Fay Wray: The Clairvoyant (1934)

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“When Fay Wray was a child she wasn’t permitted to scream because her throat muscles were delicate and it was feared her voice would be ruined. When she grew up she screamed her way to fame in horror pictures!” – from a 1934 issue of Hollywood magazine

TCM’s annual Summer Under the Stars celebration is underway and today Hollywood’s first ‘Scream Queen’ gets her due. Fay Wray was an independent actress who operated outside the star system and refused to sign a long-term contract, which allowed her to work with many Hollywood studios. Despite her best efforts to carve out a distinct identity as a free agent, she was typecast as a horror starlet after appearing in Doctor X (1932), The Most Dangerous Game (1932), The Vampire Bat (1933), Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and King Kong (1933), which cemented her scream queen moniker.

Following the huge success of King Kong, Wray was inundated by proposals to appear in more horror films and thrillers but she was tired of being pigeonholed. In an effort to dodge expectations, she accepted an offer from Gainsborough Pictures in England to costar with Claude Rains (fresh off the set of The Invisible Man; 1933) in an unusual film called The Clairvoyant (1934). Wray, eager to make dramas and comedies, apparently thought the film would broaden her acting opportunities but when her plane landed in the U.K., she was greeted by BBC reporters who immediately asked her to scream for them. Despite Wray’s best efforts to change the trajectory of her career, The Clairvoyant is actually an interesting addition to her horror résumé and you can catch it airing on TCM today. It’s also currently available on TCM On Demand.

In this curious paranormal mystery and romantic drama hybrid Wray plays Rene, the devoted wife of a likeable charlatan known as Maximus ‘King of the Mind Readers’ (Claude Rains) who makes his living pretending to have psychic abilities. During one of his performances attended by a London newspaper heiress named Christine (Jane Baxter), Maximus suddenly gains the power of clairvoyance and begins predicting future disasters much to the surprise of wife, manager (Ben Field) and mother (Mary Clare). As the film progresses, Maximus’s mind-reading abilities seem to increase whenever he’s in contact with the sympathetic Christine while his wife Rene suspects the two of having an affair. This creates a romantic triangle that plays out in unexpected ways but the film’s real drama comes from the impending disasters prophesied by Maximus who is eventually accused of causing these catastrophes and forced to stand trial.

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Wray never gets to let out a scream in The Clairvoyant, but the film allows her to show some surprising dimension and depth, which is missing from many of her previous roles and she has great onscreen chemistry with Rains. The two make an attractive couple and are incredibly charming as they clown around together like young newlyweds. When their affectionate rapport is interrupted by the mysterious Christine, we root for them to remain together. It’s not surprising that Wray loved working with Rains and found him to be “one of the most meticulous actors I’ve ever known.” The romantic drama is a bit muddled but The Clairvoyant benefits from some strange twists and turns and moody cinematography that makes great use of the foggy London streets lined by flickering gaslights. The paranormal touches keep things interesting making this a stand out addition to Wray’s early filmography despite her reservations about the genre.

The film was directed by Maurice Elvey (The Hounds of Baskerville; 1921, The Lodger; 1932, The Transatlantic Tunnel; 1935, The Lamp Still Burns; 1943, The Gentle Sex; 1943, etc.), a British producer and filmmaker probably best remebered for his silent movies including a number of Sherlock Holmes shorts. Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett (Blackmail; 1929, The Man Who Knew Too Much; 1934, The 39 Steps; 1935, Foreign Correspondent; 1940, Night of the Demon; 1957, The Lost World; 1960, etc.) and Bryan Edgar Wallace (son of famed author Edgar Wallace who wrote the script for King Kong) contributed the screenplay.

cb0The Clairvoyant was originally based on a book by the German novelist Ernst Lothar but besides a male protagonist and a mutual interest in precognition and telepathy, it doesn’t share much in common with the film. In his posthumous memoir, screenwriter Charles Bennett claimed that the script was actually based on a series of strange experiences he had following World War 1. According to Bennett, he grew increasingly superstitious when the war ended and his imagination started working overtime. He began believing he could cause terrible things to happen just by being in the same room with someone after bearing witnesses to multiple tragedies that he felt personally responsible for. Was he manifesting paranormal abilities or just suffering the effects of PTSD due to the shock and horror he experienced on the battlefield? That’s open to debate but Bennett came to believe the events he thought he had caused were just coincidences. The personal nature of the script bolsters the film’s interesting pedigree making it a unique curio that fans of classic horror and suspense should appreciate.

