Miracles For Sale
Author: Screenplay by Harry Ruskin & Marion Parsonnet and James Edward Grant, based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat written by Clayton Rawson.
Harry Ruskin was a prolific writer of, among other things, a double handful of Dr. Kildare films and “additional dialogue” for The Glass Key. (Mr.) Marion Parsonnet wrote the screenplay for Gilda, Cover Girl, B-movies and some television episodes. James Edward Grant seems to have been a kind of two-fisted specialist with a long career primarily focused on Westerns and war movies.
And of course, based on the Great Merlini novel by Clayton Rawson noted above.
Other Data: 71 minutes long. Released August 14, 1939, according to IMDB. Art direction by Cedric Gibbons and wardrobe by Dolly Tree. I don’t ordinarily mention the wardrobe mistress by name, but I have to say, her work here is extraordinary. There is no Wikipedia page for Dolly Tree, and someone should rectify this, based on what little I could find on the Internet. Anyway, Florence Rice gets to wear two absolutely amazing evening gowns that a fashionable woman of seventy-five years later would have no problems wearing to the right event. They both have a very unusual shoulder treatment that is really attractive, a kind of Judy Jetson effect of multiple tiers. I’ll show you a picture below; these have to be seen to be believed.
Directed by Tod Browning — indeed, his last film before retirement. This is not much more than a B picture in intent, I think, but he gave it a professional polish and treatment. I’m not an expert on Browning’s work, but it occurs to me that the unusual occupations of the characters are what attracted him to this piece.
Cast: Robert Young as Mike Morgan (because The Great Merlini needed his name simplified, apparently). Florence Rice as Judy Barclay, Frank Craven as Dad Morgan. Among the suspects are Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Astrid Allwyn, Frederick Worlock, Gloria Holden and William Demarest (of My Three Sons fame).
About this film:
Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I want to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing most of the ending of the film, and the twists that underlie some events. You should also be aware that there is a novel called Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson to which you will find out the ending, plot, etc. If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies. If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own.
Thank you, TCM, for providing the original trailer.
There are not many films that are strict-form whodunits that are actually solvable by the viewer. I admit whenever I encounter one these days, it usually takes me a couple of tries to work out if, and then exactly how, the director has made a clear logical path available for me. First I have to understand what’s being asserted as the solution, and then I have to look to see if indeed it’s possible to figure that out from what is on the screen. I have to look at the film a couple of times with my little notebook at hand, marking time points with plot points.
I didn’t do that here. My rate of posting is down to around once a month as it is. If I give Miracles For Sale the strict analysis, I would be at my desk well into 2014, I’m sure. This is an extremely difficult and complex film; perhaps the most difficult and complex plot ever smushed into 71 minutes of rapid-fire film, complete with the occasional comedy aside. Add to which, it is based on a novel (Death From A Top Hat, hence DFATH) that is among the most difficult and complex ever written in the mystery field — so much so that they had to leave out bits of it because it would have doubled the running time of the film to explain things completely. I’m quite familiar with this book, having loved it for years, and it’s a fascinating strict-form puzzle mystery based on the principles of stage magic, against a background of people whose professions include ventriloquist, stage magician, escape artist, medium, and a pair of nightclub performers with a telepathy act. There’s also a professional debunker of phony mediums and a main character whose job it is to create the objects and routines with which stage magicians make their living.
At this point, the book and film diverge. The ventriloquist disappears from the film, to my sorrow, and to my much greater sorrow, the book’s grandstanding and verbose character of The Great Merlini, owner of a magic supply store and amateur detective, has been replaced by Mike Morgan, portrayed by the debonair but considerably more pedestrian Robert Young.
As I said, a complex and difficult plot; I’ll give you the bare bones. A group of assorted professions as noted above are involved in the circumstances of the murder of the first victim, X, who is found dead in his locked apartment, spread-eagled inside a pentagram on the floor filled with black magic symbols and objects. Suspicion immediately falls on another character, Y, who leaves the murder scene because he has to appear on a live radio show. Y promptly vanishes and later appears to have been lying dead elsewhere, spread-eagled inside a pentagram, the whole time. A number of other characters go through a lot of plot machinations in a remarkably short period of time, speaking crisply, and someone keeps trying to kill Florence Rice’s character, including one character whom we see clearly and whose corpse (to the left in the pentacle) is pretty cold at this point. That’s her in the wide-shouldered gown above; she’s about to be shot at during a magic act in the finale, just before the real murderer is unmasked. There’s a seance, a stage act, a car chase, and a bunch of magic tricks that go off at the right time. In the meantime we have seen an actual locked-room mystery brought off before our very eyes — in a solvable way.
