The Maisie series, starring Ann Sothern (1939-1947)

MaisieThe Maisie series, starring Ann Sothern, is a series of ten films released between 1939 and 1947. They are as follows:

  • Maisie (1939)
  • Congo Maisie (1940)
  • Gold Rush Maisie (1940)
  • Maisie Was a Lady (1941)
  • Ringside Maisie (1941)
  • Maisie Gets Her Man (1942)
  • Swing Shift Maisie (1943)
  • Maisie Goes To Reno (1944)
  • Up Goes Maisie (1946)
  • Undercover Maisie (1947)

At the height of Sothern’s association with this role, she was also starring from 1945 to 1947 in The Adventures of Maisie on CBS Radio (and later with the down-market Mutual in 1952, and further in syndication, which I understand for so short a radio series indicates some exceptional quality that delivers an audience). The role seems to have determined the course of her entire career; after Maisie, she starred in two sitcoms for CBS, Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show, and garnered three Emmy nominations. Then she appeared as the voice of Gladys Crabtree in My Mother the Car, Gladys being the deceased mother whose spirit has somehow transmogrified into a 1928 Porter touring car.  This sitcom is generally considered to be either the worst or the second worst TV program of all time (first being Jerry Springer). Finally, Sothern was nominated for an Academy Award for best Supporting Actress for The Whales of August (1987), standing out among an exceptional cast, including Bette Davis and Lillian Gish.

Maisie’s (movie-based) character is that she’s a wisecracking burlesque showgirl from Brooklyn with a spirit as big as all outdoors, and a heart of solid gold. Perhaps the other way around. At any rate, Maisie mostly starts out having just lost her job and down on her luck. She meets a guy who annoys her, but for whom she appears to feel some kind of romantic attraction. Simultaneously, she enters a new environment in which she is a breath of fresh air in some respect — kind of like the plot of most Shirley Temple movies. Maisie’s plainspoken ways break down emotional reserves and misunderstandings that have been hampering progress, everything ends happily and Maisie gets the man, although he conveniently disappears before the next movie. Apparently during WWII this was more common than it is these days; well, no, I’m kidding. It’s just that, at the beginning of every Maisie movie, all previous plot developments get retconned out of existence and new ones freely take their place. So Maisie doesn’t really have a history; it’s more like an attitude.

I certainly understand why Maisie was career-making for Ann Sothern; it was a role that appears to have struck a chord with the public and heaven knows she made it hers. I think the fact that it started in 1939 had something to do with it, but it’s hard to say just what. We know that 1939 was an amazing year for films, perhaps the best year ever, and I think that was a year that formed people in the habit of going to the movies two or three times a week, because they were just so damn good. 1939’s list of movies includes Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, The WomenGone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and quite a few important mystery films, including Another Thin Man, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (yes, I’m serious), and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase (yes, I’m serious).  It was also the first rumblings of WWII in the United States, and I’ll suggest that Maisie’s plucky spirit and get-down-to-work attitude were felt to be a help to the war effort, if you know what I mean. Maisie does a lot of war work during WWII, alternating between riveting and entertaining the troops, etc. So I imagine she was a kind of symbol for women; Maisie had her priorities ostentatiously in order and didn’t mind going nose to nose with people who weren’t pulling their weight. After the war, as the series petered out, Maisie was more often the agent of Cupid, working to get two good-hearted young people back together after a romantic misunderstanding. It rather seemed like it had outlived its usefulness until it transferred to radio, where they essentially told the same set of stories again.

Warning: If you read beyond this point, you may find out more about the plot of the first movie in the series, Maisie (1939) than you want to know, and a bit about some others.  If you haven’t seen these films, you may wish to stop here and preserve your ignorance in favour of future enjoyment. Consider yourself warned. 

Maisie_FilmPosterI originally became interested in the series because I happened to capture #1 on my PVR, from Turner Classic Movies, and found that it had some minor detective content. Maisie is stranded jobless in a small town in Wyoming and finagles her way into a position as live-in maid on a ranch, against the wishes of her soon-to-be romantic interest, cowboy boss Robert Young. She is the servant to the ranch owner’s wife (Ruth Hussey, who does a wonderful job), a slick city orchid who is superficially attentive to her wealthy husband but is really committed to her lover, city slicker John Hubbard.  Maisie finds the boss’s wife locked in the arms of her boyfriend by accident; the boss’s wife decides that Maisie must go, and she cooks up a story about how Maisie is romantically involved with the boss, which simultaneously torpedoes Maisie’s job and her engagement to Robert Young. So she leaves.

The boss then commits suicide but in such a way that it looks like homicide, and Robert Young is put on trial. Maisie is far away and only finds out about the trial in time to arrive barely before sentencing, but she can’t persuade the judge that Robert Young is innocent — until the boss’s lawyer comes up with an envelope that he had been told to deliver to Maisie. It’s a complete explanation, Robert Young goes free, and Maisie inherits the ranch and lots of money, to the well-deserved chagrin of the widow. We are meant to believe that Maisie is about to marry Robert Young, but as I said, he disappears before the next movie and all the money is gone.

