Nightmare Alley (1947)

110-112 mins | Drama | October 1947

Director:

Edmund Goulding

Writer:

Jules Furthman

Producer:

George Jessel

Cinematographer:

Lee Garmes

Editor:

Barbara McLean

Production Designers:

Lyle Wheeler, J. Russell Spencer

Production Company:

Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
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HISTORY

According to documents in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Arts--Special Collections Library, the studio purchased rights to William Lindsay Gresham's novel in late Sep 1946 for $50,000. Gresham was also hired as a consultant to screenwriter Jules Furthman, but he is not credited onscreen and the extent of his contribution to the released film has not been determined. An analysis of the various drafts and outlines of the script contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, also at UCLA, discloses that in the original 25 Oct 1946 outline, "Molly" divorces "Stan" and marries "Bruno," "Lilith" weds "Grindle," and Stan is relegated to the geek pit. This ending closely resembles that of Gresham's novel, the difference being that in the novel, Molly has a child by her new husband. A 1 Nov 1946 outline ends with Stan dying.
       In Nov 1946 and Jan 1947 story conferences, studio chief Darryl Zanuck criticized the outlines as "lacking a sympathetic character to root for." Zanuck insisted that Stan's character be given some good traits so that the audience could relate to him. To accomplish this, Zanuck suggested that Stan be deeply affected by Pete's death and also learn to love Molly, remaining faithful to her despite Lilith's attentions. In Gresham's novel, Stan and Lilith are sexually involved. The death of "Dorrie" in the novel was due to an abortion, a point not mentioned in the film. Materials contained in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveal that the PCA made the studio tone down its treatment of "illicit sex and adultery."
       HR Nov 1946 news items reported that Mark Stevens ... More Less

According to documents in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department at the UCLA Arts--Special Collections Library, the studio purchased rights to William Lindsay Gresham's novel in late Sep 1946 for $50,000. Gresham was also hired as a consultant to screenwriter Jules Furthman, but he is not credited onscreen and the extent of his contribution to the released film has not been determined. An analysis of the various drafts and outlines of the script contained in the Twentieth Century-Fox Produced Scripts Collection, also at UCLA, discloses that in the original 25 Oct 1946 outline, "Molly" divorces "Stan" and marries "Bruno," "Lilith" weds "Grindle," and Stan is relegated to the geek pit. This ending closely resembles that of Gresham's novel, the difference being that in the novel, Molly has a child by her new husband. A 1 Nov 1946 outline ends with Stan dying.
       In Nov 1946 and Jan 1947 story conferences, studio chief Darryl Zanuck criticized the outlines as "lacking a sympathetic character to root for." Zanuck insisted that Stan's character be given some good traits so that the audience could relate to him. To accomplish this, Zanuck suggested that Stan be deeply affected by Pete's death and also learn to love Molly, remaining faithful to her despite Lilith's attentions. In Gresham's novel, Stan and Lilith are sexually involved. The death of "Dorrie" in the novel was due to an abortion, a point not mentioned in the film. Materials contained in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library reveal that the PCA made the studio tone down its treatment of "illicit sex and adultery."
       HR Nov 1946 news items reported that Mark Stevens and Anne Baxter were to star in the picture with William Keighley directing. Materials from the Produced Scripts Collection yield the following information about the production: In Jan 1947, Lloyd Bacon was scheduled to direct. Although HR production charts place Paul E. Burns in the cast, his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. In a Feb 1947 handwritten note, Zanuck suggested casting Celeste Holm as "Zeena," June Allyson as "Molly," and Marlene Dietrich, Luise Rainer or Constance Bennett as "Lilith." An Apr 1947 memo adds that Morton Stevens was tested for the part of "Hoadley" at Tyrone Power's request. Although the FD and DV reviews credit Earl Hagen with orchestral arrangements, an Oct 1947 letter in the Scripts Collection notes that although Hagen was given the original credit, the screen credits were revised so that Maurice de Packh would receive sole credit.
       Publicity materials contained in the AMPAS Library add that the carnival set covered ten acres on the studio's backlot. Fox records state that scenes were shot in Del Mar at the San Diego County Fair. To create an air of authenticity, 100 sideshow attactions were hired to perform in the background. Early drafts included two dwarf circus performers named "Major and Mrs. Mosquito" who were to be friends of Molly and Zeena. According to the Produced Scripts records, the studio negotiated with George and Olive Brasno, presumably to play those roles. When the studio deleted the parts and broke off negotiations, the lawyer for the Brasnos sued and was awarded $2,500. Modern sources add Clancy Cooper, George Matthews and Robert Karnes to the cast. More Less

