Tyrone Power (1947) and Bradley Cooper (2021) as Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, opportunistic drifter-turned-carny
Rural Kentucky, Summer into fall 1939
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: October 9, 1947
Director: Edmund Goulding
Costume Designer: Bonnie Cashin
Film: Nightmare Alley
Release Date: December 17, 2021
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Costume Designer: Luis Sequeira
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
Almost immediately after William Lindsay Gresham published his 1946 novel Nightmare Alley chronicling the grifters, geeks, and gals populating a second-rate sideshow, Tyrone Power asked 20th Century Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck to purchase the film rights.
Power had built his swashbuckling screen image in movies like The Mask of Zorro (1940), Blood and Sand (1941), and The Black Swan (1942), but—as so many had—returned from his World War II service as a changed man. The decorated Lieutenant Power was released from Marine Corps active duty in January 1946 and, after flying dangerous transport missions during the war, sought roles that would expand his image beyond the romantic hero he had established.
Director Edmund Goulding helmed the production that brought Gresham’s creepy carnival world to life via a working carnival constructed on ten acres of the Fox back lot, even employing actual carnies and more than 100 sideshow attractions to add verisimilitude. The talented cast also included Joan Blondell, appropriately appearing about fifteen years beyond her Warner Brothers heyday as she deliciously dives into the role of the washed-up tarot reader “Mademoiselle Zeena” whom the unscrupulous Stanton Carlisle manipulates into revealing the trick to her successful mentalist act. The married Zeena allows herself to fall for Carlisle’s romantic advances despite being married to her alcoholic stage partner Pete (Ian Keith) and Carlisle’s own obvious interest in the ingenue Molly (Coleen Gray).
Nightmare Alley premiered 75 years ago today on October 9, 1947, with Power’s performance lauded by critics like James Agee, who noted for Time that he “steps into a new class as an actor,” playing against type as Carlisle.
The Nightmare Alley story was recently revived for Guillermo del Toro’s re-adaptation of the novel, reinstating some of the darker components to blend Gothic horror with the noir-ish elements that were also present in Goulding’s film. Released in December 2021, del Toro’s Oscar-nominated Nightmare Alley featured a star-studded cast led by Bradley Cooper as Carlisle, Toni Collette as Zeena, Rooney Mara as Molly, David Strathairn as Pete, and Cate Blanchett as Dr. Lilith Ritter, the mysterious femme fatale who Carlisle meets after escaping the carnival world and re-establishing himself as the debonair mentalist “The Great Stanton”. Continue reading