This is really the only detective/mystery content I could identify in the whole series, worse the luck. I watched them, at least as far as #8, with an eye to a potential piece not unlike this about their detective content. Since that’s pretty much it for interesting content, I was going to put it aside. But I have to say this. I’m not sure I could have stood the final entries in this series; the whole thing is just too darn depressing.

Maisie_Was_a_Lady_FilmPosterOkay, not depressing at the level of UK kitchen sink drama or Russian expressionism or Italian postwar cinema. But depressing. Chillingly depressing. Ann Sothern is plucky, but man oh man, is that the knife edge upon which people like her used to balance? Not really knowing where their next meal was coming from if they didn’t finagle their way into a job? Because that’s what happens in the Maisie series, over and over. Maisie loses her job and is about to — well, I have no idea, unless it’s starvation added to prostitution or a similar life of crime. She never gets to it, thank goodness. But she is pretty much about to be what we would think of as a homeless person, and she finds herself among a group of people who are similarly down and out. There is one entry, 1940’s Gold Rush Maisie, in which she is taken in by what I believe is called a family of Okies; these people have nothing but an old car and enough food to make it through a day or so. No money, no education, no social services, and possibly not even a change of clothes. I admit it is not too hard to believe that Maisie is imminently going to rally people to work together to improve their collective lot, but still, I mean, good heavens! This is not a light comedy about a Brooklyn showgirl, this is more like The Grapes of fricken’ Wrath. Now, I don’t mind that kind of entertainment, when I sign up to see it.  What I do object to is being told that I am about to see light entertainment with occasionally a song and dance, and being taken to the depths of despair.

And once that became plain, each entry began to demonstrate an affinity for melodrama and pathos, followed closely by bathos. In Ringside Maisie, for instance, her boxer friend is knocked out and comes to blind; only his life’s savings will finance the brain operation he needs, and that will put paid to his ambitions to follow in his father’s footsteps and open a small country store. In the next one, Maisie Gets Her Man, everyone we meet is completely broke and desperate; everyone rallies together to follow a cherubic guy who turns out to be a con artist who cheats everyone out of the pittances they have, then leaves town. Maisie Was a Lady has her as a maid to the daughter of a wealthy but emotionally cold family who is so screwed up that she does her darndest to commit suicide. I think the last few entries in the series are a bit more lighthearted, but honestly, I just don’t want to take the chance.

Annex - Sothern, Ann (Maisie Gets Her Man)_01_DSI can’t think that this was meant to be light entertainment in the way it’s presented nowadays. I think the social context is missing that would tell us that this series is an entry in a different sub-genre, one that we don’t quite understand in the same way any more. What this appears to me to be is a kind of cross between Blondie (who started out the same, as a brash flapper) and the lush romantic entanglements of Douglas Sirk’s 50s overwrought domestic melodramas. Perhaps this was a big-screen version of the exquisitely ridiculous radio soap operas of the day, like Aunt Jenny’s Real Life Stories or Backstage Wife, but I’ve never been able to listen to more than a few minutes of either of those before reaching my limit. Whatever it is, to my taste, and I suspect most 2013 viewers, it is a mix of sub-genres that contains far too much life-and-death drama and doesn’t adequately recompense the viewer with comic or musical relief. There is little or no detection content that would interest the majority of my readership. (The Wikipedia entry tells me that, in the final entry of the series, 1947’s Undercover Maisie, she becomes a Los Angeles cop, but an exceptionally incompetent one, and all detection is done by someone else.)

The way I see it, all these films are about a character, and that character never changes throughout the course of the films. In fact, the audience would be disappointed if Maisie did change in any way. Therefore, the natural story elements are preserved by having other characters change in an appropriate way around her, and usually on a simple and predictable path — poor to rich, bad to good, wrong to right. I have no data on the audience for whom these were designed, but I speculate that it was uneducated and primarily female; women with no money and no power who enjoyed Maisie wading into emotionally overwrought situations and sorting out people who were on the wrong track. Maisie was always just a little brassy and a little overdressed and a little florid, and I think this appealed more than lame evening gowns and brittle social comedy would have done.

So whether you will enjoy this series or not depends on your capacity to tolerate soap opera, pseudo-social commentary, overwrought romanticism, and/or Ann Sothern. Mine revealed itself to be limited to eight-tenths of the oeuvre; your mileage may vary.

