Nightmare Alley (1949) In the cutting room with editor Barbara McLean. See the descent of man, the human condition up close, and throw in a Geek, please.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY 1947- Barbara McLean: Groundbreaking Film Editor

Photo from February issue of Vogue 1952 here’s cutter Barbara McLean editing All About Eve

Director William Goulding’s Allegorical Carnival/ Noir masterpiece based on William Lindsay Gresham’s book: an Americana study of the rise and fall of personal morality, that reaches to the lowest depths of show business with sleazy inhabitants and the sinister and shadowy world of  freak- shows, mentalist acts, geeks, alcoholism and the voyeuristic throng that feed off the human suffering of others

Tyrone Power as Stan Carlisle and Joan Blondell as Zeena Krumbein

Ian Keith as the alcoholic, mentalist Pete Krumbein

In Nightmare Alley Barbara McLean contributes to creating a landscape of a distorted reality along side the darkly, clandestine and arcane carnival atmosphere. The film is beautifully woven, as the seamless images flow into one another. McLean blends together the invisible strands that only one’s dreams could effectively manifest. McLean’s editing constructs much of the surreal and tormented ‘movement’ of the film. It’s what transports each scene of the film, making it every bit as if WE were inhabiting someone’s nightmare.

Coleen Gray creating a little electrifying entertainment for the crowd

With 62 film credits to her name, half of which were with filmmaker Henry King, Barbara McLean is a master of cutting and shaping. She’s worked on some of my all time favorite films including this film, Goulding’s Nightmare Alley, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s No Way Out (1950), Henry King’s The Song of Bernadette (1943), Robert Wise’s The Desert Rats (1953), John Ford’s Tobacco Road (1941) and again Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950). McLean also worked as editor on Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata 1953, and in 1954 with Michael Curtiz’s on The Egyptian. She edited the first movie filmed in CinemaScope, The Robe (1952), directed by Henry Koster.

Bette Davis and Celeste Holm in All About Eve

Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette

Linda Darnell in No Way Out

Gene Tierney in Tobacco Road

Barbara McLean was one of the most recognized editors working during the reign of Darryl F. Zanuck at the 20th Century Fox Studio, from the 1930s to the 1960s. Eventually achieving the honor of division chief of the editing department in 1949. She joined Fox in 1935 as one of only eight female film editors working in Hollywood in the 1930s. McLean was part of a huge team of technicians, writers, directors, collaborators that Zanuck went to for guidance. She was very influential in much of  Zanuck’s decision making process, as she often acted as adviser to the Hollywood movie mogul, helping him coordinate even a single shot.

She won the 1944 Academy Award for Film Editing for her work on Wilson (1944) director Henry King’s biopic film of Woodrow Wilson’s political career. McLean was nominated another 6 times for that award, including her work on All About Eve. I think she should have won the 23rd annual Academy Award for for All About Eve, but she lost to Ralph E Winters and Conrad A Nerig for their work on King Solomon’s Mines. It was a tough year to compete with nominations also going to The Third Man and Sunset Boulevard. McLean’s greatest collaboration was with film maker Henry King, a relationship that spanned over 29 films including Twelve O’Clock High 1949.

Her last editing credit was for Henry King’s Untamed (1955). In later years, McLean acted primarily in a supervisory and administrative capacity, eventually retiring from 20th Century Fox in 1969, due to her husband’s declining health. She received the inaugural American Cinema Editors Career Achievement Award in 1988. McLean died in Newport Beach, California in 1996.

Twelve O’Clock High 1949 with Gregory Peck

Her impact was summarized by Adrian Dannatt in a 1996 obituary in The Independent: McLean was “a revered editor who perhaps single-handedly established women as vital creative figures in an otherwise patriarchal industry.” Writer Tom Stempel, in a piece about Darryl F. Zanuck writes of McLean‘s influence on Zanuck‘s film making; “For all her focus on keeping the narrative moving, McLean’s editing could dazzle if called for. In A Bell for Adano (1945), she took material director Henry King shot on the return of the Italian POWs to their village and put it together with such a pure sense of emotion that when she cut at exactly the right moment to King’s overhead shot of the prisoners and villagers coming together in the square, the cut was more heart-stopping than conventional close-ups would have been.”

McLean brings together the writers and directors vision and gives it a completeness, a cohesion, like alchemy with film footage, she creates cinema gold. According to Bright Lights Film Journal “the basic rules of film editing, first established in the silent era, still govern the industry today: maintain your eye lines, preserve continuity, respect planarity (the rules governing the transposition of three dimensions onto a two-dimensional plane), find a good rhythm, and, most important, always advance the story.” Here is where McLean excels. If you look at the variety of narratives, milieus and landscapes McLean has stitched together in the editing room, you can see how expansive her vision explores the realms of the human condition, moral corruption and redemption weaving together images that shape the story into ‘the big picture’, with all the little pieces of the intricate moments of the framework, revealing an intimate story, a memorable story, a universal notion of people living in a state of transformation.

If I could enter the film industry at this stage of my life, there would be one thing aside from my already being a music composer of course, would be to sit in the editing chair. One of the things I look for in a film, and feel passionately certain about is amongst the cinematography, scoring and casting , if there is one singularly essential component to what makes a film greater…it’s the editing.

We should also celebrate the women working in the very male dominated career of film editing, women like Barbara McLean and even Dorothy Spencer (Lifeboat 1944, Stagecoach 1939 and the film I recently blogged about Valley of The Dolls 1967).