But, dear reader, you will not solve this mystery. I believe it is possible to do so, given the information on the screen and in the soundtrack, but I will tell you in real life that you’ll never get it first time through. You have a dim chance, if you’ve read the book but forgotten most of the details; if you come to this cold, you’ll just never do it. Frankly, this is one for sitting back and allowing it to happen and enjoying it, and then, if you’re interested, watch the film again and see if you can figure out where and how you were fooled. I will say, just a tiny bit enigmatically, that I was not aware of anyone leaving the apartment after the penny had been electrified, although I understand that someone had to have done so. I accept that the murderer can physically have accomplished what he did, and he had just enough time to do so, but honestly, folks, he would have been out of breath upon arrival everywhere and phenomenally lucky to boot.
If you’d actually like to try, I suggest that you stop the recording at the point when Florence Rice is going to be the target of the bullet — at the 1:09 mark — and start again from the beginning until you know what is about to happen and why, and instigated by whom. There is no Ellery Queenian “Challenge to the Reader” in this film or its source material, but if you wish a point at which to try yourself, that would be it.
Points of Interest:
I’ve always liked this movie, and in the years before videotape it was very difficult indeed to see; at least one very muddy print was making the rounds of small television markets, and I picked up VHS copies two or three times hoping vainly for a better copy. Part of my affection for the book version comes from its origin in my life; I’ve been a collector of and dealer in mapbacks for many years, and it used to be that the source material, DFATH, was only available in a low-numbered and valuable paperback edition, complete with the “map of crime scene on back cover” that contributes to these early Dell editions being so charming and collectible. So whenever I managed to find a copy, not only did I have a very pleasant re-reading experience immediately at hand, but I also had an immediate customer for the book.
My affection for the movie, I think, stems from the fact that it’s an extremely difficult strict-form puzzle mystery — perhaps THE most difficult strict-form puzzle mystery on film — translated from book to film with very little loss. There is charm, humour, the events move at the same breakneck clip as in the original, and for those of us who enjoy ratiocination, there’s plenty of room for deduction. I would show my best copy of this to personal friends, inviting them to bemoan with me the general dullness of Hollywood mysteries that almost never rose to this level of complexity and difficulty.
I have to say, I have changed my tune somewhat. There are only a few such films that are strict-form and worth watching that date back to the 1930s, and definitely not very many overall — Clue, a comedy from 1985, is perhaps the latest, and The Last of Sheila from 1973 is perhaps the last serious one not based on an Agatha Christie piece. The ones that managed to get made — this has never been a popular genre — were marked by extreme originality and usually based in some profession or background that would have been interesting in any context. Unfortunately, for the handful that are worth watching, there are ten times as many unwatchable, dull and chaotic failures.
Oddly enough, I figured this out by watching every single episode of the 80s TV series Murder, She Wrote at least twice, and this is an exercise I don’t recommend to you. MSW tries to be a strict form puzzle mystery, for the most part, and part of the reason that it is dull and considered suitable for the elderly is that a strict form puzzle mystery is very difficult to SHOW. It is much easier to write. The other reason the series is dull is that in 264 episodes and four made-for-TV movies, Jessica Fletcher is on the scene when a body is discovered. This is beyond ridiculous, and thus the production is constantly winking at the audience that this is merely a set piece, a kind of game played out for your amusement, and to me this sucks a lot of vitality out of the plots.