Death on the Diamond (1934)

Death on the Diamond

Death_on_the_Diamond_FilmPosterAuthor: Screenplay by Harvey Thew, Joe Sherman and Ralph Spence from the book by Cortland Fitzsimmons. Thew wrote films as far back as 1916, and his contemporaneous work includes a couple of interesting mysteries. Joe Sherman didn’t have much of a film career but he also wrote Murder in the Fleet and directed three films. Ralph Spence has a huge list of writing credits including the original Tillie the Toiler from 1927.

Cortland Fitzsimmons is a mystery novelist whose name was new to me, but not to my better-read fellow reviewers. Bill Deeck reviewed one of his books and suggested it was “like watching grease congeal”. I wish I’d turned that phrase! Others have a similarly poor opinion of his written work. Fitzsimmons wrote a couple of series of mysteries, including a set focused on different sporting events like football (the 1932 film 70,000 Witnesses is based on that one) and the eponymous book that forms the basis of this film. I have a copy of 70,000 Witnesses and have now been prompted to screen it; if it’s as flawed as this film, I may have another review coming down the pike.

Other Data:  71 minutes long. September 14, 1934, according to IMDB.  Directed by Edward Sedgwick, who directed a long list of films from 1920 on including, strangely, Murder in the Fleet and Father Brown, Detective.

Cast: Robert Young as Larry, the star ball player. Madge Evans as the daughter of the owner of the team, Pop Clark, played by David Landau. The credits confused me for a minute because there’s a character played by DeWitt Jennings whose character (the groundskeeper) seems like it should be named Pop Clark  in fact, “kindly old Pop Clark” would be appropriate. But his character’s name is merely Patterson.

Nat Pendleton plays the team’s catcher and Ted Healy (of Three Stooges fame) plays his nemesis, the umpire who hates being called “Crawfish”. C. Henry Gordon plays a villainous racketeer and Edward Brophy plays the dumb but honest cop. No actual pro ball players appear to have been recruited for this film, although it does have Mickey Rooney in a tiny role as the bat boy. Hard-working Walter Brennan has an uncredited role as a hot dog vendor and Ward Bond is in an uncredited role as a security guard.

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I wanted to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing the ending of the film, and the identity of the murderer.  If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own. 

300788520464_1My curiosity about this film was prompted by its recent appearance on TCM, but also because I’ve recently become interested in how films of the 1930s and 1940s co-opted the murder mystery format and combined it with other themes. Recently I looked at a “Western mystery” to see how the two formats meshed. Then this item came along and I started wondering about “sports mysteries”.

My general sense, unsullied by much actual experience, was that the 1930s in Hollywood had produced a number of “sports movies”, simplistic “programmers” whose main theme was the progress of a sports team towards a season’s victory, interwoven with the progress of the team’s best player towards the hand of his best girl and the team’s battle against game-fixing gangsters. Sometimes the sport is boxing or horse-racing and then the team idea dwindles down to an individual. This, I thought, was the same level of entertainment as the typical Western. The hero cowboy bests the rival ranch, or the crooked rustlers, or the railroad baron, and gets the girl. The audience has low expectations and they are usually met, at a low level of inspiration by the screenwriter and low production values by the studio. B-pictures, churned out by the dozens to fill the evenings of Americans before the invention of television.

To be honest, I haven’t bothered to find and screen a bunch of rubbishy old baseball and football movies just to confirm this theory. It is certain that the genre hasn’t survived; today’s viewer has thousands of actual games from which to choose on television at any given moment, in every sport from poker to NASCAR to beach volleyball, and a huge publicity machine to convince the prospective viewer that the plucky team is working hard to vanquish its rivals and overcome huge odds to win the pennant. <yawn>  No one wants to update this genre for the 21st century, which seems more interested in quirky films like Moneyball. We see the occasional film like The Bad News Bears, but this theme has not presented itself by the handful year after year like it used to in the 1930s. I had the feeling this genre was an artifact of the age of film before television, and when audiences became more demanding,the simple sports film collapsed and vanished.

With most such ritualized genres, though, occasionally someone decides to switch up the standard theme and add a murder mystery plot to the mix, mostly connected with the game-fixing gangsters. And this seemed like the inspiration for Death on the Diamond, so I thought I’d give this a good look and see how successful the sports mystery genre might have been had it flourished.

I suspect that sports movie fans were disappointed by the introduction of the unfamiliar mystery plot to get in the way of the “St. Louis Cardinals winning the pennant against great odds and gangsters”, and while mystery fans may have been sufficiently interested to attend, they wouldn’t have left in a good mood. The mystery is, frankly, pretty ridiculous.

death diamond01When the film starts, the team is in trouble; Pop Clark has hocked his majority interest to finance the season, and the team must win the pennant or Pop will lose the team. He hires Larry to come in and pitch to save the day. Larry promptly falls in love with Pop’s beautiful daughter, the team’s secretary. Indeed, after a few abortive attempts to injure the players — someone smears “alkaloid” on the inside of their gloves, and runs Larry and the catcher’s taxi into a ditch — at about the 33 minute mark, someone shoots a player just as he’s rounding third base towards home. At the 47 minute mark, a strangled player falls out of a locker and a few minutes later Nat Pendleton’s character is killed when someone poisons the mustard he smears on his hot dog.

