Michael Morgan (Robert Young) is an ex-magician who now makes his living selling the tools that other professional magicians need to carry out their illusions. His latest invention: a twist on the ol’ “saw a girl in half” trick, in which a war scene is staged and a woman is shot in half. It’s all in good fun, he says, with his tricks meant to entertain rather than genuinely fooling people.
The same can’t be said for psychics, according to Mike. In his spare time, he debunks their spiritual “gifts.” So, Judy Barclay (Florence Rice) decides to enlist his help to uncover the deceitful behavior of the phony, seance-leading psychic Madame Rapport (Gloria Holden).
The investigation gets more complicated when a local expert on demonology, Dr. Cesar Sabbatt (Frederic Worlock), is found dead the same night he is planning to host a seance with Madame Rapport.
Released in 1939, Miracles for Sale was directed by Tod Browning and based on a novel by Clayton Rawson. This mysterious tale marked Browning’s final film as director before retiring from Hollywood.
Robert Young may not be too popular today, but he was one of MGM’s go-to guys in the ’30s, and I’ve come to like him after watching many of his films. True, he made many a mediocre flick and a few pure duds, but he’s a likable actor. I once saw him described as “agreeable” and that’s the perfect way to define his brand of charm.
Tod Browning is not the type of director you’d expect to see attached to a Robert Young film. Young starred in a few dark-ish films in his day, but nothing on the level that horror master Browning is typically known for. Young is, after all, perhaps best remembered as the patriarch of ’50s sitcom Father Knows Best.
It’s an odd match-up, but it works. Browning tackles a pretty standard mystery here, adding in a few darker touches that reflect his own directorial history and put a spin on the murder story. Before Sabbatt’s death, the film has a bit of a mystery-comedy mood, a nice fit for Young since he was often cast as the rom-com leading man. The usual styles of actor and director are kind of blended here, which was interesting for me to watch as a fan of them both.
The magician-turned-detective twist also adds some fun to the film. Genuinely odd and spooky things begin happening, and being the creator of illusions, Mike should be able to debunk them all… but the answers aren’t always clear, which adds to the suspense of the film in those moments where the tricks seem genuinely supernatural.
Miracles for Sale will never be considered among Browning’s best, or the best of its genre. However, it’s a fun mystery with some spooky elements and is certainly one of Robert Young’s most enjoyable films. The score: 3.5/5