THE MAN WHO COULD WORK MIRACLES (Lothar Mendes, 1936)

Adapted by H.G. Wells from his own story, The Man Who Could Work Miracles probably most resembles James Whale’s The Invisible Man (1933) in terms of its blend of comedy and fantasy, in both cases with a tragic undertow. These remain the two best films to claim Wells as their literary source.
     As an experiment seeking to determine human capacities for nobility and corruption, three gods of the stars bestow upon George McWhirter Fotheringay (Roland Young, in the performance of his career), a small, ordinary haberdasher’s assistant in Dewhinton, Essex, the power to will miracles, that is, acts contrary to the normal course of Nature. Initially he thinks about using the gift for his own financial benefit, but when he handily succeeds in erasing an acquaintance’s unwanted freckles it is impressed upon him that he might cure illnesses worldwide. Eventually Mr. Maydig, a local clergyman, convinces Fotheringay he might reform the workings of the world. Fotheringay summons bankers and world leaders and demand that they “do better” immediately. But Maydig’s beseeching Fotheringay to give the men some time to improve things pricks Fotheringay’s impatience; Fotheringay as a result, in what might be described as a temper tantrum, orders the Earth to stop rotating. Chaos ensues; but, having already given himself a protected life, Fotheringay wills himself back in time to when he first demonstrated his powers by turning a pub lamp upside-down—only this time, before entering the pub, he divests himself of his gift. He muses aloud that if he had miraculous power he might change the world for the better. “But you won’t ever have the chance!” someone there reminds him. George: “No, I won’t ever have the chance . . . now.”
     This brilliant satire of both capitalism and utopianism, by which human advancement can proceed only incrementally, marshals a stunning array of special effects directed by Ned Mann. The film’s director, Lothar Mendes, guides his tour-de-force to a poignant conclusion where Everyman confronts his infinite capacity to bungle. The “master” to which the three studious gods refer, plainly, is a rational leader, a professorial type, rather than a God of spirit or religion. In short, there is no God such as humanity has conceived God, which sets all of Earth’s history, including this interruptive test, in the willful hands of the bumbling fools who go by the name “Us.”

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