We are aware that there’s a phalanx of gangsters who stand to lose nearly a million dollars — this sum is announced in hushed and reverential tones — if the Cardinals win. They have a motive to do violence to team members, of course, and apparently they do. But of course there is another murderer. This is meant to be a surprise twist at the end; truthfully it will not be a surprise to anyone who has seen more than a couple of films.

I have spoken before about the tightly-timed scripts of movies (and television programmes). Every word, every action, even every camera angle is carefully chosen to communicate a maximum of information as tersely as possible. This film is no exception. But when everything grinds to a halt in the first ten minutes while the kindly old groundskeeper establishes that he goes back a long way with Pop Clark, and thinks he knows more about baseball than anyone on the team, well, we either have the murderer or 90 seconds of useless information. And Hollywood very rarely provides 90 seconds of useless information.

Similarly, throughout the movie, the kindly old groundskeeper does things like show up having coincidentally found the rifle with which the player was shot on the field — and got his fingerprints all over it, silly old man — and we know this is not an accident. And every time he shows up, he gets a little crazier and a little phonier and a little less believable (he never actually does any groundskeeper’s duties on screen).

By the time the team is playing the “big game” at the end of the film, and we see the traditional shadowy figure with claw-like hands lurking in the dugout, everything is obvious; the kindly old groundskeeper is a loony who thinks he should be running the team himself and is responsible for the murders. Larry is pitching on the mound and sees someone in the dugout slipping something into the pocket of his hanging jacket, so Larry throws an unbelievably accurate beanball an unbelievably long distance and knocks out the mysterious figure. Larry’s pocket turns out to contain a bomb, which detonates harmlessly. the groundskeeper is arrested and goes ostentatiously crazy before confessing; Larry wins the game and gets the girl as the closing music swells.


There are so many inconsistencies and logical flaws in this movie that I could go on for a thousand words about them. Why do the gangsters start to intimidate but cease their threats when the murderer starts in? Why is the umpire on the scene two weeks before the season starts? Why does the baseball game start up again ten minutes after the base runner is shot and killed? Why do the media not make more of a series of murders taking place on a professional sports team? (Think about what would happen if someone started killing off real-life St. Louis Cardinals in the dugout this year. CNN would be parachuting reporters into the outfield during games, trying for interviews.) Why do all the players never seem to do anything except stand around? Where did the groundskeeper learn to make a bomb that looked like a wristwatch? What on earth is an “alkaloid” so distinctive that it can be recognized by smell, and why would it be activated by body heat? Why is there a black sleeve on the arm poisoning the mustard, when moments later the groundskeeper is shown wearing white? Why is Madge Evans the only woman in the universe? But really, this film is just so uninspired that no one will ever really care. Indeed, there are not enough baseball scenes to please baseball fans and there is so little mystery that no one over the age of 10 will be troubled to solve this before the 60-minute mark. Nothing makes sense and everything is a cliche. Bah.

A fellow reviewer more interested in baseball than mystery called this “the Reefer Madness of baseball movies” — he was aggrieved by the lack of anyone wanting to stop the game for little things like the pitcher getting murdered. He suggests a wide variety of themes for baseball movies that are worth repeating — and that are not represented in Death on the Diamond. “It isn’t about a rookie’s struggles fitting in.  It isn’t about underdogs struggling to win the pennant.  It isn’t about the struggles of a veteran losing his skills.  It isn’t about the relationship between different generations of men.” No. None of those things. Trust me, there is nothing here that you need to see.  So unless you have some peculiar and idiosyncratic reason for screening this — for instance, you want to try to spot Walter Brennan in his three-second appearance in the sequence where Nat Pendleton is smearing poisoned mustard on his own hot dog (is that him at the far right of the photo?) — really, don’t bother.

Notes For the Collector:

I was unable to locate a copy of this on Amazon or other traditional marketplaces, but TCM screened it in mid-August 2013 and is not shy about re-running its movies once or twice a year.

My favourite strict-form puzzle mystery films (part 1)

I suggested that I’d make this list in a recent post: it seems like a good time to get started.  These are in no particular order. “Strict-form”, to me, means that there is a mystery as a major part of the plot and it can be solved by an intelligent and observant viewer, because all the clues are displayed fairly. And I’ll note here that I say “favourite”; not necessarily the best, but these are the ones I can watch again and again, and recommend to friends.

