Matinee: The Magnificent Dope (1942)

Poster for The Magnificent Dope starring Henry Fonda, Lynn Bari & Don Ameche

Farran Nehme (@selfstyledsiren) started a wonderful thread of golden recommendations on Twitter the other day, so I bookmarked a few things for when I had a spare moment. This came up first early Sunday morning because it was a the first time I could fit something in (yeah, back on dad duty) because I thought it would cheer me and it was fun!

I’m going to bounce back and forth to mentions with Holiday (1938) which probably many of you know is definitely one of my desert island disks. If you haven’t seen that you haven’t said so around me because I would probably strong-arm you into seeing it then and there.

We tend to think of the WWII years as long on patriotism, followed by the jaded disaffection of noir in the late forties and fifties, but if there is one thing I will always emphasise it’s just how much slippage there ALWAYS is between categories. But I don’t want to derail myself on a rant. This is a fun film that — like Holiday — suggests there’s more to life than laying up money. The hypnotic combination of puritanism and capitalism is the heady drug that led us to where we are now on the brink of collapse. If more people embraced these films, we might have found ourselves on a different path. But the US hates the poor and worships the rich, who all are self-made even if they inherited millions and multiple estates, of course.

That’s how you can get from robber barons to society snobs in two generations in Holiday, and how you can build a business attacking the most obscene word in mid-century America: laziness. Don Ameche is a paragon of the self-made success — all lies and bluster and advertising. His office begins its campaign before the elevator opens on the floor. The self-aggrandising images are a hoot and Ameche never lets up. Lynn Bari plays his chief of marketing — the real brains behind the outfit & also Ameche’s fiancée — who comes up with the winning idea to run a contest to find the biggest loser and make him a success. The sap turns out to be Henry Fonda’s Tad.

Newspaper headline: Dawson contest winner arrives in NY today: Thaddeus Winship Page of Upper White Eddy, Vermont, Here to Take a Success Course
Headline & photo op

The course of the story is not hard to figure: Tad falls for the marketing chief, but Ameche doesn’t want his campaign to fail just before he signs up a bunch of new suckers, so he invents another fiancé — which results in a hilarious birthday party sequence marred only by Ameche’s minstrel-style performance of ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ AKA yes, this film is glaringly white with the only face of colour Marietta Canty who plays Bari’s maid (of course).

Instead of Grant’s charm and Hepburn’s verve, we have Fonda’s laidback self-identified laziness and Bari’s small town charm. Fonda imitating raw liver is hilarious and we have a great early portrayal of creative visualisation bordering on hypnosis, which is fun.

Negatives: there is far too little Edward Everett Horton! A big part of the charm of Holiday is Horton and Jean Dixon who are just magic together. I could easily imagine a Benchley-esque set of speaking for success shorts with Horton based on his bit in the film. Sigh!

While I’m all on board with the laziness is good and should be encouraged, kill capitalism or at least make fun of it a lot, it’s undercut by the differences between Fonda’s Tad and Grant’s Johnny Case. Tad has a home and a part time job that is enough to get him through life with his mother who probably does all the necessary unpaid household labour (not to mention emotional labour). I may have actually muttered under my breath, ‘Inherited wealth!’ Johnny Case working his way out of poverty and then knocking off to figure out this capitalism thing is very different and a character I invest in more (I know, irony). When her father dismissively grumbles, ‘I beg your pardon,’ after Case’s litany of menial jobs that made up his background, Hepburn’s Linda savagely murmurs ‘I should think you would.’

I suspect Bari is one of those actors who sparkles in person but not on camera. I recall Richard Burton saying how dismissive he was of Elizabeth Taylor’s acting until he saw the rushes because she did ‘nothing’ as far as he could tell. But the camera got every little thing. Hepburn on camera is incendiary, as we all know. Bari has charm and sweetness. There’s a great scene where she reveals one of her childhood obsessions and it’s delightful.

A fun film. On to the next recommendation!

Watch The Magnificent Dope on YT