Monday, November 02, 2009

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1937)

While I don't typically go for serious science fiction (much preferring space pulp/Westerns/opera), that's not universally true. I very much, for example, dig HG Wells. Though I suppose you could make the case that he's technically not a science fiction writer, so maybe he's the exception that proves the rule. The Man Who Could Work Miracles certainly isn't science fiction, at any rate.

What I like about Wells is that he's really a philosopher. He's just super talented at making his thoughts interesting to read. Even when nothing all that interesting is happening plot-wise (I mean War of the Worlds is awfully talky for an alien invasion story) Wells' dialogue keeps me captivated. Especially because the ideas in that dialogue are fairly profound, even 100 years later.

I've never read the short story that The Man Who Could Work Miracles is based on, but having seen the movie now, I feel like I have. Wells is credited with writing the "scenario and dialogue" even though the film is much expanded from the short story. IMDB credits Lajos Biró with the actual screenplay and Biró had a good feel for Wells' style. Like Wells' novels that I've read, there's not a ton of plot, but it's fascinating to listen to the characters discuss and debate what poor Mr. Fotheringay should do with his new-found omnipotence.

The story is similar to Bruce Almighty, although instead of the God, it's a subordinate angel or other god of some kind who capriciously decides to bestow almost unlimited power to mankind. A couple of his fellow "angels" talk him into a trial run on a single human first, so the entity randomly selects a man going into an English pub: Mr. George Fotheringay.

By the way, the reason I wanted to watch this movie is because it's an early role for George Sanders, one of my favorite actors. Sanders plays one of the other "angels." That's him on the left.

The rest of the film is Fotheringay's trying to decide how to use his power. I like that he never considers hiding it or keeping it a secret. I'm always irritated when that kind of false drama is forced into these things. Instead, Biró lets the scenario play out as it actually might. Fotheringay is a simple man whose first instinct is to tour music halls as a magician, but as he shares his story with others (happily providing proof of his powers to any who need it), he receives all kinds of contradictory advice about what he should do.

His friend at work thinks he should use his powers to help people and Fotheringay happily makes plans to start visiting hospitals. His boss, however, wants him to use his power for the benefit of the company, and offers a raise and possible partnership as reward. That leads Fotheringay to question the need for money and profit at all. If he can provide everything the world needs, why not do it? His boss is of course horrified by this and explains that without the pursuit of wealth, people would have nothing to do.

There's a girl at work whom Fotheringay likes and she has her own selfish ideas about how the poor guy should use his power. He complies at first, giving her a tiara and pearls and eventually transforming her into Cleopatra herself, but the girl, while grateful, isn't so impressed that she's willing to leave her boyfriend for Fotheringay. He tries using his power to make her, but learns that he's not truly omnipotent after all. Like Bruce Almighty's instruction not to override anyone's free will, Fotheringay also can't directly influence anyone's actions. We're not told why; it's just a weakness that the "angel" wisely built in.

Still at a loss for what to do, Fotheringay visits a local vicar (played by Dr. Pretorius from Bride of Frankenstein). The vicar convinces him that - contrary to his boss' wishes - Fotheringay should create a utopia. Why go around healing people when he could just abolish all illness with a word? He agrees to this until he meets a warmongerer who's so appalled by the plan that he tries to kill Fotheringay.

Fotheringay's powers save him, but he realizes that no one's agreeing about what he should do and decides just to use his powers for himself. Although that - as well - has horrible consequences.

In the midst of all this arguing and discussing are some great questions about power and greed and charity. Wells and Biró don't necessarily provide the answers, but there's plenty to think about, which is what great literature (and great cinema) is all about.

Four out of five Cleopatras.

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