You can’t argue that carnival hustlers Chandler (Warren William) and Frank (Allen Jenkins) aren’t dedicated to their profession—they have tried on as many rackets as they have suits, from “painless dentistry” to hawking hair tonic. When their “flagpole sitting” concession proves to be a bust, the two men observe a phony mystic (Robert Greig) doing turn-away business and wonder to themselves why they didn’t come up with a similar idea. (It does rather defy explanation, seeing as the psychic racket surely must rank among lotteries and churches when it comes to swindling the gullible.) Taking his cue from a brand of cookies (Chandra Cookies), Chandler rebrands himself as “The Great Chandra” and starts working the rubes with the help of Frank and Sam (Clarence Muse).
Playing to crowds in Kokomo, Indiana, Chandra makes the acquaintance of Sylvia Roberts (Constance Cummings); it seems that Frank lifted her aunt’s (Clara Blandick) wallet while on the fairgrounds…and smitten with the young girl, Chandra arranges for Auntie to retrieve her lost property. Chandra also takes Sylvia under his wing as his assistant/secretary—and while Frank and Sam are unconvinced this is a good idea, the unscrupulous Chandra has a weak spot in his con man makeup, and it’s spelled S-Y-L-V-I-A. Unfortunately, Sylvia soon stumbles onto just why Chandra is the success that he is—his “psychic vibrations” come courtesy of a wireless system whereupon Frank reads the questions submitted by the audience into a microphone and Chandra hears them in an earpiece.
Chandra is able to b.s. Sylvia into looking past this chicanery (explaining that while he really is psychic, he depends on a little “ballyhoo” to sell the product) and things continue on as normal until a stop in Frankfort, Kentucky. Chandra is able to con a skeptical lawman (Harry Beresford) into believing he’s the real thing by having Frank attempt a jewelry store robbery (the details of which Chandra reveals during his performance). But trouble follows in the form of an engagement ring that Frank swiped during his misadventure; Chandra gives it to Sylvia as a wedding present, and she discovers not long after that every kiss doesn’t necessarily begin with Kay. To add insult to injury, a young woman (Mayo Methot) who solicited advice from Chandra shows up to confront the phony psychic…and later commits suicide jumping down an elevator shaft.
Chandra agrees to walk the straight-and-narrow for Sylvia’s sake…but his job as a brush salesman is hell while there’s a Depression on. Fortunately, a chance reunion with Frank (who now works as a chauffeur to a wealthy couple) inspires Chandra to get back into the fortunetelling bidness as “Dr. Munro.” Munro makes good money revealing the details surrounding unfaithful spouses (Frank gets the skinny from his fellow drivers) until an angry husband (Earle Foxe) turns up at his place of business…and ends up dead during a struggle with Chand for his gun. Chandra gets the hell out of Dodge—but with Sylvia the primary suspect in the man’s murder, he might have to risk it all to help her out of that jam.
Before George Sanders got into the motion picture business, the silver screen’s favorite cad was Warren William—who cornered the market on scoundrels during the 1930s and primarily the pre-Code era, starring in such favorites as Skyscraper Souls (1932) and Employees’ Entrance (1933). William is perfect as the con man in The Mind Reader (1933)—though I do want to stress that while I am a huge fan of the actor (the guy had charm to spare), I can’t help but notice that he had a tendency to be a little bombastic and over the top…something his fellow rogue Sanders was able to avoid (well, George was British and reeked of urbanity, which goes a long way in the rake business). William was a leading man in many of the movies released by Warners’ in the 1930s—he portrayed Erle Stanley Gardner’s sleuthing creation Perry Mason in a few programmers, and would later go on to be “The Lone Wolf” in a popular Columbia Pictures franchise as well.
The Mind Reader clocks in at seventy minutes, and it’s a delightful little flick in that it has a good deal of fun exposing the psychic racket…something you would think the public would be onto by now, but I suppose I don’t need to repeat the famous words of P.T. Barnum. When I call Reader a typical Warren William vehicle I don’t mean to damn it with faint praise: it follows the blueprint of most of his successes in that he starts out as a real rotter but is invariably redeemed (in some cases, not so much) along the way. His salvation in Reader is Constance Cummings, who I have seen in quite a few movies but for some reason always remember as Harold Lloyd’s love interest in his best talkie, Movie Crazy (1932).
Allen Jenkins and TDOY fave Clarence Muse provide fine support as William’s confederates: a memorable scene has Jenkins trying to convince Warren not to drag Constance into the enterprise because he believes it will be eventually revealed she’s underage. “Ever hear of a guy named Mann?” he asks W.W. “He has an act.” “And it ain’t in vaudeville, neither,” Clarence helpfully adds. Reader also features character favorites such as Natalie Moorhead, Robert Barrat, Fred “Snowflake” Toones and Irving Bacon and George Chandler as a pair of skeptical reporters who greet “Chandra” upon his arrival in Frankfort. Roy Del Ruth, generally considered a journeyman as far as directing goes, executes some nice visual touches in both his choice of camera angles and montages—working with a script by Robert Lord and Wilson Mizner (who was no slouch in the long con himself) adapted from Vivian Cosby’s play.
I caught and recorded this little gem a while back during the Friday Night Spotlight on pre-Code flicks hosted on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™; sadly, it didn’t make the cut of those movies that will be shown this December 2 when the channel pays tribute to Warren William on his natal anniversary. But if you’re impatient to wait until it makes the rounds again, it is available as part of the Forbidden Hollywood Collection: Volume 5 put out by the Warner Archive (which also contains Hard to Handle, Miss Pinkerton…and one of my favorite Barbara Stanwyck vehicles, Ladies They Talk About).