Green_For_DangerGreen For Danger (1946)

Starring Alistair Sim as Inspector Cockrill; based on the novel of the same name by Christianna Brand.  This is a story about a WWII hospital and some violence and fatal ill-feeling among a group of doctors and nurses who are staffing it.  Patients keep dying on the operating table for no reason that anyone can find … then a crabby senior nurse is stabbed in a deserted operating theatre.  A tight and intelligent puzzle based on who/what/why/when/where/how as much as personality and sociology, although both are important.  The background is fascinating and well observed, and Alistair Sim is absolutely wonderful as a somewhat nitwitted Scotland Yard inspector who looks around to see if anyone saw him dive for shelter when he hears a flying bomb.

Miracles For Sale (1939)

You can read my entire opinion here. Stars Robert Young and Florence Rice in a rocketship-fast puzzle about spiritual mediums, escape artists, and stage magicians.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

the-last-of-sheila-3With James Coburn, Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon, James Mason, Joan Hackett, Ian McShane and Raquel Welch in a great ensemble cast. The most important part is that this was written by Stephen Sondheim and Anthony Perkins; Sondheim’s a puzzle fanatic and a linguistic genius (as well as every other kind).   A year after Sheila dies at a Hollywood party, her widower (Coburn) invites a group of six party guests to spend a week on the Mediterranean on his luxury yacht, playing a complicated parlour game that soon turns to murder.  A brilliant script and a subtle and intelligent mystery with devilishly tiny clues, including the photo you see here. The small cast and restricted locations put the focus on the actors, who all rise to the occasion; this is the first time I ever knew that Raquel Welch could actually act. And apparently Dyan Cannon provides a not-very-loving portrait of Hollywood agent Sue Mengers.

I understand that Hollywood is talking about remaking this, as of about 2012; nothing has apparently come to fruition.  I’m not holding my breath; the original is nearly perfect. Perhaps someone needs to see Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds in this, but I don’t think I need to.

333701.1020.ALady of Burlesque (1943)

Based on The G-String Murders as by Gypsy Rose Lee; actually ghosted by the great Craig Rice. [edited August 22, 2014] I have been convinced by the research and writing of Jeffrey Marks, whose comprehensive analysis in his book, Who was that Lady? (2010) that Lee did most or all of the writing herself. I have to say although Mr. Marks has changed my mind, I do think there’s plenty of evidence in the other direction and I don’t mind having been fooled. [end of edited portion] Rice was an experienced ghost writer who took credit for the novel, the writing style and humour are very like her other books, and the second book in the series, Mother Finds A Body, written without Ms. Rice and published a year later, is simply awful.

Since the novel was the best selling mystery since The Thin Man, the movie version garnered Barbara Stanwyck (playing Dixie Daisy, the headliner in a bump-and-grind burlesque show) and a host of supporting players. I have to be honest and say this is not a truly strict-form puzzle mystery — you’ll find it impossible to solve, I expect — but once Barbara Stanwyck gets through singing “Take it off the A String, Play it on the G String” and the bumps and grinds begin, you’ll be hooked anyway. The burlesque background is fascinating, the supporting players are delightful, and the musical score was nominated for an Academy Award. It’s cheerful, funny, bawdy and occasionally acidulous. Best of all, the film is apparently in the public domain and you can get a copy via, here.

After the Thin Man (1936) and The Thin Man Goes Home (1945)

My full reviews are here and here of these great mysteries starring Myrna Loy and William Powell. I would also add the great original masterpiece, The Thin Man itself; it certainly qualifies as a strict-form puzzle. All I can say is that I tend to cherish, cultivate and curate the lesser-known gems that might escape people’s notice, and The Thin Man will endure for a long, long time without any curation by me.  The two I’ve mentioned here are difficult mysteries but not impossible; Goes Home is particularly devilish because the central clue is negative in nature.  A character does something in front of your eyes, but if he had not already known that another character was dead, he wouldn’t have done it in quite that way. You’ll slap your forehead when you get the answer.

6043069589_af92b2bbcf_zEvil Under the Sun (1982)

This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one Agatha Christie title; I have two for this list, but this is my favourite. After the success of 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express with its ensemble cast of stars, producers found it easy to finance such productions and festoon them with famous names. 1982 brought a very nearly perfect production of Christie’s novel about Hercule Poirot (here represented by Peter Ustinov) relaxing sur la plage at an isolated quasi-Yugoslavian island resort (actually working on the case of a missing diamond). He finds himself surrounded by a glamourous stage star, Arlena Stewart (Diana Rigg), and her family, and a group of guests who all seem to have some connection to Arlena. These include Roddy McDowall, Maggie Smith, James Mason, Sylvia Miles, Jane Birkin, Nicholas Clay, Colin Blakely and Denis Quilley. Almost every single detail of this film has been lovingly assembled: brilliant costumes, detailed sets, polished dialogue — oh, especially the dialogue, which is jam-packed with quotable lines delivered with relish by actors who seem to be enjoying themselves. (Maggie Smith: “Arlena and I were in the chorus of a show together, not that I could ever compete. Even in those days, she could always throw her legs up in the air higher than any of us <beat> and wider.”)

