The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)

Man miraclesOur next screening is on Sunday July 5th. Long before Evan Almighty (2007), Bruce Almighty (2003) and the as yet untitled (but apparently in production) Bruce Almighty 2 … there was an Alexander Korda production called The Man Who Could Work Miracles (before which there was a short story).

PLOT

While vigorously asserting the impossibility of miracles, George McWhirter Fotheringay suddenly discovers that he can in fact perform them! After being thrown out of a bar for what is thought to be a trick, he tests his powers by accidentally sending a policeman to Hades. He corrects this mistake by re-sending him to San Francisco instead – and then seeks advice from various people.

Considered by many to be the best adaptation of H.G. Wells for the screen (compare The Invisible Man, 1933; Things to Come, 1936; The Time Machine, 1960 & 2002; The History of Mr. Polly, 1949; War of the Worlds, 1953 & 2013), this opinion would no doubt have found favour from Wells, since it was he who worked on the script.

Man work miracles 3This is a wry fable (free of the polemics of Things to Come) that starts in the heavens, where God-like creatures roam among the stars (one of them played by an as yet unknown George Sanders, already type cast as ‘Indifference’ – on left of picture) and ends by focusing on the sheer pettiness of human beings: a former colonel (Ralph Richardson) thinks only of conquest (surely the inspiration for Colonel Blimp); a business man (Edward Chapman – later Mr Grimsdale to Norman Wisdom) thinks only of commerce; a clergyman (Ernest Thesiger) wants reform but is a dreamy Utopian. Even Fotheringay sees the flaws in each of their versions of Utopia.

Man work miracles 6GENRE
Although technically this is a sci-fi film, it eschews the conventions of Star Trek and its ilk, though it has some well crafted special effects for its time -which are all the more effective for being in ordinary settings that stay true to the original story (as the illustration left demonstrates).

The film looks and feels like an English comedy of manners, but its aspirations are much larger. As with The Day the Earth Stood Still (which we screened last year), much can be said about this film’s philosophical merits and the profundity of its underlying morals. But, to be honest, it just has good fun with questions like: What would we do if given absolute power? Can mankind change? Will we come to some communal consent as to the betterment of the species?

For Wells, who was sadly looking at a Europe on the brink of yet another war, the answer to these questions is understandably pessimistic. To his credit, however, he leaves the viewer to decide – with just a little prodding from the script.

Man work miracles 5PERFORMANCES

Roland Young (playing Fotheringay) was a stage star of the 1920s and early 1930s, and usually played an impeccable gentleman, diffident, uncertain and shy, though sometimes with a roguish sense of humour (as was his Uncle Willy in The Philadelphia Story, 1940). He could also play an unscrupulous villain (Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, 1935) or a murderous one (the killer in The Great Lover, 1949).

Man work miracles 4This film offered him the chance to employ his range, since he starts out as the sort of person we meet every day (in the pub, for example); he’s harmless, acceptable, forgettable, unable to make an impression even with Ada Price, a girl he’s interested in (Joan Gardner). But once he gets power, he starts to change, engaging in philosophical chat in the pub; then he turns his mind to ending poverty, to ridding the world of weapons, changing liquor into mineral water and becoming a world leader (left).

TRIVIA

Michael Rennie, who played the alien, Klaatu, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, has an uncredited part in this, his first film.

Also uncredited (as an office boy) is Nigel Stock, who some may remember as Dr Watson (opposite Peter Cushing) in the 1960’s TV series of Sherlock Holmes. He also played the title role of Owen M.D. in the 1970s, and appeared in several series in the 1980s (including The Pickwick Papers).

This is also the third film in which Joan Hickson appeared. She was, of course, better known perhaps fifty years later (1980s and 90s) as Miss Marple).

Joan Gardner, who plays Ada Price, George Fotheringay’s love interest, was actually Mrs Korda, being married to the producer’s brother, screenwriter Zoltan Korda.

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One thought on “The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936)

  1. Pingback: Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia, 1954) | Classic Film

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