I’m delighted to present The Late Show’s first guest blogger this year — my wife, Fiona Watson.
Did someone say Jonathan Creek? No they didn’t. They said, Miracles For Sale (1939, MGM), Tod Browning’s last feature, a zippy little number that bears more than a passing resemblance to the BBC TV series. A magician gets involved with crime. Who wants to watch something like that? Now don’t tell me. Even though my eyes are covered by a silk scarf, the ether is buzzing with telepathic impressions. Give me a moment… EVERYONE is the answer! Thank you ladies and gentlemen. (They do watch, every year, for the past twenty years.) It’s got magic and crime. Two great tastes that taste great together.
And the similarity doesn’t end there, Morgan is a magician who designs tricks for other magicians, just like Creek. He also has a sidekick just like Creek, but in Morgan’s case it isn’t a series of ladies ending in a wife, it’s his endearingly, curmudgeonly dad (Frank Craven) who’s just dropped into the big city to visit his thaumaturgically dexterous son. A bit like The Rockford Files, if The Rockford Files had more seances, card tricks and mind reading. Dad Morgan doesn’t like New York at all, (“New York is the only town I’ve ever been in that you could learn to hate in a day”) but is prepared to put up with it to have family time with the smoooooth Robert Young.
Where Alan Davies brings an insouciant, quirky charm to Creek — sort of lumpy if we’re getting synesthetic –MGM leading man Robert Young is as glossy as a pane of glass wiped down with vinegar. It’s not that he’s featureless, he just plays it so fast and with such ease that he whizzes past without scratching the retinas. I almost thought that this film, and his character, could easily have been strung out into a Thin Man type series, and perhaps that was the original intent, but I’d have re-cast it with someone you could get a good hold of with your eyeballs.
Just to make things even more Creek-like, this is a locked room mystery. And just like Creek, we have oodles of enticing celebrity guests. Here’s Gloria (Daughter Of Dracula) Holden as medium Madame Rapport. Henry (Werewolf Of London) Hull as Dave Duvallo, an escapologist and customer of Morgan. (On seeing his name in the cast list, I mused, “Henry Hull. The sign of quality. Well… not really. It’s just the sign of Henry Hull.”) To make this even more alluring, Hull emerges, Jacqueline Bisset-like from a tank of water in a wet vest, creating an erotic frisson that no-one in the world, anywhere, has ever experienced. Except hardcore Henry Hull fans who like their men prematurely aged and dripping. (He always seemed late-middle-aged even when he was young and again when he was old. Now that’s magic!)
Joining the merry band is the ever-reliable William Demarest as a confused cop (Quinn) – “Not even a half-grown microbe could’ve got out of this joint without using a crow bar and a grand jury.” Florence Rice is our imperiled (and bizarrely costumed by Dolly Tree) heroine (Judy Barclay). Florence would immediately have an encounter after this with the Marx Brothers in At The Circus, making her career at this point very Browning-like, with his connections to travelling circuses and freak shows. And finally and wonderfully, an uncredited performance by E. Alyn Warren as Dr Hendricks, a comedy coroner. “Maybe you can examine a corpse in the dark but I’m no bat.” Also uncredited in the stock music department, Franz (Bride Of Frankenstein) Waxman.
The screenplay is by Harry Ruskin, James Edward Grant and Marion Parsonnet, writer of Gilda and Cover Girl and in a strange coincidence, screenwriter in 1937 of a remake of Browning’s first sound film, 1929’s The Thirteenth Chair, another heavily seance-related tale. Miracles For Sale is based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson. There were four Merlini books in total. In a poll conducted by 17 mystery and crime writers, Death From a Top Hat was voted as the seventh best locked room mystery of all time.
Brilliant prologue. We think we’re watching a very bad B War Movie, but things start to quickly fragment when we see the awful, oriental makeup on the soldiers and a woman gets machine-gunned in half in a box. “Stop the war!” barks someone off-screen at the end of the performance, and the distant shelling is switched off. We’re introduced to the world of Merlini, here renamed Michael Morgan. It’s the cut-throat world of the professional stage trickster.
Miracles For Sale is the name of the store run by Son Morgan, much to the chagrin of Dad Morgan. “Well, if you wanted to go into business, why didn’t you open a butcher shop? Now, selling meat’s a business, but, selling miracles – that’s monkey business.”
