(1936) Directed by Lothar Mendes; Written by H.G. Wells (Scenario and dialogue) and Lajos Biró (Screenplay); Based on a short story by H.G. Wells; Starring: Roland Young, Ralph Richardson, Edward Chapman, Ernest Thesiger, Joan Gardner and Sophie Stewart; Available on DVD
“A miracle, I say, is something contrariwise to the usual cause of nature, done by an act of will.” – George Fotheringay
One of the biggest discoveries of this month-long exploration of 30s films has been the delightful fantasy/comedy gem The Man Who Could Work Miracles from director Lothar Mendes and producer Alexander Korda. Based on a story by H.G. Wells, and co-written by Wells and Lajos Biró (who was uncredited), the film is a fascinating take on the “absolute power corrupts absolutely” theme, with a populist twist. Compared to the better-known Things to Come (also written by Wells and produced by Korda), which was released the same year, The Man Who Could Work Miracles remains relatively obscure.
In the opening scene, three omnipotent beings dispute the merits of humanity. As an experiment to “see what is in the human heart,” one of the observers chooses an ordinary man, draper’s assistant George Fotheringay (Roland Young), as a test subject. The meek Fotheringay is suddenly endowed with virtually limitless power. At first, his miracles are relatively banal, making small animals and food appear at will, and fixing a co-worker’s sprained arm. As he gradually accepts his powers, however, his ambitions increase. He enjoys a chaste friendship with his co-worker Maggie Hooper (Sophie Stewart), but truly has eyes for another female employee, Ada Price (played by Joan Gardner). Fotheringay quickly learns that his power has limits when he attempts to make Ada love him, but he finds he can’t change her heart.
Reflecting Wells’ socialistic leanings, our protagonist is not a world leader or captain of industry, but an average working stiff. He doesn’t lust for power, but intends to make the world a better place. His attempts to seek counsel from other, presumably wiser individuals yield little insight about how to best channel his miraculous energies. Each, in his own way, would use Fotheringay for his own selfish ends. He first consults his employer, Major Grigsby (Edward Chapman), who values dominance, greed and profit above all else. He wants to use Fotheringay as his exclusive tool for financial gain, admonishing him that there should be “no outside miracles.” Mr. Bamfylde (Laurence Hanray), Grigsby’s pragmatic banker, stands by his employer, appalled by Fotheringay’s suggestion to just give people everything they desire, stating that “human society is based on want.” Rev. Silas Maydig (Ernest Thesiger, best known as Doctor Pretorius in The Bride of Frankenstein), is little help as an indecisive intellectual, willing to proselytize about a perfect world ad infinitum, but reluctant to act. Ralph Richardson, as wealthy retired Colonel Winstanley, has some of the film’s funniest moments. He desires to preserve the status quo, enjoying the spoils of war. When Fotheringay shares his vision of a new world, with people loving one another, Winstanley replies, with utter horror, “Have you no sense of decency?”
Fotheringay’s powers culminate in the construction of an enormous palace, where he summons the world’s political and business leaders to sort out the world’s problems and “run it better.” Young’s indignant speech at the film’s climax, a rallying cry for empowerment of the disenfranchised, speaks to the vast percentage of the population that will never have the opportunity to influence world-changing decisions. While the preceding description might sound like a heavy-handed dissertation on societal imbalance, it’s all handled with deft charm, dry wit, and customary British reserve.
H.G. Wells’ cynical and thoughtful social satire is just as topical today, suggesting that human nature hasn’t changed much over the years. Its basic premise has been recycled in film many times, and could have easily formed the basis for many Twilight Zone episodes. The film’s reluctantly optimistic final message asserts that there may be hope for humanity one day, if we don’t give in to our baser desires and petty disputes. According to The Psychotronic Book of Film, a remake with Richard Pryor had been planned at one time. Several decades later, a remake still seems a viable possibility, if handled right. Marketability aside, this charming, wonderfully acted, and surreptitiously thought-provoking film deserves to be better known.