If Only You Believe in Miracles

MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES, THE (1936)

The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936), now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, is a lovely, albeit odd little comedy based on a short story written by H.G. Wells, directed by Lothar Mendes and produced by Alexander Korda. The always endearing Roland Young stars as George McWhirter Fotheringay, an average man who works as a salesman in a small department store. Unbeknownst to Fotheringay, three gods, Player, Observer and Indifference, agree to conduct a celestial experiment by granting the power to perform miracles to a common, unremarkable man. The gods are curious to see how a lowly human will handle such incredible power. Once Fotheringay discovers his newly acquired, if confusing, miracle working abilities (completely by accident, by the way), he keeps it to himself, only practicing magic-type tricks in his home. Soon, however, Fotheringay is quite eager to share his secret, first performing miracles for his co-workers, his boss and even the local vicar. Eventually attempts are made by others to exploit his newly acquired talents in return for monetary gain, vanity and power.

I have often thought about what I would do if I were granted the ability to influence others and change the world. Not necessarily possess magical powers, but somehow have enough wealth and clout to make a significant impact on global issues: famine, equality, healthcare, peace… You know, all the things young people wish for before entering their cynical adulthoods. Would I harness that power for the good of all? Would I sell out in exchange for more power, or become easily influenced by others with nefarious intentions? Ultimately I think it would be an enormous responsibility for any one person to have, especially one who is bestowed such power overnight, with little guidance or support from good, well-intentioned people. And yet, our world is filled with individuals who have the ability to do great things for their fellow humans in need but choose otherwise. They are influenced by those with even greater power for fear of losing what little slice of control they enjoy now. A very frustrating reality in a world filled with complicated politics and high financial stakes.

MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES, THE (1936)

In The Man Who Could Work Miracles H.G. Wells certainly had a thing or two to say about greed, corruption and the ridiculousness of social class. When presented with an opportunity to initiate a “Golden Age,” a sort of utopic world where there are no troubles of any kind, Mr. Fotheringay cannot do so without interference from those who are already at the top of the social hierarchy. Although Fotheringay’s intentions are mostly good (there’s one terribly arrogant attempt to use his abilities to make a woman fall in love with him), he is unable to bring his vision of a perfect world to fruition. Out of frustration and a final attempt to achieve his idea of a utopia, Fotheringay appoints himself king, making unrealistic demands of those he has brought unwillingly into his kingdom. Even an average, nice, well-meaning man like Mr. George McWhirter Fotheringay is susceptible to the evils that lurk within positions of power. At the end of their experiment, Player, Observer and Indifference realize that mankind cannot be given such power at once for fear of catastrophic failure, but rather given little bits of wisdom and understanding over time in hopes that man will eventually evolve.

MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES, THE (1936)

I would like to think that I would do the right and honest thing if I stumbled upon a similar fate as Mr. Fotheringay and possessed the ability to perform miracles. I would decry any attempts to monetize my powers or to take advantage of vulnerable people. There would be no war or hunger or sickness. I would make our world in the image of Shangri-La, that beautiful paradise in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Of course we all know something this pure and this perfect is impossible to obtain. One person cannot hold all power without it being manipulated for personal gain, whether by the person in control or those who seek that same power.

MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES, THE (1936)

The Man Who Could Work Miracles is a delightfully endearing, British fantasy-comedy that manages to sneak in a pretty important message. Roland Young, every diehard classic film lover’s character actor MVP, is charming as the befuddled and powerful Fotheringay. Ralph Richardson is nearly unrecognizable as the eccentric, gregarious Colonel Winstanley, one of the key instigators in corrupting Fotheringay’s miracle-working talents. Most surprising is a brief appearance by a very young, very oiled, very tanned, very nude George Sanders, as the god Indifference. (I mean, could there be more brilliant casting here?) Luckily I was sitting down when Sanders appeared on screen, otherwise I would have totally fallen over. (Alright, so I have a thing for George Sanders. But then again, who doesn’t? It’s that sinfully delicious voice of his.) Along with the excellent performances by Young and Richardson, The Man Who Could Work Miracles cleverly relies upon special effects to demonstrate Fotheringay’s miracle-working. Although these effects grow a bit tiresome after a while, as special effects often do, luckily we are still left with an engaging story, great performances and an extremely important lesson.

