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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Magnificent Dope (Fox Cinema Archives)
The Magnificent Dope (Fox Cinema Archives)
Fox Cinema Archives // Unrated // October 9, 2014
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted November 17, 2014 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
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Slightly cynical, slightly sweet romantic comedy. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Magnificent Dope, the 1942 farce from Fox, directed by Walter Lang, written by George Seaton, and starring Henry Fonda, Lynn Bari, Don Ameche, Edward Everett Horton, George Barbier, and Frank Orth. A sort-of Mr. Deeds Meets Dale Carnegie spoof, The Magnificent Dope is gentle in its satirical barbs aimed at that old "Philosophy of Achievement" line, but the chuckles keep coming at a pleasing clip, thanks in no small part to the talented cast. No extras for this okay fullscreen black and white transfer.

At the Dawson Institute of business success, fast-talking, glad-handing founder and chief motivational speaker Dwight Dawson's (Don Ameche, perfectly cast) biggest snow job is convincing his banker to extend an overdue 90-day loan. You see, enrollment is almost non-existent at Dawson Institute centers across the nation, and something has to be done fast to save the company. Enter Claire Harris (Lynn Bari...who just doesn't have "it"), Dawson's girlfriend and the company's "promotional director." She proposes a publicity stunt: find the country's "Biggest Failure," and run him through the Dawson course, following him along--in newspapers, magazines, and on radio--through his transformational journey to financial success. Dawson 86s the word "Failure," and redubs the promo as "The Dawson Ideal Subject Contest," which eventually draws a huge number of submissions. The winner? One Thadeus Winship Page (Henry Fonda), of rural Upper White Eddy, Vermont. Thad runs a part-time summer boat rental business (leaving him plenty of time just to enjoy life); he lives at home with his mother, and just needs the contest's $500.00 to help buy his home town's new fire engine. He's not at all interested in being a "success," because he already has everything he needs. He's quite simply "happy," with a patented "relaxation" technique (positive visualization and a lot of head rolling) that works like magic on the uptight city folk. Naturally, Dawson and Harris aren't thrilled that Thad won't take their course--that would spell disaster for their promotional stunt--so it's up to Dwight and Claire to keep Thad sweet on the deal...even if that means Dwight stringing Thad along when Thad tells him he's in love with Claire. Will Thad become a "success," and keep the lights burning at the Dwight Institute?

Produced by William Perlberg and written by George Seaton (from an original story by The Clock's Joseph Schrank), the team that would deliver Fox classics such as The Song of Bernadette and Miracle on 34th Street, The Magnificent Dope's comical pokings at the cultural phenomenon created by seminal "self help" bestsellers like Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People and Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich, serve as much (if not more so) as a screwball framework for the movie's romance, as they do as meaningful satirical skewers. The Magnificent Dope's biggest joke about those "positive attitude and relentless drive equal business success" tenets, is the pivot point of the plot's comedic conflict: Ameche, the business self-help expert who promotes super-salesmanship as a foolproof vehicle for success...is just an overdue bank note away from total failure. If his infallible method for improvement and subsequent financial realization really did work, then he wouldn't have to lie to the banks, because customers would be streaming into his branch offices. Which they aren't (Frank Orth's character, in the opening scene, sums us this central gag: Ameche tries to sell this lowly messenger on his program...when Orth suddenly tells him he already took it...to obviously no avail). However, The Magnificent Dope isn't all that interested in exploring or thoroughly impaling this Carnegie-like cottage industry (it's treated like so many other American enterprises in the screwball comedy romance genre: as corrupted, cynical establishments existing solely for hustlers like Ameche). Instead, all of Ameche's glad handing and blustery verbal buck-ups (always incorrectly attributed to that first American self-help promoter, Poor Richard's Almanac's Benjamin Franklin) are utilized first as "straight" set-ups to contrast Fonda's attractive laziness, and then as bait to keep Fonda on track with the promotional scheme...and sweet on Bari. It's a clever sardonic backdrop for a screwball romance, but its main purpose doesn't seem to be the enlightenment of lampoon.

Rather than an all-out attack on the self-help industry, The Magnificent Dope is much more interested in being a screwball variation of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, where Fonda's extreme diffidence to "succeed" is seen as a weakness, an oddball quirk for the city slickers who want to take advantage of him. We've seen this kind of movie setup countless times before and since, where the hypocrisies of the harried, insane-acting city-dwelling go-getters are easily shown up by the slow-as-molasses hayseed's laconic logic of, "enjoy life by doing nothing" (Fonda, never one for broad comedy, plays Thad just right here: he's not imbecilic and clueless in his naivete, nor does he come off as insufferably "noble" for choosing a laid-back lifestyle). And yet in The Magnificent Dope, in a nice twist, Ameche learns no lesson from Fonda; he just continues his hustling ways by stealing Fonda's relaxation technique, and in the process transforming it into another useless money-making scheme (bookended nicely, in the movie's last scene, when hapless messenger Frank Orth is seen front-and-center at the "new" Dawson Institute of relaxation). As for Fonda, he doesn't remain pure to this particular genre template, either: to prove himself to Bari, he embraces Ameche's conman ethic and successfully uses his relaxation technique to rig an insurance examination for a high-pressured businessman who has repeatedly failed his physical. If anything, The Magnificent Dope's central premise that Fonda's way of life is "better" than Ameche's, is qualified, at best. Fonda may try and champion the "lazy man" as the inventor of the wheel and other necessities of modern life, but his version of happiness is more unreal, more movietime fantasy, than Ameche's fast patter-to-survive scratchings (it's easy to be happy with nothing in a Hollywood comedy...like Fonda living in his parents' house and not being responsible, apparently, for bills or taxes or the other necessities of life, since his part-time summer job couldn't possibly cover them). Motivations and subtexts aside, the farcical mechanics of The Magnificent Dope are competently engineered; it's enjoyable without being taxing. It's just a shame, though, that more careful hands couldn't have elaborated on the intriguing diversions from its genre formula.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for The Magnificent Dope looks good, with solid-enough blacks, decent contrast, and a sharpish image. Grain negligible.

The Audio:
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is fine, with the expected level of low hiss, and no subtitles or closed-captions.

The Extras:
No extras for The Magnificent Dope.

Final Thoughts:
Fun screwball romance, and no more. Some interesting little twists on the genre pop up in The Magnificent Dope, but they come and go without elaboration, so we have to settle for some genial lines and the nicely-tuned performances from Henry Fonda and Don Ameche as laid-back hick and fast-jabbering city slicker, respectively...and they're enough to recommend The Magnificent Dope.


Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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