My only problem with this film is Peter Ustinov making a fool of himself playing Hercule Poirot. Or, rather, playing “beloved character actor Peter Ustinov playing Hercule Poirot” and doing everything but bite his own arm to get a laugh. There are many reasons to laugh at Hercule Poirot, but none of them should be that he is a buffoon.

At any rate, the plot is extremely complex and recomplicated, with every character having a sensible motive. It requires a considerable parsing of a large amount of evidence to correctly assign guilt, and the traditional “gather them all in a big room and explain the crime” scene at the end goes on and ON; to the great satisfaction of those of us who want every I dotted and every T crossed, but even so … And it all ends happily and beautifully.

This will do for part 1: I need to do a little research and thinking before I proceed with part 2; it will, however, contain the other Agatha Christie piece I mentioned, 1945’s And Then There Were None.


To the best of my knowledge, each of the above-noted films is available from the usual sources: Amazon and eBay are where I would start, but there are many inexpensive sources if you know where to look.

Miracles For Sale (1939)

Miracles For Sale 

14806Author: Screenplay by Harry Ruskin & Marion Parsonnet and James Edward Grant, based on the “Great Merlini” novel Death From a Top Hat written by Clayton Rawson.

Harry Ruskin was a prolific writer of, among other things, a double handful of Dr. Kildare films and “additional dialogue” for The Glass Key. (Mr.) Marion Parsonnet wrote the screenplay for GildaCover Girl, B-movies and some television episodes. James Edward Grant seems to have been a kind of two-fisted specialist with a long career primarily focused on Westerns and war movies.

And of course, based on the Great Merlini novel by Clayton Rawson noted above.

Other Data:  71 minutes long. Released August 14, 1939, according to IMDB.  Art direction by Cedric Gibbons and wardrobe by Dolly Tree. I don’t ordinarily mention the wardrobe mistress by name, but I have to say, her work here is extraordinary. There is no Wikipedia page for Dolly Tree, and someone should rectify this, based on what little I could find on the Internet.  Anyway, Florence Rice gets to wear two absolutely amazing evening gowns that a fashionable woman of seventy-five years later would have no problems wearing to the right event. They both have a very unusual shoulder treatment that is really attractive, a kind of Judy Jetson effect of multiple tiers. I’ll show you a picture below; these have to be seen to be believed.

miraclesforsale1939_ff_188x141_071020130425Directed by Tod Browning — indeed, his last film before retirement. This is not much more than a B picture in intent, I think, but he gave it a professional polish and treatment. I’m not an expert on Browning’s work, but it occurs to me that the unusual occupations of the characters are what attracted him to this piece.

Cast: Robert Young as Mike Morgan (because The Great Merlini needed his name simplified, apparently). Florence Rice as Judy Barclay, Frank Craven as Dad Morgan. Among the suspects are Henry Hull, Lee Bowman, Astrid Allwyn, Frederick Worlock, Gloria Holden and William Demarest (of My Three Sons fame).

About this film:

Spoiler warning: I must announce at this point that the concepts I want to discuss about this film cannot be explored without revealing most of the ending of the film, and the twists that underlie some events.  You should also be aware that there is a novel called Death From a Top Hat by Clayton Rawson to which you will find out the ending, plot, etc. If you have not yet seen this film and wish your knowledge of it to remain blissfully undisturbed, stop reading now and accept my apologies.  If you read beyond this point, you’re on your own.   

Thank you, TCM, for providing the original trailer.

There are not many films that are strict-form whodunits that are actually solvable by the viewer. I admit whenever I encounter one these days, it usually takes me a couple of tries to work out if, and then exactly how, the director has made a clear logical path available for me. First I have to understand what’s being asserted as the solution, and then I have to look to see if indeed it’s possible to figure that out from what is on the screen. I have to look at the film a couple of times with my little notebook at hand, marking time points with plot points.

I didn’t do that here. My rate of posting is down to around once a month as it is.  If I give Miracles For Sale the strict analysis, I would be at my desk well into 2014, I’m sure. This is an extremely difficult and complex film; perhaps the most difficult and complex plot ever smushed into 71 minutes of rapid-fire film, complete with the occasional comedy aside. Add to which, it is based on a novel (Death From A Top Hat, hence DFATH) that is among the most difficult and complex ever written in the mystery field — so much so that they had to leave out bits of it because it would have doubled the running time of the film to explain things completely.  I’m quite familiar with this book, having loved it for years, and it’s a fascinating strict-form puzzle mystery based on the principles of stage magic, against a background of people whose professions include ventriloquist, stage magician, escape artist, medium, and a pair of nightclub performers with a telepathy act.  There’s also a professional debunker of phony mediums and a main character whose job it is to create the objects and routines with which stage magicians make their living.