Jill Blake

5 Responses If Only You Believe in Miracles
Posted By AL : January 5, 2017 12:36 am

JILL thank you. This Gem has always been on my TopTenList. You say you saw it on a “Criterion” TV show? Does that mean that there is finally a Criterion edition???I have been writing to them for years, begging them to work their magic on this film. There’s a wonderful CD of a suite of the score, but inexplicitly it doesn’t include the haunting MainTitle theme. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but this one film I wouldn’t resent seeing re-made with CGI–imagine what they could do with source material like this…I especially love the opening you mention–”There is a limit to the Power I can give; so The Master has decreed.”

Posted By EricJ : January 5, 2017 1:37 pm

Two of Wells’ scriptwriting contributions to cinema are on Criterion, along with “Things to Come”, and if you ever believed that War of the Worlds or Time Machine MIGHT have been a little bit of political socialist/class-war allegory, or that Invisible Man was more of man’s own natural instinct to become tyrants, just wait till he could go to town on his own projects.
The whole subplot of Fotheringay’s employer being a pennypinching titan-of-commerce store owner was a Capitalism-is-Evil trope Wells constantly trotted out, also in his non-scifi British-social-class stories like “Kipps”. (Most notably filmed with Tommy Steele in “‘Alf a Sixpence”.)

The decline of 19th-cty. Imperial Victorianism, royal stagnation, and the rise of “modern” 20th-cty. technology caused a big interest for London radicals to look for Socialism to “fix” things everywhere around the world, and Wells was one author out on the streetcorners with a copy of the Daily Worker.
A point spoofed in Nicholas Meyer’s “Time After Time”, when Malcolm McDowell’s time-traveled Wells tells 20th-cty. Mary Steenburgen about his radical Victorian-Socialist views, and Steenburgen laughs “Oh, I remember that from Berkeley in the 60′s!”

Posted By Doug : January 5, 2017 4:49 pm

Interesting film I hadn’t heard of-a few points:
“And yet, our world is filled with individuals who have the ability to do great things for their fellow humans in need but choose otherwise.”
Our world is also filled with individuals who do great things for their fellow humans but never talk about it.
“Even an average, nice, well-meaning man like Mr. George McWhirter Fotheringay is susceptible to the evils that lurk within positions of power.”
The problem isn’t ‘within positions of power’-here is where Wells, brilliant as he was, comes up against a brick wall.
The problem is within US. All of the problems which plague Man comes from the heart of Man. Lust, Greed, Envy-there are more, but those three villains are behind most of the troubles in this world.
“Although Fotheringay’s intentions are mostly good (there’s one terribly arrogant attempt to use his abilities to make a woman fall in love with him), he is unable to bring his vision of a perfect world to fruition.”
Wells and Fotheringay are adrift in the same boat. No man, no matter how brilliant can bring about ‘Utopia’, though that hasn’t stopped many lesser minds from attempting that futility.
Sir Thomas More dreamt up Utopia, which is fine for fiction but will never work in Reality.
Love watching Roland Young working his (acting) magic. Uncle Willie!

Posted By AL : January 6, 2017 6:54 pm

I’ve never understood why this film is always referred to as a comedy. “H.G. Wells Hilarious Comedy” etc. Did I miss something?

Posted By swac44 : January 25, 2017 6:29 am

Catching up on posts after being away for a few weeks, oddly enough was thinking of this film yesterday after seeing a poster for it show up in, of all places, Martin Scorsese’s low budget depression-era story for Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha.

The British production The Man Who Made Miracles seems like an unlikely choice for a movie theatre in small-town, 1930s Arkansas, but I’m guessing variations on its fantasy theme filled the heads of millions during one of the world’s darkest periods. (Also assuming the poster was from the director’s personal collection, but who knows?)

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