July 25, 2020

The Mystic (1925)
Grade: 63/100

Director: The Mystic
Stars: Aileen Pringle, Conway Tearle, Mitchell Lewis

What it's about. Of all the surviving films directed by Tod Browning, The Mystic likely ranks among the most obscure. Unlike most of his silent efforts, Lon Chaney was not the lead. In fact, he's not in the film at all, since Browning had moved to MGM studios, while Lon Chaney was under contract at Universal.

No doubt Chaney would have played the character of Zazarack, the Hungarian gypsy who managed a travelling magic and clairvoyant show starring his voluptuous brunette daughter, Zara (Aileen Pringle). Instead, the trigger-tempered Zazarack is played by little-known Mitchell Lewis. Anton is the other featured act, a knife thrower. Carlo (Stanton Heck) is the coachman.

The quartet has been doing well in a circuit through the small towns in Hungary. Zazarack's show catches the attention of con man Michael Nash (Conway Tearle), who wants to take it to America where he believes he can make a fortune with Zara The four gypsies are initially suspicious of Nash, until he waves a wad of cash at them.

In New York, Zara poses as a medium, and is set to fleece the naive gentry of New York City. Among them is attractive young brunette heiress Doris Merrick (Gladys Hulette), whose handler Bradshaw (David Torrence) has been fleecing his charge. Nash uses the well-trained Zara to gain the friendship and confidence of Merrick.

Once the heiress is ripe for the theft of her jewelry, Nash suddenly develops cold feet. Nash convinces Zara that he loves her instead, and that they shouldn't swindle Merrick. But Zazarack and Anton conclude Nash intends to marry Merrick, and cut them out of the long con.

Meanwhile, police detective DeWitt Jennings organizes an arrest of Nash and the four gypsies while in the home of Merrick. Guns are drawn, and it looks it will be a shootout.

How others will see it. Contemporary interest in The Mystic was limited, but it did draw attention for its costumes, which were designed by celebrated French designer Erté.

Director Tod Browning is well known among early talkie fans for Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932). Among those who enjoy silents, Browning is also of interest for his movies with Lon Chaney, one of the biggest stars of the 1920s.

But The Mystic is a silent film without Chaney, and as a result it has a mere 103 votes at imdb.com. The user votes are middling: 6.9 among viewers over 45, but a lower 6.2 (out of 10) from those under 45. Non-American viewers also grade it lower than Americans (6.4 versus 7.0), possibly for its stereotypical portrayal of Hungarian gypsies as career criminals. Also, the ending fizzles out, though the romantically inclined get a happy ending regarding the romance of Zara and Nash.

How I felt about it. The Mystic benefits from the presence of radiant Aileen Pringle. Mitchell Lewis, Robert Ober, and Gladys Hulette are serviceable in their roles. Conway Tearle is miscast, as he lacks the romantic charisma needed for his character.

The plot has many curious elements. Why is American Michael Nash in Hungary, dressed like a Wall Street broker? Why do the Hungarian gypsies speak English? Why does Nash decide not to fleece Merrick? Why would cunning con artist Zara fall in love with the older and average-looking Nash, and take his side against her father?

Most odd of all is the plot resolution. Nobody is physically or financially injured. Nobody goes to prison. T.S. Eliot was wrong after all. In his 1925 poem "The Hollow Men", he famously predicted that the world would end "not with a bang, but a whimper." But perhaps he was instead reviewing The Mystic, which after all was released in the same year as his poem.