Warren William in The Mind Reader, which was cowritten by Mizner
  • Warren William in The Mind Reader, which was cowritten by Mizner

Once every week or two I attend a preview screening for work at the Showplace ICON in the South Loop. To make myself feel better about having to go there, I try to stop at the Harold Washington Library on my way. The DVD collection at the Harold Washington stirs my enthusiasm for movies as effectively as the ICON suppresses it. Every time I browse the Harold Washington shelves I find at least one film I’ve wanted to see for ages but didn’t know was on DVD, as well as several I haven’t heard of at all. Whoever selects the CPL’s movies has got to be one of the best programmers in town.

Not long after returning the library’s copy of Westward the Women (which I wrote about here) did I find another obscure gem released to DVD by the Warner Archive Collection: The Mind Reader, a 1933 melodrama directed by the underrated Roy Del Ruth (Blonde Crazy, Taxi!, Broadway Melody of 1936) and starring Warren William, “the suave, cynical personification of ruthless capitalism run amok,” pace J. Hoberman in a 2011 Village Voice appreciation. In The Mind Reader, William plays a veteran con man who strikes it rich with a phony psychic act, using his dapper demeanor and knack for smooth talk to distract audiences from his obvious lack of second sight. “No, sir, you will not have any children,” he bellows at an audience member in one of the film’s funniest scenes. “But. . . your wife will have three!”

Wilson Mizner
  • Unknown/Wikimedia Commons
  • Wilson Mizner

The Mind Reader might be construed as an ironic self-portrait, not only of William, but of Wilson Mizner, one of the film’s two screenwriters. Mizner was an accomplished con man in his own right. His legacy includes fleecing miners in Gold Rush-era Alaska, selling forged paintings in New York, and organizing a spectacular swindle during Florida’s mid-20s real estate boom. These adventures are dramatized in Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical Road Show, which the Chicago Shakespeare Theater revived a few months ago. As portrayed by Sondheim and Weidman, Mizner and his brother Addison represented the glistening underbelly of the American dream, achieving fame and fortune through a mix of showmanship and criminality. It doesn’t seem coincidental that several of the screenplays Mizner worked on in Hollywood (where he spent the last two years of his life) concern criminals and/or characters who shuttle from rags to riches and back again: the prison drama 20,000 Years in Sing Sing; Frisco Jenny, about a successful turn-of-the-century madam; the gangland chronicle The Little Giant (also directed by Del Ruth); and the biting social drama Heroes for Sale.

Heroes for Sale turned up at Block Cinema last month. The Little Giant screens at Doc Films on Thursday, August 14. Is the ghost of Wilson Mizner haunting the Chicago arts scene? I, for one, seem unable to shake him. In addition to landing on The Mind Reader at Harold Washington last Tuesday, on that same day I encountered one of Mizner’s most famous ventures, the Hollywood restaurant the Brown Derby, in the book I started reading. Daniel Pinkwater’s 2007 young-adult novel The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization warrants an entire moviegoing post of its own, as it vividly evokes what it was like to fall in love with cinema as a kid in late-40s America. (It also contains even more references to classic Hollywood schlock than Pinkwater’s The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, which I wrote about last year.) The novel’s vision of immediate postwar culture is shaped by such interrelated phenomena as B westerns, swashbuckling adventures, radio game shows, and serialized mysteries. All of these offered glitzy fantasies of adventure and success—Wilson Mizner’s stock-in-trade, in other words.

I get the impression that people didn’t go to the Brown Derby for the food, but for the novelty of eating in a building that resembled a giant hat. In a sense, the restaurant was a giant advertisement for itself, an exercise in showmanship for its own sake. The young narrator-hero of The Neddiad describes it with even greater enthusiasm than he describes meeting movie stars. That’s a typical Pinkwater masterstroke, showing how the most ridiculous products of pop culture can elicit the same wonder in children as the most sophisticated. And why not? They’re all part of the same industry, after all—show business, spectacle, scamming, or whatever you choose to call it.

Like Sondheim and Weidman’s Assassins (a revival of which runs for another week at Theater Wit), Road Show argues that the history of this industry is also the history of America and vice versa. How appropriate that Wilson Mizner’s ghost was especially persistent in the weeks before and after Independence Day. Were that old card alive today, I think he’d be scalping tickets to the new Transformers movie—and at a 50 percent markup.

The original Brown Derby Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California
  • Chalmers Butterfield/Wikimedia Commons
  • The original Brown Derby Restaurant on Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.