REVIEWED BY MICHAEL SHONK:


THE GREAT MERLINI “The Transparent Man.” Syndicated by United Artist Television, 1951. G&W Television Production Inc. Cast: Jerome Thor as the Great Merlini, Barbara Cook as Julie, Robert Noe as Inspector Gavigan, Howard Smith as Belmont, E.G. Marshall as Comell and Michaele Myers as Josephine. Original Story and Adapted by Clayton Rawson. Produced by Felix Greenfield and Robert Whiteman. Filmed at Fletcher Smith Studio, New York. Directed by Ted Post.

   Question, who was the first Fictional Magician Detective to appear on television? Really, if you know tell me.

   It may be the Great Merlini who made his TV debut in the episode “The Great Merlini” for the NBC-TV series CAMEO THEATRE (May 23, 1950). The thirty-minute anthology series featured plays performed live in the round. Chester Morris (film’s Boston Blackie) was the Great Merlini. From the plot as described and with author Clayton Rawson credited as one of the writers, the episode was probably an adaption of Rawson’s book FOOTPRINTS ON THE CEILING.

   As far as I know, no copy of this episode of CAMEO THEATRE exists. However the second and maybe the last TV appearance of the Great Merlini is available to watch. A pilot film for a proposed TV series THE GREAT MERLINI, the episode was entitled “The Transparent Man” and was written by Clayton Rawson.

   Created by Rawson for a series of books and short stories, the first, DEATH FROM A TOP HAT, was published in 1938. Two movies were adapted from the books, MIRACLES FOR SALE (1939; directed by Tod Browning, based on DEATH FROM A TOP HAT) and Michael Shayne film THE MAN WHO WOULDN’T DIE (1942) starring Lloyd Nolan based on the book NO COFFIN FOR THE CORPSE.

   Clayton Rawson is considered one of the greatest writers of locked room mysteries and includes John Dickson Carr and Fred Dannay among his greatest fans. He would help found the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) and served for many year as managing editor for the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (1963-71).


“The Transparent Man.” When a famous thief announces his plans to steal a priceless necklace, it is a crime for the police, but when the thief has been dead since 1798 it becomes a job for The Great Merlini. He must solve how an invisible thief opened a locked door and stole the necklace from a room full of people.


   For TV viewers “The Transparent Man” is an entertaining but flawed TV show, however fans of the books may find this TV episode disappointing. It is more an “impossible crime” story than a locked room mystery.

   Rawson’s books and short stories even today are considered among the best of the locked mystery genre. Arguably the greatest flaw in Rawson’s books is the slow pace and the enormous amount of pages it takes to develop the locked room mystery. With time limited the TV version settled on a weak solution, faster pace, and more attention to the character Great Merlini.

   Jerome Thor (FOREIGN INTRIGUE) played the Great Merlini with the confident flare one expects from a stage magician. The eccentric Merlini enjoys the challenge of solving impossible mysteries, and he is amused that his talent to deal with crime is in more demand than his stage act as a magician. There is no mention of owning a magic store.

   Ross Harte, the Watson to the Great Merlini, was not in the TV pilot. Replacing him was Julie, Merlini’s talented Magician’s Assistant girlfriend with a wry wit. Barbara Cook played the role well, so it is a surprise that the IMDb claim this was her only role in television or film.

   Director Ted Post would go on to a long successful career directing a variety of TV series including PERRY MASON, GUNSMOKE, TWILIGHT ZONE, and COLUMBO. He also directed films such as BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES and MAGNUM FORCE.

   But this was one of his first attempts at directing television and it shows. The direction here is awkward, a clumsy mix of close-ups and medium shots with a missed shot or so. But much of the awkwardness could have been covered with a background soundtrack.

   Robert Noe captured the essence of Inspector Gavigan. The suspects included two actors still remembered today. Howard Smith, who had a successful career from vaudeville to films and may be best remembered for his TV work (HAZEL), looked uncomfortable and lost. E. G. Marshall, a successful actor on Broadway and film (12 ANGRY MEN) is also best remembered for his work in TV (THE DEFENDERS), did only an adequate job with his small role.

   Felix Greenfield and Robert Whiteman produced this pilot for a GREAT MERLINI TV series. I can find nothing about Robert Whiteman, but Felix Greenfield was best remembered as a publicist for Warner Brothers for over 30 years.

   Greenfield was also a stage magician (mentalist) who starred in his own radio shows in New York during the 40s. His only other TV producer credit in IMDb was for the “Great Merlini” episode of CAMEO THEATRE, but according to his obit in the New York Times, he also was a technical consultant on magic for several TV series including THE DEFENDERS.

   This show was filmed in 1951 and near the end of the wild days of television. The networks were still young. NBC and DuMont began in 1946 and CBS and ABC would join in 1948. Independent TV stations many doing their own programming were growing all over the country and everyone needed programs to fill the time.

   How crazy and forgotten was that time for television? Wikipedia does not even mention United Artist Television existed between 1948 and 1952 instead claiming it began in 1958.

   From Broadcast (March 19, 1951) UA’s TV Director John Mitchell announced, “United Artist Television, New York has been appointed national distributer of the GREAT MERLINI, new half-hour TV film series produced by G&W Productions and filmed at Fletcher Smith Studios, New York. Ted Post of CBS is director of the show. The program is to be distributed on the basis of local and regional sponsorships.”

   John Mitchell was an early pioneer of television in how companies marketed TV programs to early television stations and networks. In 1952 he became one of the first three employees of Screen Gems.

   Among the joys of watching old television shows are the many stories and questions behind the making of the program. Is the Great Merlini TV’s first Magician/Detective? Where did this attempt for a GREAT MERLINI TV series air? Why couldn’t I find an American TV series to feature a Magician/Detective before THE MAGICIAN (CBS, 1973-74)? And was “Transparent Man” the last TV appearance of the Great Merlini?


BONUS FROM YOUTUBE:

Clayton Rawson as the Great Merlini performing the “Floating Lady” trick with family and friends.