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With: Robert Young, Florence Rice, Frank Craven, Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Cliff Clark, Astrid Allwyn, Walter Kingsford, Frederick Worlock, Gloria Holden, William Demarest, Harold Minjir
Written by: Harry Ruskin, Marion Parsonnet, James Edward Grant, based on a novel by Clayton Rawson
Directed by: Tod Browning
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 71
Date: 08/14/1939

Miracles for Sale (1939)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A Kind of Magic

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Tod Browning's final film Miracles for Sale is a 71-minute wonder made at MGM; I'm not sure if it was released as a "B" movie, but it sure feels like one, and that's meant as a compliment.

Though Browning was known for a handful of monster and horror movies, specifically The Unknown (1927), Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), Mark of the Vampire (1935) and The Devil Doll (1936), his career amounts to more than that. His main obsession was with the macabre, and things that lurk in the dark, and he could show this in almost any kind of film. He had a bond with actor Lon Chaney and they created several powerful tragic characters together. He made crime films and mystery films, sometimes with a hint of romance or dark comedy.

Miracles for Sale is a mystery with some comedy and some romance; it has some dark, creepy corners, and it's gloriously entertaining and true to Browning's vision for every one of its 71 minutes.

Michael Morgan (Robert Young) sets the tone as an ex-magician who now designs and builds magic tricks and sells them to other stage magicians. He doesn't believe that anything supernatural or magical exists, but that doesn't stop little creepy, mysterious things from seeping in at the edge of the film.

Michael's life is interrupted when a pretty girl, Judy Barclay (Florence Rice) bursts into his shop, pleading to be hidden from a man who is supposedly chasing her. Michael investigates and finds a cab with a ten dollar bill in the back seat; the pursuer is gone. Judy is unable or unwilling to explain exactly what she's mixed up in, but she seems to have something against a medium, Madame Rapport (Gloria Holden), and she asks for Michael's help.

He takes her to a nightclub where we're introduced to several other magicians, and where Michael stymies a waiter with a disappearing sugar bowl trick. He can't get much more information out of her, but they're both invited to a gathering at the apartment of one prominent performer, Dr. Sabbatt (Frederic Worlock). When they arrive, Sabbatt has been murdered, and suddenly everyone's a suspect. Michael must use his knowledge of magic tricks, and perform a few tricks of his own, to lure out the murderer.

If that's not enough, the cranky character actor William Demarest is also here in a small role.

As portrayed by Robert Young, the hero is imperturbable, and always has a smile on his face; all this stuff is just hooey to him, and the truth will come out, eventually. The film's actual comic relief is Frank Craven, as Michael's father, who always has a one-liner about how much he hates New York at the ready, and gamely runs errands for his son.

The cast of magicians recalls Browning's love of freaks and outcasts; they all seem more like refugees from a nightclub -- all unfamiliar with the light of day -- than they do movie actors. Browning uses them well to keep the film tipped slightly forward at any moment. They're all unpredictable, and their combined skills -- hooey or not -- seem to involve boundless imagination. Several tricks pop up from time to time, a sudden disappearance, or a ghost appearing at a séance, that are unexplained until later.

I suspect that, because Browning was known as a "master of horror," anything he did that was not horror was quickly underrated and shoved under the rug. Browning was only 59 when this final film was released, and it's a shame his career was cut short. This movie was based on a novel by Clayton Rawson, and there were others in the series that would have made great sequels! Regardless, Miracles for Sale is a prickly joy with a certain kind of magic all its own.

Miracles for Sale screens at the Roxie Cinema, May 24, 2014 in San Francisco as part of the "I Wake Up Dreaming" film noir festival.

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