At this point, the book and film diverge. The ventriloquist disappears from the film, to my sorrow, and to my much greater sorrow, the book’s grandstanding and verbose character of The Great Merlini, owner of a magic supply store and amateur detective, has been replaced by Mike Morgan, portrayed by the debonair but considerably more pedestrian Robert Young.

Browning_1939_MiraclesForSale_1As I said, a complex and difficult plot; I’ll give you the bare bones. A group of assorted professions as noted above are involved in the circumstances of the murder of the first victim, X, who is found dead in his locked apartment, spread-eagled inside a pentagram on the floor filled with black magic symbols and objects. Suspicion immediately falls on another character, Y, who leaves the murder scene because he has to appear on a live radio show.  Y promptly vanishes and later appears to have been lying dead elsewhere, spread-eagled inside a pentagram, the whole time. A number of other characters go through a lot of plot machinations in a remarkably short period of time, speaking crisply, and someone keeps trying to kill Florence Rice’s character, including one character whom we see clearly and whose corpse (to the left in the pentacle) is pretty cold at this point.  That’s her in the wide-shouldered gown above; she’s about to be shot at during a magic act in the finale, just before the real murderer is unmasked.  There’s a seance, a stage act, a car chase, and a bunch of magic tricks that go off at the right time. In the meantime we have seen an actual locked-room mystery brought off before our very eyes — in a solvable way.

But, dear reader, you will not solve this mystery. I believe it is possible to do so, given the information on the screen and in the soundtrack, but I will tell you in real life that you’ll never get it first time through. You have a dim chance, if you’ve read the book but forgotten most of the details; if you come to this cold, you’ll just never do it. Frankly, this is one for sitting back and allowing it to happen and enjoying it, and then, if you’re interested, watch the film again and see if you can figure out where and how you were fooled.  I will say, just a tiny bit enigmatically, that I was not aware of anyone leaving the apartment after the penny had been electrified, although I understand that someone had to have done so. I accept that the murderer can physically have accomplished what he did, and he had just enough time to do so, but honestly, folks, he would have been out of breath upon arrival everywhere and phenomenally lucky to boot.

If you’d actually like to try, I suggest that you stop the recording at the point when Florence Rice is going to be the target of the bullet — at the 1:09 mark — and start again from the beginning until you know what is about to happen and why, and instigated by whom. There is no Ellery Queenian “Challenge to the Reader” in this film or its source material, but if you wish a point at which to try yourself, that would be it.

Points of Interest:

5845664999_350ae6cd42_mI’ve always liked this movie, and in the years before videotape it was very difficult indeed to see; at least one very muddy print was making the rounds of small television markets, and I picked up VHS copies two or three times hoping vainly for a better copy.  Part of my affection for the book version comes from its origin in my life; I’ve been a collector of and dealer in mapbacks for many years, and it used to be that the source material, DFATH, was only available in a low-numbered and valuable paperback edition, complete with the “map of crime scene on back cover” that contributes to these early Dell editions being so charming and collectible. So whenever I managed to find a copy, not only did I have a very pleasant re-reading experience immediately at hand, but I also had an immediate customer for the book.

My affection for the movie, I think, stems from the fact that it’s an extremely difficult strict-form puzzle mystery — perhaps THE most difficult strict-form puzzle mystery on film — translated from book to film with very little loss. There is charm, humour, the events move at the same breakneck clip as in the original, and for those of us who enjoy ratiocination, there’s plenty of room for deduction. I would show my best copy of this to personal friends, inviting them to bemoan with me the general dullness of Hollywood mysteries that almost never rose to this level of complexity and difficulty.

I have to say, I have changed my tune somewhat. There are only a few such films that are strict-form and worth watching that date back to the 1930s, and definitely not very many overall — Clue, a comedy from 1985, is perhaps the latest, and The Last of Sheila from 1973 is perhaps the last serious one not based on an Agatha Christie piece. The ones that managed to get made — this has never been a popular genre — were marked by extreme originality and usually based in some profession or background that would have been interesting in any context. Unfortunately, for the handful that are worth watching, there are ten times as many unwatchable, dull and chaotic failures.

x-miracles-for-sale-jWhy is that?

Oddly enough, I figured this out by watching every single episode of the 80s TV series Murder, She Wrote at least twice, and this is an exercise I don’t recommend to you. MSW tries to be a strict form puzzle mystery, for the most part, and part of the reason that it is dull and considered suitable for the elderly is that a strict form puzzle mystery is very difficult to SHOW.  It is much easier to write. The other reason the series is dull is that in 264 episodes and four made-for-TV movies, Jessica Fletcher is on the scene when a body is discovered.  This is beyond ridiculous, and thus the production is constantly winking at the audience that this is merely a set piece, a kind of game played out for your amusement, and to me this sucks a lot of vitality out of the plots.

