Apropos for Derby Day (no, the other one, my American friends) I can recommend the early Gainsborough film starring Claude Rains, Fay Wray and Jane Baxter. Rains and Baxter are music hall performers with a mind reader act very familiar to Nightmare Alley fans. It’s a family tradition and they seem happy on the circuit with his mother (Mary Clare) and her partner Simon, until one fateful night when wife Rene gets accidentally locked out of the theatre on her way to the cheap seats in the middle of the act.
The King of the Mind Readers is left high and dry and the audience turns on him until his eyes seem to connect with a dramatic young woman’s eyes. As Baxter’s Christine looks on in rapt absorption a change comes over Maximus and he begins to relate the contents of a letter held up jeeringly by a man in the audience, and advises him to rush to his wife’s side before it’s too late. The audience is thrilled. Christine is thrilled. Maximus is amazed — and his wife and mother disturbed.
‘It killed your father!’ As they field a sudden onslaught of offers including a prized offer to play the Palladium, Maximus finds out that his father had the gift too — and it all went haywire. But who wants to get off a gravy train when it’s rolling? Unfortunately it doesn’t roll far –his act remains just an act — until Christine returns and everyone realises that she’s the ‘battery’ as his mother puts it. Fortunately for him, her father’s the titled publisher of the paper better known these days as The Scum. He makes a prognostication for the Derby: the winner will be Autolycus, a 100-to-1 shot.
The script by Charles Bennett and Bryan Edgar Wallace, based on Ernst Lothar‘s novel, has enough twists to keep it suspenseful, even if the morality is fairly mundane — where does the gift come from (the original title of the novel is more suggestive)? What responsibility does Maximus have? There is an interesting scene I want to go back to and consider.
But a fun film and just over 80 minutes: Rains is never disappointing and Wray and Baxter are almost too nice to each other to really believe any rivalry. So why not throw on your best hat and bet on a long shot today (post time 1630BST/1130EDT). Perhaps Maximus can help you choose.