I posted a brief clip of Clayton Rawson, the Great Merlini, performing the floating lady trick on Sunday and I thought I'd follow up today with a movie based on one of his books, Death from a Top Hat (1938), which had been voted the seventh best locked room mystery of all time in a poll of seventeen detective story writers and reviewers.
The detective in the novel was The Great Merlini (yep, the same name as Rawson's real-life stage magician name) but was changed in the film to The Great Morgan. Not sure why, but anything can happen in Hollywood.
Mike Morgan (played by Robert Young) is The Great Morgan, a stage magician determined to expose fake mediums who prey on the innocent. (An early cinematic Amazing Randi, if you will.)
Someone is killing off New York City's stage magicians and Morgan -- who presumably is on the killer's list -- wants to find out why. He joins Police Inspector Marty Gavigan (Cliff Clark, who seemed to make a career of playing cops, including at least five turns as Inspector Timothy Donovan in the George Sanders/Tom Conway Falcon films) and comic foil Detective Quinn (William Demarest). The requisite beautiful blonde is played by Florence Rice, whose career was torpedoed by critics who said she only got acting jobs because of the influence of her powerful father, noted sportswriter Grantland Rice.
Bodies appear. Bodies disappear. Bodies come back to life. There's apparitions and mediums and seances. There's magic and miracles galore. There's even a self-typing typewriter...hmm, whose ghostly hands are working this one?
This one has genuinely eerie moments and the comedic side of many 1930s mystery films is considerably toned down, making for an unusually effective B movie.
Rounding out a very good cast are Frank Craven, Henry Hull, Gloria Holden, and Lee Bowman. Among the uncredited actors are Eddie Acuff, Truman Bradley, and Charles Lane -- all recognizable faces. Also uncredited was Barbara Stanwyck's brother Bert Stevens, who has 447 IMDb credits, all uncredited.
Miracles for Sale was the last movie directed by the great Tod Browning. Rawson's book was adapted by Harry Ruskin (The Postman Always Rings Twice, as well as a dozen films in the Andy Hardy franchise), Marion Parsonnet (Gilda), and James Edward Grant (The Angel and the Badman, The Comancheros, McLintock!).