If you miss The Clairvoyant on TCM you can catch it streaming on Amazon and it’s available from Odeon Entertainment on PAL DVD as part of their Best of British collection. But be forewarned, there are some shabby edited prints of the film floating around typically labeled with the U.S. title The Evil Mind. If you want to get the most bang for your buck, seek out the original 81-minute version of this British oddity and avoid others.

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11 Responses Fay Wray: The Clairvoyant (1934)
Posted By Raven Thom : August 4, 2016 7:23 pm

Love Fay Wray, one of my all time favorite actors, and one of the absolute loveliest!

Posted By Emgee : August 4, 2016 7:30 pm

Claude Rains AND Fay Wray; that spells must-see in my book.

Posted By Doug : August 4, 2016 9:08 pm

That photo of Wray at the top is stunning. I read this just as the film was ending, so I’ll go the Amazon route.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 4, 2016 9:41 pm

An update: You can also watch the movie on TCM on demand now!

Posted By Marjorie J. Birch : August 4, 2016 10:12 pm

I have seen “The Clairvoyant”. As in a few of his earlier movies, you could still catch Claude Rains being a bit “stage-y” but I must say, it was refreshing to see him in a movie where he was (1) happily married to a loyal wife; (2) part of a loving family; (3) YOUNG; (4) and yes, it was totally adorable to see him pick up Fay Wray and run up the stairs with her. Eat your heart out, King Kong!!!

Posted By swac44 : August 4, 2016 10:14 pm

I still have this on laserdisc, need to give it another spin.

Posted By Ben Martin : August 4, 2016 11:24 pm

If there is a lovelier actress than Fay Wray, I dont know who it is. Literally she can affect my breathing as I watch her, and while I love looking at beautiful actresses, I’m no pushover. She is perfection incarnate with a natural ability to charm and ease her way through a role with humor, grace, charisma and moxi as well as any of her contemporaries can and usually better. I love her in THE CLAIRVOYANT for the very reasons you describe above. Another golden performance of hers is being shown today as well: IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD. Its a psuedo comedy about a cowboy actor who loses his way once talkies come along, and Fay is a compassionate actress who loves him even while her career soars and his fades.

Posted By Mitch Farish : August 5, 2016 1:58 pm

Ben,

I saw It Happened in Hollywood yesterday. Had never seen it, didn’t even know it existed. What a fun film. Good performances by Richard Dix and Wray, shows how underrated she was/is. Loved all those doubles of the stars. Well written too. The film also shows how far out of touch the TCM writers are with the old films. The blurb on the schedule said this was about a silent actor whose voice was considered unsuitable for talkies. If they watched the movie they would know Dix’s character left pictures because the studio wasn’t making westerns anymore, and he didn’t want to play a murderous gangster. Maybe the writers should watch some of the films they write about.

Posted By Mitch Farish : August 5, 2016 2:04 pm

Just one more thing. The two big coups for me yesterday were getting recordings of Brownlow and Stanbury’s Photoplay presentation of Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March (1928), and an excellent print of Von Sternberg’s Thunderbolt (1929), both excellent Fay Wray performances. Thanks, TCM. They can still come through when they try.

Posted By George : August 5, 2016 10:29 pm

I’d like to see IT HAPPENED IN HOLLYWOOD. Samuel Fuller worked on the screenplay.

Posted By Sandy Ferber : October 10, 2016 7:27 pm

Wow, Kimberly, now I’m sorry that I failed to record this when it was on recently. I DID manage to catch “Black Moon” with Fay Wray that same day, and thought that it was a terrific little voodoo chiller; perhaps the best film on that theme between “White Zombie” and “I Walked With a Zombie.” I’ll have to hope that TCM shows “The Clairvoyant” again one day soon….

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