Monday, February 11, 2013

Finally, a full post on "The Magnificent Dope"

I've twice briefly mentinoed the 1941 Fox comedy The Magnificent Dope, and both times lamented that it's not available on DVD. It would be a good candidate for Fox's MOD scheme, and for some reason I thought it was supposed to receive a DVD release from the Fox Cinema Archive. As far as I can tell, however, that still isn't the case. It's getting one more airing on the Fox Movie Channel tomorrow morning at 6:00 AM, so that's when you're going to have to catch it.

Don Ameche plays Dwight Dawson, who runs a "school for success" (think Dale Carnegie), aided by his fiancée Claire (Lynn Bari) and assistant Horace (Edward Everett Horton). Unfortunately, the school for success isn't very successful itself. What to do? Why, have a contest to promote the school! Have failures from all around the country send in their stories, and the school will give the best essay a big fat cash prize, as well as a free success course, which will show off how good the school is. If it can turn this failure into a success, why, it can turn you into a success too! After going through all the essays, they pick Tad Page (Henry Fonda), and bring him in from his small New England hometown to make him a success.

There's a big catch, however. Tad doesn't really consider himself a failure. Sure, he's not particularly well off, since he doesn't work all that hard, but Tad likes it that way. Indeed, he only entered the contest because he wanted to use the prize money to buy his town a new fire truck that it really needs. So Tad shows no desire to take the success course, or at least no desire to take the course seriously. When he does sit in the classes with the other students, he's more of a malignant presence, at least in the mind of Dwight: Tad is giving all of the other students dangers ideas about how the rat race isn't all that, and it's OK to stop, sit back, and smell the roses. Such ideas will be the death of Dwight's school!

Complicating matters is that Tad has fallen in love with Claire, although he doesn't realize she's in a relationship with Dwight. Dwight wants to use this relationship to manipulate Tad, and Claire is torn over what exactly she should do. She kind of likes Tad herself.

The Magnificent Dope has themes seen in several other movies. The "avoiding the rat race" theme definitely pops up 15 years later in Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, as well as a bunch of Depression-era movies, most notably Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Henry Fonda's Tad Page is of a type he played in a few other movies from that period: the "aw, shucks" man who gets conned at first, but shows himself to be just as smart as the "sophisticates". Rings on Her Fingers comes to mind, as does The Lady Eve. Henry Fonda is said to have disliked his time as a contract player at Fox, as he got a lot of unserious movies that he felt weren't up to his acting chops. Personally, I think Fonda was being a bit unfair if he felt that way. Sure, The Magnificent Dope will never be looked at in the same light as The Grapes of Wrath, but it's just as entertaining as the programmers the other studios were using their stars in.

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