GEOGRAPHIC LOCATIONS
SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Box Office
18 Oct 1947.
---
Daily Variety
9 Oct 1947.
---
Film Daily
9 Oct 47
p. 8.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Nov 46
p. 24.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Nov 46
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
23 May 47
p. 17.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jul 47
p. 19.
Hollywood Reporter
9 Oct 47
p. 3.
Independent Film Journal
21 Jun 47
p. 31.
Motion Picture Daily
9 Oct 1947.
---
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest
11 Oct 47
p. 3873.
New York Times
31 Oct 47
p. 31.
Variety
15 Oct 47
p. 10.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
COSTUMES
Ward dir
Cost des
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec photog eff
MAKEUP
Makeup artist
PRODUCTION MISC
Tech adv
Tech adv
Tech adv
Tech adv
SOURCES
LITERARY
Based on the novel Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham (New York, 1946).
DETAILS
Release Date:
October 1947
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 9 October 1947
Production Date:
19 May--late July 1947
addl scenes early October 1947
Copyright Claimant:
Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Copyright Date:
18 October 1947
Copyright Number:
LP1399
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Recording
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
110-112
Length(in feet):
10,009
Length(in reels):
12
Country:
United States
PCA No:
12396
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Stan Carlisle, an amoral carnival roustabout, exhibits a morbid fascination with the geek, a sideshow drunk who bites off the heads of live chickens in exchange for a daily bottle of liqour. Stan works with Zeena, a phony psychic who performs a mind reading act with her drunken husband Pete. Becoming intrigued when Molly, the naïve young assistant to Bruno the Strongman, tells him that Zeena and Pete were once vaudeville headliners who developed an elaborate word code worth its weight in gold, the handsome, highly manipulative Stan suggests that Zeena teach him the code so that they can work together. Zeena, who blames herself for her husband's dissipation, rejects Stan's proposal until he shrewdly suggests that their new act could fund the cost of Pete's cure. When Zeena consults her tarot cards for direction, however, they portend Pete's death, and alarmed, Zeena balks at making Stan her partner. Later that night, Stan buys a quart of liquor from the local moonshiner and stashes it in Zeena's trunk. When he encounters Pete shaking from alcohol withdrawal, Stan hands him the bottle, even though he knows that Zeena is determined to wean her husband from his addiction. The next morning, Pete is found dead from an overdose of wood alcohol and Stan realizes that he gave him the deadly drink by mistake. Weeks later, Stan has absorbed the code from the lonely Zeena, surpassing the abilities of his teacher. When a marshal comes to close down the carnival and arrest the troupe, Stan uses his charisma to play off the gullible lawman's fears, convincing him to drop the charges. After the marshal departs, an exhilarated Stan embraces Molly. ... +