I don’t remember the episode name, but I dimly recall one of the clues was that Jessica Fletcher walked into a room and put her hand on a TV set and grimaced a little. This was meant to indicate that the TV set was still warm, and thus the room had been occupied when someone said it wasn’t, and therefore the murderer was some washed-up 80s TV sidekick. The point is, though, that it was necessary to show Jessica putting her hand on the TV set and reacting, and the viewer had to figure out why she had grimaced and draw all the same conclusions. Something peculiar happens in the very tightly scripted episode of a network programme when this happens; the canny viewer immediately becomes aware that an important clue has just been shown, because every single other word and gesture and movement and camera angle and interaction has a purpose and a function. When we are shown something that is seemingly extraneous, well, we’re all wise and experienced TV viewers, and we know there is some reason for being shown this, if we can only figure it out. Since the strict-form mystery must show you the clues, they are much more difficult to conceal or obfuscate than they are with the printed word. Here, you’ve got 71 minutes of vital plot points being rained upon you like confetti; miss one and you can’t solve the mystery. In the book you have to construct in your head a map of the whereabouts of every character, and follow them all the way through the plot to realize that there is only one person who can have done everything that happened. In this movie, you have to sort information like the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger, and there’s no time to think about anything except what just exploded. That’s why MSW is considered dumbed down for a dumb audience — the producers knew their audience could only handle one or two difficult clues every fifteen minutes or so. Here, it’s vital information every fifteen seconds. All of it necessary to a truly complicated plot, and upon fifth or sixth viewing of this gem, you’ll appreciate the shovel-loads of data that the writers threw at you so skilfully. First time through, fugeddaboudit.
While I do think there are a double-handful of strict-form puzzle mystery films that are enjoyable — I’ll make a list for you someday — I think I have come to understand over the years why there are not more of them. You run a double risk of failure. You have failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that they could NEVER have solved the damn mystery and it will be a cold day in hell before they ever go to another Mike Morgan movie. Unfortunately you have also failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that of course it was perfectly obvious whodunnit and really, they must think we’re just idiots to make it that easy, I’ll skip the next one and send my 11-year-old to see it.
As I’ve said or suggested above, I’m a reasonably intelligent person with a very wide knowledge of murder mysteries, who is accustomed to the challenge of trying to figure them out and succeeds a great deal of the time — and I failed to figure this one out on the first go-round. I venture to say that this means that approximately 100% of people who see the movie are surprised by the ending, and in this case it cannot be a very pleasant surprise. The actual murderer has disguised himself as a number of other people, but he is only on screen in his own persona for 60 or 90 seconds of the film at most. This is not enough time for anyone to grasp the individual and understand exactly who he is and what he does for a living, especially since the movie proceeds at breakneck speed and all the men are wearing nearly identical clothing at all times. I have this little vision of a stream of people leaving the theatre after the premiere, saying, “Well, you know, not as much FUN as those Thin Man movies, don’t you think?” I love this film, I love the level of expectation that it has of my puzzle-solving efforts, but I have to say, all in all, it’s a failure. It’s just too damn tough.
And that’s why I’m not expecting a lot of enormously popular strict-form puzzle mystery films to be greenlit in the near future. It’s a chancy and difficult exercise that is fraught with peril and, very often, the modern screenplay doesn’t exhibit that level of wild imaginative originality that is so necessary to lift a mystery plot from the level of MSW to Miracles for Sale. You have to have a mystery that is based on a visual premise. You need interesting detective characters, a strange background, a weird murder idea. And there’s no guarantee that anyone will like it even if you get it right.
There’s one further point of interest, albeit a minor one. I learned from the TCM introduction to this film that it represents the first time that contact lenses were seen to be used in a film. That is a minor plot point, but it will explain why one or two characters seem to have weird colourless eyes; you’ll understand this in the last minutes of the film.
Notes For the Collector:
Copies of the film seem readily available. It was broadcast by Turner Classic Movies in October, 2013 and they aren’t usually shy about repeating their offerings every once in a while. TCM and Amazon both have the same double-feature DVD available for under $20.
Copies of the book, especially the Dell edition pictured above, are certainly worth having. To me, Clayton Rawson is one of the cornerstones of the puzzle mystery and Dell mapbacks are a cornerstone of paperback collecting. All four of the Merlini books in mapback edition might set you back $100 and they will only increase in value with time; the most expensive copy you can find is probably the biggest bargain. The hardcover first without jacket starts at about $45, but the jacket is extremely scarce in any condition and the cheapest one I saw was $310; the VG+ copy in VG+ jacket will set you back $3,750 (pictured at left). I’ve never held in my hands one for sale with its original jacket, but I note that there is a really good facsimile jacket out there. So a good rule of thumb is that if the jacket is in good condition, it’s either a facsimile or you probably can’t afford it.