But before you can say “Hey Presto!” or even “Robert Houdin!” we have damsel in distress Judy Barclay charging through the front door, begging him to stop a fake medium taking part in an experiment for a cash prize if she’s authentic. And only a magician whose sideline is debunking fake mediums will do. In this regard he’s very Houdiniesque. In fact Morgan even mentions a case in which a father was being put in touch with the son he lost during World War 1. Arthur Conan Doyle, much? Judy seems disinclined to give up the whys and wherefores, but she’s so cute and her sleeves, like voluminous bellows on a concertina, are so impressive, that he just can’t help being sucked in (probably osmosis created by the shoulder bellows). Later, she’ll show up with sleeves like giant, bacofoil croissants and Morgan becomes even more besotted. Or possibly hungry.
Before we know where we are, and in amidst a welter of card tricks, mind reading, attempts on Judy’s life because she may have inside knowledge, and spooky chicanery, there’s a dead man, master of legerdemain Tauro (Harold Minjir) then another dead man, occultist Dr. Cesare Sabbatt (Cesare was of course The Somnambulist played by Conrad Veidt who slept in a coffin in The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari (1920) and in his early, pre-director years, Browning performed a live burial act in which he was billed as ‘The Living Hypnotic Corpse’). Dr Sabbatt is played by a man called Frederick Worlock, if you can believe that on top of everything else! Both corpses are laid out in esoteric circles lined by candles in locked rooms. Not only that but Sabbatt is a post-mortem ventriloquist. Apparently. Who the dickens is the murderer or murderers? How did they get in and out? And what is their motive? There are plenty of suspects to choose from, all of them involved in the murky world of Magic and Magick.
At this point we welcome the input of the late, legendary F. Gwynplaine McIntyre on the IMDb, for once reviewing a movie that actually exists, and not a wondrous creation of his imagination – ‘This film violates the most basic rule of magic: never do the same trick twice for the same audience, unless you do it two different ways. In one scene, sitting at a breakfast table, Robert Young casually waves his hand and makes a sugar bowl vanish into thin air. We didn’t expect it, so we don’t see how he did it. He orders another sugar bowl from the waiter, played by the annoying bit-part actor Chester Clute. When it arrives, Young waves his hand again and makes the second sugar bowl vanish too, by the same method. This time we’re expecting it, so we see how he does it … and you’ll be as disappointed as I was.’
Yes, this is an effect shot. Or to be precise, a series of effects shots. But we can’t expect Robert Young to do real, close-up magic. He’s an actor, not a prestidigitator. I see where Froggy is coming from, but I wasn’t offended by this, and indeed, its sloppiness (although David found it charming) may be one of the few signs that Browning is thoroughly fed up with the whole venture. Anyhoo, back to the plot. As Dad Morgan says, “I was a little confused before but now I’m just bewildered.” You see Morgan, although he enthusiastically unveils fake mediums who make money from other people’s grief, hasn’t entirely given up belief in the supernatural. (Unlike Houdini, who one school of thought says was murdered by angry Spiritualists.) There’s still a tiny spark of belief in him, which is kind of fascinating and suggests he’s come up against forces he hasn’t been able to explain away with the pure logic he excels in.
Addendum – Morgan’s tiny spark of belief is more to do with the studio system than anything else. I’m reliably informed (by David) that it would have been quite impossible at the time to have an atheist hero.
You would never tell from watching it that this would be the great Tod Browning’s last film. It’s made with assurance, energy and invention. What happened? Well, as many directors do, he found himself trapped as a ‘horror’ director, when in fact he wanted to step away and do something with more social significance. His greatest dream was to film They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, something eventually realized by Sydney Pollack in 1969. But the studios would not relent. In the early forties he’s quoted as saying, “When I quit. I quit. I wouldn’t cross the street now to see a movie.”
I’d cross the street to see this one, not just because it’s the swan song by a unique Hollywood figure whose name still lives on with genre fans all over the world, but because it’s a slick, fun entertainment. There’s no sign of the real disillusionment Browning must have been feeling, and that’s something miraculous in itself.
The ending presents us with a mystery. Someone rings the doorbell at Miracles For Sale, setting off a chain of silly, magical events in which Dad Morgan will get trapped in a trick, but we never get to see who the visitor is and they seem to have gone away by the time Morgan, his dad and Judy show up. Could the doorbell have been pressed by The Grim Reaper, (Time Person Of The Year 2016, NOT Donald Trump as has just been announced, although the difference may be academic) sounding the death knell for Browning’s career? We will never know.
The 2016 Jonathan Creek Christmas Special is on BBC1 at 9pm on Wednesday 28th December, but try to give yourselves a glimpse of the original. Unfortunately this little gem doesn’t seem to be available anywhere commercially. Maybe you could do that hoodoo that you do so well, and it will appear mysteriously in a locked room.
To play us out, here is the late, great David Bowie’s homage to Browning and Chaney in Diamond Dogs.
With your silicone hump and your ten-inch stump.
Dressed like a priest you was.
Tod Browning’s freak you was.