by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
Last night I ran Charles a couple of movies from the Mill Creek Entertainment 50-movie DVD boxed set Dark Crimes. The box was a bit disappointing in that the sound volume was mastered very low — I had to push the volume a good deal higher than normal just to give us a fighting chance to hear the dialogue — and I picked a disc which had a couple of interestingly paired movies. Sucker Money was a 1933 production by low-budget independent Willis Kent that took a popular character from his 1932 whodunit Sinister Hands — Mischa Auer as phony mindreader and medium “Swami Yomurda” — and built an entire film around him. Sucker Money was promoted as an exposé of phony spiritualists and Kent rushed it into release one day before Warners’ similar, but slicker and more entertaining, The Mind Reader (with Warren William starring as the fake psychic and anticipating the greatest fake-spiritualist movie of all, Nightmare Alley, in the mechanics of the act by which William’s character is made to appear clairvoyant).
Sucker Money kicks off in the office of a newspaper, where reporter Jimmy Reeves (Earl McCarty), who was formerly an actor, shows his editor an ad he’s seen in the paper’s “Help Wanted — Theatrical” section calling for an actor who can do his own makeup and also impersonate a child. Intrigued, and sensing a story possibility, Jimmy answers the ad and signs on to play the dead relatives of Yomurda’s clients in his phony séances. Yomurda works with an assistant, “Princess Karami” (played by an actress billed as “Mona Lisa”) — supposedly it is Karami who’s the medium, but she’s really an old-time grifter named “Chicago Kate” — and in an interesting wrinkle I hadn’t seen in any other phony-spiritualist movie, Yomurda impresses his suckers by supposedly materializing recent events in their lives on his mystic screen — actually showing them movies of themselves his assistant Lukis (Fletcher Norton) has shot while following them in a van with a hidden camera inside. Jimmy befriends another member of Yomurda’s staff, Mame (a beautiful, pathos-drenched performance by Mae Busch, who virtually steals the film), a woman whose advanced (though not unattractive) age relegates her to playing grandmothers in the faked séances and whose conscience and sense of guilt have led her to alcoholism. Jimmy slips her a drink before one of the séances and she becomes his friend.
It soon develops that Yomurda isn’t interested in the relatively small sums he can get selling his psychic services; what he really wants is to attract rich customers and scam them out of their fortunes in phony “investment” deals, and for this he has yet another staff member (given the size of his payroll, no wonder he’s only interested in big scores!) named George Hunter (Al Bridge), whose job is to pose as an investor and recruit the suckers to put money into nonexistent stocks or oil fields. Their current pigeon is John Walton (Ralph Lewis), a well-off banker from Oshkosh, who’s sold on Yomurda’s promises and ready to put $20,000 into a phony oil company — but his daughter Clare (Phyllis Barrington) is skeptical and gets her dad to wait a week before giving Hunter his money. Jimmy falls for Clare, but she won’t give him a tumble as long as she thinks he’s part of the gang of crooks trying to scam her dad — so he “outs” himself to her as an undercover reporter, and he makes the mistake of doing so in a hotel lobby where Hunter overhears and reports to Yomurda, who makes plans to kill Jimmy and dispose of his body after they’ve got Walton’s money and while they’re on their way out of town to regroup and pull their scam over again someplace else. Yomurda’s two Black bodyguards hold Jimmy captive but he gets Mae to call his paper and give them a warning signal — and though the person who takes her call at the paper originally thinks it’s B.S. and doesn’t forward it, eventually he gives the word to Jimmy’s editor, the editor calls the cops and the film ends in a shoot-out in which Mame takes a bullet intended for Jimmy, Yomurda is killed, the rest of the scammers are arrested and Jimmy decides to quit the paper and take a job in Oshkosh working for his future father-in-law.
Directed by Dorothy Davenport a.k.a. Dorothy Reid (who as the widow of Wallace Reid, the first movie star to die a drug-related death, was associated with “problem” movies like the silent and sound versions of the anti-drug tale The Road to Ruin) and Melville Shyer (who was usually a writer and probably drafted the script from producer Kent’s “original” story, though the film has no writer credit), Sucker Money has the usual problems of an early-1930’s indie: cheap sets (Republic Studios is credited with the sets but this wasn’t the Republic that organized in 1937 and had a much better infrastructure than is apparent here); flat, unatmospheric cinematography (by James Diamond) in a story that cries out for the noir treatment (or, as it would have been called in 1933, “the German style”); and mostly indifferent acting — though the cast is redeemed by Auer (who’s known today almost exclusively as a zany comedian but on the basis of this and the preceding Sinister Hands was surprisingly good as a black-hearted villain) and especially Busch, whose role was probably a cliché even then but who portrays it movingly. It’s a good story that deserved a better movie, though Willis Kent and his people at least deserve a modicum of credit given what they had to work with budget-wise.