Tonight: Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell and Coleen Gray in an offbeat film-noir thriller Nightmare Alley.
George Jessel is best remembered as a public speaker, showman, songwriter and the original Jazz Singer on Broadway.
Jessel actually turned down the role in the Warner Bros. film that ushered in the sound era in 1928.
Al Jolson then accepted the part. And why not? Since Samson Raphaelson’s play had been inspired by Jolson in the first place.
And the rest, as they say, is Hollywood history.
But in 1945, George Jessel, “America’s Toastmaster General,” became friends with Darryl F. Zanuck, who made him a producer at 20th-Century-Fox.
Jessel’s first film was the Betty Grable-John Payne-June Haver musical, The Dolly Sisters.
After two more musicals—“Do You Love Me” with Maureen O’Hara, Dick Haymes and Harry James—and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now?,” for which Jessel wrote some of the songs, he was looking for something a little different.
Jessel found it—and how—in a dark, offbeat, tawdry novel titled Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham.
“I rushed to Zanuck and told him to buy it,” Jessel explained.
“When Zanuck got around to reading the book, he said, ‘You so-&-so, you never read this book. It’s full of censorable stuff!’”
“I admitted it, but the censorable stuff was not the picture I wanted to make. I was interested in the story of a carnival barker, who found he could hypnotize a few hicks, decided to become a fake spiritualist, mocked the Deity and got punished for his impudence!”
As unlikely a story as this may have seemed, the actor who most wanted to make the picture was Tyrone Power.
Tyrone Power was one of the most handsome leading men in Hollywood—and the biggest box-office star at Fox.
Having returned from the war and anxious to change his romantic pretty-boy image, he first accepted the role of the disillusioned ex-serviceman in Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.
His marriage to actress Annabella was coming to an end and he was unofficially engaged to Lana Turner.
It was Lana who encouraged him to fight for the role in Nightmare Alley.
She has just won a whole new audience for herself by taking the role as a scheming adultress in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Power pleaded for the part—Zanuck said no. In November of 1946 the studio announced the leads in Nightmare Alley would be Mark Stevens and Anne Baxter.
But Power persisted. And a month later, Zanuck relented and gave him the role.
A director had already been assigned to the picture, but Power requested Edmond Goulding.
Goulding had just directed Power in The Razor’s Edge.
With credits that also included Grand Hotel, Dark Victory and Dawn Patrol, Goulding got the assignment.
To adapt the novel (for which Zanuck had paid $50,000 before reading the book), Jules Furthman was selected.
Good choice. In addition to silent Tom Mix westerns, his credits included Bombshell with Harlow (1933), Mutiny on the Bounty with Gable (1935) and The Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall.
He also wrote three of the Josef Von Sternberg—Marlene Dietrich classics in the 1930s.
Zanuck knew that Nightmare Alley was going to stun many of Tyrone Power’s devoted fans.
Making a film with this kind of daring, corrosive atmosphere, Zanuck felt he needed some way to humanize Powers’ character.
For that, he chose a more sympathetic leading lady in Coleen Gray—a Minnesota farm girl who also appeared in Kiss of Death and Red River.
In a production memo, Zanuck stated: “From the start, we want to get out of the story any suggestion that she is a slut.”
“She is a young girl who has been drawn into this life.“
“Later, when we see her with her husband and baby, we will have the feeling that faith and goodness have triumphed, and not been smothered in the mire.”
“This is very important. It is a must for our story.”
Other demands came from the Production Code censors.
Early versions of the screenplay were criticized for the “illicit sex and adultery.”
For one nocturnal encounter, the Production Code office requested that Fox shoot “the latter part of the bedroom scene in a manner which will exclude the bed.”
A bedroom—without a bed!
Why not? In Hollywood films in the ‘30s and ‘40s, bathrooms didn’t include toilets.
Coleen Gray was actually the second choice for the female role in tonight’s film. Zanuck had wanted June Allyson.
Joan Blondell was a perfect choice for the carny queen, but others had been considered—including Anne Baxter (too young) and Celeste Holm.
For the part that went to Helen Walker, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Rainer and Constance Bennett were considered.
Fox devoted ten acres of its backlot to the carnival setting. The Century Plaza Hotel stands there today.
Some of the scenes were also shot at the San Diego County Fair in Del Mar.
Principal photography began on May 19, and concluded on July 31, 1947.
The New York premiere was on October 9th.
The Hollywood Reporter announced: “A strikingly successful shocker as a novel, William Lindsay Gresham’s unusual story of a ‘geek,’ Nightmare Alley emerges on the screen as a study in realistic horror which might as well be recorded now as one of the finest pictures of the year.”
Nightmare Alley cost $1,914,000 and grossed $2,172,000, for a profit of just $19,000.
The dark nature of the film limited its audience appeal, but it was Tyrone Power’s favorite film.
In real life, the Geek didn’t get the girl who urged him to take the role.
Lana Turner married millionaire playboy Bob Topping in 1948.
And Tyrone Power married Linda Christian instead.
So now–from 1947–