret language system that Stan envies and wants for himself. Not only can viewers rate Zeena, played by the zaftig Joan Blondell, as smarter than Stan, or her husband Pete, who’s now married to the bottle, or any other man in the carnival, she’s the only one who actually predicts the future. The men just treat second sight as a means for conning rural folks out of their cash; otherwise, they lack any foresight beyond the here and now.
Zeena reads dismal ends for both Pete and Stan in her tarot deck, but neither man takes heed, too wrapped up in their own ego aggrandisement to worry about things like epic overreach. Furthman also characterises Stan as a bit slow on the uptake, not as smart as the women in his company, which develops a sympathy in line with the point of view in woman’s pictures. He needs both Zeena and Molly (Coleen Gray) to teach him the code. Women have mastered the secrets easily while he struggles to catch up. If everything seems too easy for Stan, it’s because he’s not thoughtful or reflective enough to see how messy and complicated a scenario becomes once you adopt ‘Great’ as a prefix.
Three women in the picture (Zeena, Molly, Lilith) locate the real focus of Stan’s fortunes, representatives of the triple goddess, not by tradition which marks the life cycle through stages maiden-mother-crone, but instead, in how well versed or experienced each woman seems with the art of intuition. Zeena, a former headliner, possesses a gift for cold reading with tarot cards and astrology. She understands enough about the occult to bend its possibility to meet the needs of an audience hungry for advice, hope, and consolation. She’s very much of the folk healer tradition. She may empty their pockets, but Zeena’s pigeons leave the tent with burdens lightened, restored by a sense that the universe operates on a system of justice and reward. Zeena’s own moral code punches high above other carnival racketeers. She’s not a simple clip joint wolf among the sheep and she’s never compelled by greed. Ultimately, Stan must leave Zeena because he would never match her natural and cultivated gifts, or the easy command she holds over an audience. Joan Blondell desires Power’s character, except she sees his future in the cards and doesn’t kick up a fuss when he jilts her for daisy-fresh Coleen Gray, as Molly. Sage and worldy, Zeena knows Stan brings a hundred miles of bad road.
Stan will never make the big time as Zeena’s frontman, since he can’t really compete with her gifts and rapport with ticket holders, so he takes Molly on a tour of their own. Molly, green as clover, has little ambition. Mentalism rates as a parlour trick to keep them flush from one town and racetrack to another. Molly would rather play the horses or drink champagne than engineer a complicated scam or build a phony tabernacle with Stan installed as head preacher. Molly possesses too much innocent faith in Truth and Beauty for her to embark on a life with a sham holy roller.
For Helen Walker’s character, a psychologist named Lilith Ritter, there’s more than a hint of destroyer-goddess aspect. She has his grifter number pegged less than five minutes into Stan’s floorshow routine. She’s certain Molly and Stan share a code to communicate the items and questions from audience members. Instead of occult power, she summons the dark arts of psychiatric manipulation over a suggestible character, using bureaucracy and laws about the doctor-patient relationship to construct her own ruse. Unlike her namesake who destroyed men physically, this Lilith commands the ability for psychological siege by wielding the power to determine Stan mentally unsound. Her signature could consign him to an asylum, where he would surely wither. Lilith bestows the gift Stan never had before: fear.
Undone, raving, hooch-sodden Stan staggers back to the carnival, a man without name, hope or future. From a brilliantined vision in a tuxedo to pickled gargoyle, Tyrone Power earns every single tear the viewers have to give. Wretched outcast from life’s banquet, he’s as low as a man can go.