Stan Carlisle, an amoral carnival roustabout, exhibits a morbid fascination with the geek, a sideshow drunk who bites off the heads of live chickens in exchange for a daily bottle of liqour. Stan works with Zeena, a phony psychic who performs a mind reading act with her drunken husband Pete. Becoming intrigued when Molly, the naïve young assistant to Bruno the Strongman, tells him that Zeena and Pete were once vaudeville headliners who developed an elaborate word code worth its weight in gold, the handsome, highly manipulative Stan suggests that Zeena teach him the code so that they can work together. Zeena, who blames herself for her husband's dissipation, rejects Stan's proposal until he shrewdly suggests that their new act could fund the cost of Pete's cure. When Zeena consults her tarot cards for direction, however, they portend Pete's death, and alarmed, Zeena balks at making Stan her partner. Later that night, Stan buys a quart of liquor from the local moonshiner and stashes it in Zeena's trunk. When he encounters Pete shaking from alcohol withdrawal, Stan hands him the bottle, even though he knows that Zeena is determined to wean her husband from his addiction. The next morning, Pete is found dead from an overdose of wood alcohol and Stan realizes that he gave him the deadly drink by mistake. Weeks later, Stan has absorbed the code from the lonely Zeena, surpassing the abilities of his teacher. When a marshal comes to close down the carnival and arrest the troupe, Stan uses his charisma to play off the gullible lawman's fears, convincing him to drop the charges. After the marshal departs, an exhilarated Stan embraces Molly. When Molly protests that they are betraying Zeena, Stan claims his only interest in Zeena was in acquiring her code and then seduces the trusting girl. The rest of the carnival troupe has gathered at a seedy café, and when Molly and Stan arrive together, Bruno and Zeena realize that she has been seduced by Stan. After Bruno's threats force Stan into marrying Molly, Stan decides to leave the carnival and launch a new act with his wife. Some time later, Stan, now known as "The Great Stanton," is performing to great acclaim at an exclusive Chicago hotel. While attending the show one night, psychologist Lilith Ritter, suspicious of Stan's tactics, tries to outwit him by submitting a trick question about the health of her mother. After Stan replies that her mother is deceased, Lilith, impressed, invites Stan to her office. When their interview is interrupted by the unexpected arrival of Mrs. Peabody, one of Lilith's socialite patients, Stan leaves and Lilith proceeds to secretly record Mrs. Peabody's darkest confidences. Sneaking back into the office, Stan discovers the recording session and suggests using the information to bilk Lilith's wealthy clients. After denouncing Stan's proposal, Lilith throws him out. Later, following a performance, Zeena and Bruno visit Stan and Molly, much to Stan's displeasure. Upon consulting her tarot cards, Zeena foretells disaster if Stan strays from his present course and Stan, who believes in the cards though he pretends not to, angrily orders them to leave. Afterward, Stan is getting a massage when a whiff of alcohol triggers unpleasant memories of Pete's death. Panicking, Stan contacts Lilith and pours out his feelings of guilt to her. Despite Zeena's warning, Stan determines to embark upon what he terms "the spook racket." When Mrs. Peabody comes to the show to ask if she will ever see her daughter again, Stan, drawing on information he heard on Lilith's recording, responds that her daughter is dead and after accurately describing the departed girl, is about to relay a message when he faints. Controversy follows in the wake of Stan's disclosure, and when Mrs. Peabody informs her late husband's closest friend, the prominent Ezra Grindle, that she intends to help Stan bring spiritual comfort to others, the skeptical Grindle sets up a meeting with Stan to expose him. Swayed by Stan's charms and the promise of easy money, Lilith teams with Stan to convince Grindle of Stan's authenticity by feeding Stan the information from her secret recordings. Impressed by Stan's acumen, which he cloaks in religiosity, Grindle gives him $150,000 in cash to build a tabernacle and promises to buy him a radio station if he can establish contact with Dorrie, Grindle's long-lost love. After handing Lilith the cash for safekeeping, Stan studies photographs of Dorrie, then asks Molly to impersonate the dead woman's spirit. Declaring the ruse to be against God's will, Molly threatens to leave Stan who proclaims his enduring love, thus convincing the gullible Molly to pose as Dorrie. One evening, in a secluded area of Grindle's estate, Stan produces a distant illusion of Dorrie. When, entranced, Grindle begs Dorrie's forgiveness, Molly, unable to bear his anguish, approaches the distraught man, thus revealing who she really is, and runs off. Furious, Grindle attacks Stan, and after knocking down the elderly man, Stan speeds away with Molly and drops her off at their hotel with instructions to meet him later at the train station. After Stan informs Lilith about the debacle, she returns the cash-laden envelope and Stan hails a cab for the train station. En route, Stan opens the envelope and finds that Lilith has stuffed it with 150 one dollar bills, thus duping him out of a fortune. After Stan returns to confront Lilith, she cunningly tries to convince him that he is mentally imbalanced and reminds him that she possesses a recording of his confession about his complicity in Pete's death. When Stan hears a police siren approaching in the distance, Lilith insists that he is hallucinating and offers to commit him. Realizing that he has finally met his match, Stan runs away to meet Molly. Upon arriving at the train station, a distraught Stan hands Molly their life savings, exhorts her to find her way back to the carnival, then kisses her as her train pulls away. As headlines trumpet his fall from grace, Stan holes up in a cheap hotel room and begins his descent into alcoholic oblivion. Reduced to telling fortunes to hoboes along the railroad tracks, one day Stan comes across a carnival and asks for a job as a palm reader. Instead, the carnival owner offers him a drink and the job of geek. As recognition slowly dawns on Stan, he smiles and replies he was "made for it." Later that night, word spreads that the newly hired geek has gone berserk. Alarmed, Molly, who uknown to Stan, works at the carnival, goes to investigate and to her horror, finds Stan raving in the carnival yard. Running to Stan, Molly assures him that she will look after him, and in his alcoholic haze, he gratefully embraces her. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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