Supernatural Noir: Miracles for Sale
What a delight! Thanks to Ray Garton and Paul D. Brazill for leading me to Tod Browning’s last film, Miracles for Sale. It’s a fun romp with magicians, psychics, trickery, grifters, and plenty of style. Currently airing on TCM, it’s also available in various versions online in the usual places.
I admit to giving short shrift to Robert Young because I first knew him as Marcus Welby M.D., a show my grandparents liked. What could be less cool than the gently ironic know-it-all elderly doctor? Yet he brings a witty humour to Miracles, which gives it charm. Most of the time the laughs walk a fine line along with the noir ambience and the spookiness. It’s a strange mix. Young’s Mike Morgan is a former stage magician who now makes elaborate tricks for other magicians. The opening war scene is a bit off-putting (including yellow face) but it turns out to be an overly-wrought saw-the-woman-in-half trick that Morgan is staging for a client. His house is a delight of tricks and surprises.
Morgan also devotes his time to exposing spiritual charlatans, admitting that there might be ghosts and whatnot, but he doesn’t want people exploiting the vulnerable with tricks. That kicks off the real plot when a gal in trouble (Florence Rice) runs into his shop to ask for help but can’t tell him the whole story. The plot is the least interesting part of the film and comes from Clayton Rawson’s Death from a Top Hat.
The fun is all the characters. Ray mentioned how little this seems like a Browning film. The one aspect that does is the characterisation, especially the brilliant cast of character actors. Frank Craven is a hoot as Morgan’s dad. He often ends up the victim of his son’s elaborate tricks-in-progress but he gets plenty of good lines. Henry Hull is cadaverous fellow magician Duvallo. The bickering La Claire couple (Lee Bowman and Astrid Allwyn) demonstrate that magic is just part of their acting on stage. The always delightful William Demerest plays a grumpy detective (the whole investigative team is a bit wacky).
Frederick Worlock is the mysterious Dr. Caesar Sabatt, accompanied by Gloria ‘Dracula’s Daughter’ Holden as the equally mysterious Madame Rapport. Browning has the camera rest on her singular face and as it lingers a sense of the uncanny arises. Though she only has a few scenes, that otherworldliness serves well when it comes time for the séance.
There’s a locked room mystery that isn’t much of a mystery—after all, by the time the first body shows up we’ve seen all manner of trickery explained. But the staging of the murders within pentagrams, the noir-shadowed streets of the city, and the suggestion that real unexplained mysteries from the beyond may be at work combine to give the film an enjoyable stylishness that’s definitely worth a try.