I don’t remember the episode name, but I dimly recall one of the clues was that Jessica Fletcher walked into a room and put her hand on a TV set and grimaced a little.  This was meant to indicate that the TV set was still warm, and thus the room had been occupied when someone said it wasn’t, and therefore the murderer was some washed-up 80s TV sidekick. The point is, though, that it was necessary to show Jessica putting her hand on the TV set and reacting, and the viewer had to figure out why she had grimaced and draw all the same conclusions. Something peculiar happens in the very tightly scripted episode of a network programme when this happens; the canny viewer immediately becomes aware that an important clue has just been shown, because every single other word and gesture and movement and camera angle and interaction has a purpose and a function.  When we are shown something that is seemingly extraneous, well, we’re all wise and experienced TV viewers, and we know there is some reason for being shown this, if we can only figure it out.  Since the strict-form mystery must show you the clues, they are much more difficult to conceal or obfuscate than they are with the printed word. Here, you’ve got 71 minutes of vital plot points being rained upon you like confetti; miss one and you can’t solve the mystery.  In the book you have to construct in your head a map of the whereabouts of every character, and follow them all the way through the plot to realize that there is only one person who can have done everything that happened.  In this movie, you have to sort information like the proverbial one-armed paper-hanger, and there’s no time to think about anything except what just exploded.  That’s why MSW is considered dumbed down for a dumb audience — the producers knew their audience could only handle one or two difficult clues every fifteen minutes or so. Here, it’s vital information every fifteen seconds. All of it necessary to a truly complicated plot, and upon fifth or sixth viewing of this gem, you’ll appreciate the shovel-loads of data that the writers threw at you so skilfully. First time through, fugeddaboudit.

While I do think there are a double-handful of strict-form puzzle mystery films that are enjoyable — I’ll make a list for you someday — I think I have come to understand over the years why there are not more of them. You run a double risk of failure.  You have failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that they could NEVER have solved the damn mystery and it will be a cold day in hell before they ever go to another Mike Morgan movie.  Unfortunately you have also failed if 98% of people who see the film think, at the end of it, that of course it was perfectly obvious whodunnit and really, they must think we’re just idiots to make it that easy, I’ll skip the next one and send my 11-year-old to see it.

As I’ve said or suggested above, I’m a reasonably intelligent person with a very wide knowledge of murder mysteries, who is accustomed to the challenge of trying to figure them out and succeeds a great deal of the time — and I failed to figure this one out on the first go-round. I venture to say that this means that approximately 100% of people who see the movie are surprised by the ending, and in this case it cannot be a very pleasant surprise. The actual murderer has disguised himself as a number of other people, but he is only on screen in his own persona for 60 or 90 seconds of the film at most. This is not enough time for anyone to grasp the individual and understand exactly who he is and what he does for a living, especially since the movie proceeds at breakneck speed and all the men are wearing nearly identical clothing at all times.  I have this little vision of a stream of people leaving the theatre after the premiere, saying, “Well, you know, not as much FUN as those Thin Man movies, don’t you think?”  I love this film, I love the level of expectation that it has of my puzzle-solving efforts, but I have to say, all in all, it’s a failure.  It’s just too damn tough.

And that’s why I’m not expecting a lot of enormously popular strict-form puzzle mystery films to be greenlit in the near future. It’s a chancy and difficult exercise that is fraught with peril and, very often, the modern screenplay doesn’t exhibit that level of wild imaginative originality that is so necessary to lift a mystery plot from the level of MSW to Miracles for Sale.  You have to have a mystery that is based on a visual premise. You need interesting detective characters, a strange background, a weird murder idea. And there’s no guarantee that anyone will like it even if you get it right.

There’s one further point of interest, albeit a minor one.  I learned from the TCM introduction to this film that it represents the first time that contact lenses were seen to be used in a film. That is a minor plot point, but it will explain why one or two characters seem to have weird colourless eyes; you’ll understand this in the last minutes of the film.

Notes For the Collector:

1289890045Copies of the film seem readily available.  It was broadcast by Turner Classic Movies in October, 2013 and they aren’t usually shy about repeating their offerings every once in a while. TCM and Amazon both have the same double-feature DVD available for under $20.

Copies of the book, especially the Dell edition pictured above, are certainly worth having. To me, Clayton Rawson is one of the cornerstones of the puzzle mystery and Dell mapbacks are a cornerstone of paperback collecting.  All four of the Merlini books in mapback edition might set you back $100 and they will only increase in value with time; the most expensive copy you can find is probably the biggest bargain. The hardcover first without jacket starts at about $45, but the jacket is extremely scarce in any condition and the cheapest one I saw was $310; the VG+ copy in VG+ jacket will set you back $3,750 (pictured at left). I’ve never held in my hands one for sale with its original jacket, but I note that there is a really good facsimile jacket out there. So a good rule of thumb is that if the jacket is in good condition, it’s either a facsimile or you probably can’t afford it.