I should also mention, Anne Bauchens, who was Cecil B. DeMille’s editor, cutting nearly all his movies from 1915 until his death in 1959 and Margaret Booth. Two women who haven’t been put in the greatest light in terms of their ‘difficult’ personalities and skill, something I’ll write about in future. But aren’t women always difficult to work with? Geez.

And so let’s raise a toast to Barbara McLean’s contributions to cinema… a pioneer in the industry not only breaking the glass ceiling but taking all the pieces and putting them back together to make a indelible cinematic mural for ages to come.

And now for the Carnival ‘Geek’ in Nightmare Alley: Tyrone Power’s astonishing portrayal of Stanton ‘Stan’ Carlisle the ambitious carney who rises to evangelistic notoriety as a slick and cunning mentalist, only to descend into the realm of self destruction when power corrupts, consumes and destroys his life, ultimately leading him back to side show freakery becoming the very ‘geek’ he once found repulsive. McLean’s treatment of the film’s climatic excursion into the bowels of the carnival and Stan’s diminution into the shadows is quite viscerally staggering.

Tyrone Power’s nightmarish descent into the world of the ‘geek’

According to the book Carny Sideshows by Tony Gangi, a ‘Geek’ is:

An unskilled performer whose performance consists of shocking, repulsive and repugnant acts. This “lowest of the low” member of the carny trade would commonly bite the head off a living chicken, or sit in a bed of snakes. Some historians distinguish between “geeks” who pretend to be wild men, and “glomming geeks” whose act includes eating disgusting things. See the 1949 movie “Nightmare Alley” for a good geek story as well as for an excellent depiction of the mentalist’s technique of “cold reading”. In later years the geek show turned into a “see the pitiful victim of drug abuse” show. “Geek” as a verb (“he geeked”) is one of several terms in use among wrestlers meaning to intentionally cut oneself to draw blood.

A geek who bites the heads off snakes…

Either on the fairway or the cutting room floor, I’ll be there! Your ever faithful -MonsterGirl!


10 responses to “Nightmare Alley (1949) In the cutting room with editor Barbara McLean. See the descent of man, the human condition up close, and throw in a Geek, please.

  • DorianTB

    Joey, your NIGHTMARE ALLEY article is superb as always! You must be an even better mind reader than Zeena, because your awesome article about female editors and NIGHTMARE ALLEY was stunningly well-timed! You see, the folks at THE DARK PAGES Magazine are doing an entire issue on NIGHTMARE ALLEY, coming soon! I dare not spoil any surprises, but I’ll give you the link:

    http://hqofk.wordpress.com/darkpages/

    BRAVA on a great post! Hooray for Girl Power in films, onscreen and offscreen!

    • monstergirl

      Dori my dear dear friend !!! I wish I could say that I was as powerful as Zeena, although I have been known to do a mean Tarot spread. It’s not supernatural, it’s enthusiasm and passion. You see I noticed the Nightmare Alley event on the site, and asked if I could join in….Kristina said yes, and so I chose something that nobody was writing about. I love film editing. Would love to be one. Discovered this when I started doing my film/music mash ups in iMovie…I think it’s an underestimated art form, and I am so blown away about how many female technicians and artists go unsung. Barbara McLaean was a genius. She did so many of the films I love. Nightmare Alley, No Way Out, All About Eve….Thanks for being such a good friend and wanting to bring me into the fold…I have to say that meeting you thru our blogs has been once of the highlights of the past year, and a blessing…I consider myself lucky to have met you-joey

      • DorianTB

        Joey, thanks for your kind words; you’re as sweet as you are talented (no exaggeration, I merely speak the truth, my friend!)! I’m as happy as a playful puppy to hear that you found the info about THE DARK PAGES’ NIGHTMARE ALLEY and threw your hat into the ring, because I was sure you’d be absolutely stellar in a NIGHTMARE ALLEY issue. I’m all excited to see your contribution! I too am glad we met, Joey, I hope we’ll be friends and colleagues for many moons to come, not to put the whammy on it! :-)

    • monstergirl

      PS!!!! What are you doing for Nightmare Alley, I seem to remember you mentioning that you’re doing something, right before the storm hit. Are you allowed to say, or is is a surprised. I can wait, I know it’ll be worth it!!!!-Joey your avid fan

      • DorianTB

        Also, Joey, since you asked, I am indeed writing a piece for the special NIGHTMARE ALLEY issue, but I don’t want to spoil anyone’s fun or surprises – I’ll just give you a hint: M&M (and I don’t mean candy that melts in your mouth, not in your hand! :-) Anyway, I know it’s all gonna be awesome for all of us, with swell writers like you joining the wicked fun!

      • monstergirl

        Dor…maybe it’s time you have my email addy so we can chat anytime! ephemera.jo@gmail.com…that is if you want the really long winded pal joey. teehee!

  • kristina

    yay! great post on a cool movie, and on behalf of Karen& the Dark Pages I thank you for taking part, and also thank you Dorian for the nice plug! :) Fantastic choice for you, with such a strong interest in this field and also a general great pick, not only because it highlights what great editing work does in a movie, but also fills people in on something they might not even know, that Barbara was such a force, an influence, an important player in Hollywood, next to Zanuck and helping make all these great movies what they were. Cheers!! now get back to that Tarot (pronounced like carrot)

  • DorianTB

    You’re too kind, Joey! You’ll find an e-mail from me to you any minute now. Aren’t these mutual admiration societies fun? :-)

  • silverscreenings

    I like that you focused on (a) an editor and (b) a FEMALE editor. Yay! This is a really interesting post.

    Also, I am eternally grateful that you included the definition of a “glomming geek”.

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