Tod Browning‘s frequent collaborator Waldemar Young wrote the screenplay for The
Mystic from Browning’s story, and it is clearly part their family of work
together which includes The Unholy Three (1925), The Blackbird1926), The
Show 1927), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight 1927), West
of Zanzibar (1928), and Where East is East (1929). The early knife-throwing act
seen here could be a blueprint for the same act in The Unknown. The
Mystic (1925) opens in a Hungarian gypsy carnival. The main attraction of
the carnival is “The Mystic,” Zara (Aileen Pringle). Zara is part of a trio,
which includes Poppa Zazarack (Mitchell Lewis) and Zara’s lover Anton (Robert
Ober). Of course, Zara’s clairvoyant act is all illusion and Browning, as
usual, lets his audience in on the trickery almost from the outset.
Conman Michale Nash (Conway Tearle) approaches the trio with a proposal to
take their act to America, where they can bilk naive, rich Manhattanites out of
their fortunes. The New Yorkers make Zara’s seances a hit, although not all of
the natives are so gullible, and the police are secretly investigating the
scam. To complicate matters, Nash puts the moves on Zara, and Anton is pushed
aside. Love does funny things, and soon Nash develops a conscience. He becomes
reluctant to swindle a young heiress. The ever-jealous Zara believes Nash must
want her for himself; but Nash simply wants to reform and make a better, honest
life for Zara. Their relationship is reminiscent of the one between Priscilla
Dean and Wheeler Oakman in Browning’s Outside The Law 1920), as are
the familiar Browning themes of reformation and unpunished crimes.
Pringle shows considerable screen charisma; or, at least, Browning draws it
out of her here. Her performance compares to other great female roles in
Browning’s ouevre: Joan Crawford in The Unknown and Lupe Velez in Where
East is East. In many scenes, such as the knife-throwing scene, Pringle
looks remarkably like Crawford; in close-ups, Pringle exudes the same soft
sensuality and subtle anguish. In other scenes, Pringle shares the bubbly
quality that we see later in Velez’s performance. At other times Pringle calls
to mind the mysterious exoticism of Edna Tichenor Unfortunately, Pringle and
Browning never got to work together again. The actress was reportedly difficult
to work with; most of her co-stars considered he an intellectual snob. Indeed,
she kept company with many of the artisans and intellectuals of her day. George
Gershwin and H.L. Mencken were among her notable lovers and she was married,
briefly, to author James M. Cain. Pringle’s acting career never really took
off, and she didn’t seem to care. She remained active in films (mostly small
parts, which included uncredited roles) up until the mid 1940s and died in 1989
at the age of 94.
Because of the lack of usual Browning stars, The Mystic is an
interesting, lesser-known film in the director’s canon. Not only is it
thematically related to his other films, but it also shows the idiosyncratic
continuity of his taste in actresses and his ability to mold actors, whoever
Note: the luxurious costumes for The Mystic were
the work of legendary French designer Erté. Erté, who was a
big fan of George Melies, said it was a thrilling experience to collaborate
with such a distinguished surrealist as Tod Browning.
2 thoughts on “TOD BROWNING’S THE MYSTIC 1925”
Once again I found the review informative and interesting. Especially I like the tidbits (like the one on the legendary French designer Erté) that you provide. Engaging.
Once again I found the review informative and interesting. Especially I like the tidbits (like the one on the legendary French designer Erté. Erté) that you provide. Engaging.