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The name Tod Browning is synonymous with the horror genre. He was responsible for many of Lon Chaney's silent films, like the now-lost London After Midnight (1927), as well as the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula (1931) and Freaks (1932), a film so disturbing that it was banned for decades and still has the power to shock. The reaction to Freaks was so negative that Browning only made four more films after its release. The last, Miracles for Sale (1939), was a murder mystery that flirted with elements of the horror genre, starring Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's reliable leading man, Robert Young.
Miracles for Sale was based on Clayton Rawson's first novel, the 1938 mystery Death from a Top Hat. Harry Ruskin, Marion Parsonnet - who would later work on Gilda (1946) - and James Edward Grant wrote the screenplay, which took definite liberties with the novel, like changing Rawson's character, "The Great Merlini" to Mike Morgan, "The Amazing Morgan." Played by Robert Young, Morgan is a young magician who owns a magic shop. Like Harry Houdini before him, he is fond of unmasking fake spiritualists who prey on the vulnerable, often working in conjunction with the police. During one such sance, Morgan meets Judy (Florence Rice) who wants Morgan to help her find a killer before she becomes the next victim.
The film, which went into production at the MGM lot for a very brief thirty day shoot from May 22nd to June 22nd, 1939, also co-starred Henry Hull who, according to The Youngstown Vindicator, played three separate roles in Miracles for Sale thanks to the skill of MGM makeup whiz Jack Dawn, who "changed Hull's appearance in every respect, even to the shape of his skull, his face and ears, for each character." Hull was also the first actor to have his eye color altered for a film by the use of contact lenses, which changed his natural brown to blue.
Eye color wasn't the only hurdle for Hull, The Pittsburgh Press reported that he had trouble with one of those roles, that of a magician performing a card trick. Hull was to shuffle the cards, take one out and claim it was the Jack of Diamonds, but he kept pulling out the wrong card. Actor Chester Morris, who was filming Thunder Afloat (1939) on a nearby set, had once been a magician, so he sat in to see Hull do the trick. After watching Hull struggle through several takes, he told him, "Cheer up, Henry. It's happened to me, only it was before an actual audience."
Appearing in the film was also up-and-coming leading man Lee Bowman, Astrid Allwyn, Gloria Holden and character actor William Demarest. Although the Los Angeles Times announced that Virginia Grey would appear in the film, she is not listed in the credits.
Released on August 10, 1939, Miracles for Sale, which had been budgeted at $297,000, ended up losing $39,000 at the box office. The film did receive decent reviews from publications like Variety who wrote "This whodunit has some background color that tickles the imagination [and] leaves a pleasant impression." The New York Times' Frank Nugent felt that although the film had "enough loose ends to fringe a Spanish shawl, the tale has been rather ingeniously contrived and jogs along briskly under Tod Browning's direction [...] The identity of the murderer is fairly obvious from the start, but the motive and the methods are not-not even, we are bound to add, after crime-solver Robert Young has explained it all. But that's the way with these things. So long as they're fun to watch it doesn't matter that they're not models of plot carpentry."
Miracles for Sale was the sixth and final outing for the romantic team of Robert Young and Florence Rice. It was also Tod Browning's final film. After the failure of Miracles for Sale, he was fired by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and spent the next quarter century in wealthy seclusion at his home in Malibu, where he struggled with alcoholism. He died in 1962 from throat cancer - the same illness that had claimed his good friend, Lon Chaney, almost thirty years before. Robert Young continued to be a leading man in films until the 1950s, when he made the switch to television in shows like Father Knows Best and later Marcus Welby., M.D..
By David Kalat
SOURCES:Easker, Alfred Tod Browning's Miracles for Sale (1939) http://366weirdmovies.com/tod-brownings-miracles-for-sale-1939/The Internet Movie Database"Army-Navy Grid Game to Supply Film Thrill." The Los Angeles Times 8 May 39Mank, Gregory William Hollywood Cauldron: Thirteen Horror Films from the Genre's Golden Age "Eye Color Can Be Changed." Mid-Cities Daily News 14 Dec 80Nugent, Frank S. "THE SCREEN; Murder in Magicians' Row Is the Theme of 'Miracles for Sale,' the New Mystery at the Criterion" The New York Times 10 Aug 39 Pitts, Michael R. Famous Movie Detectives III "Real Magician Has Woes Akin to Actor." The Pittsburgh Press 14 Jul 39http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/687/Miracles-for-Sale/notes.html"Magic Tricks Figure in Film Opening at Paramount Friday." Youngstown Vindicator 29 Aug 39