Tod Browning‘s final film, Miracles For Sale (1939) has been made available on home video for the first time in 2011. It is part of the Warner Archive Collection, but rather oddly, it’s hidden inside a Robert Young double-feature package. Nothing against Young, but one is tempted to ask the Warner Marketing team an incredulous “what were you thinking?” The list of devotees of actor Robert Young would seem quite short today. Comparatively, the marketing team would probably generate far more interest in collections by directors such as Browning or James Whale, both of who still have considerable followings among classic film fans, genre fans, film students, and film historians.
Although Browning was on his brand of “best behavior” following the debacle of Freaks (1932) and was forced to be cautious within the Will Hays Code Universe, he stubbornly only made compromises which still allowed him to be Tod Browning, retaining thematic continuity up to this, his last work. Miracles For Sale begins with a typical Browning scenario: mutilation. A young woman has been captured and awaits military execution for political crimes. She is placed in a large box and shot in half. This stark opening is followed by another Browning theme: the illusion. It turns out this below the waist mutilation is merely a staged demonstration trick for the magician’s business “Miracle for Sale.” According to the magician and seller of magic tricks, Mike Morgan (Robert Young), “the hand is faster than the eye” (with a sleight of hand now, watch that sugar bowl). The structure of Miracles For Sale takes Morgan’s credo to heart. It is kinetically paced like a screwball comedy, reminding us that Browning’s earliest ventures into film were slapstick.
In this very loose adaptation of Clayton Rawson’s hit novel, “Death from a Top Hat,” Browning revisits familiar, obsessive themes of fake spiritualism, magic acts, the whodunnit locked door murder mystery, and transformation through disguises (the last provided by the Houdini-like character of Dave Duvallo, played by Henry Hull of 1935’s Werewolf of London). Morgan has a reputation for assisting the police department in helping to expose phony mediums, occultists and immoral tricksters who prey on gullible widows and the like. Morgan’s rep gets Continue reading TOD BROWNING’S MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939)