Stream Fantasy Films I: 1930s/40s

The Man Who Could Work Miracles 1936 An expanded version of the H.G. Wells short story. Directed by Lothar Mendes. Several gods/angels look down from above and decide to conduct an experiment to determine whether man’s character might ever make him worthy of the stars. They randomly choose haberdasher’s assistant George Fotheringay (Roland Young). Arguing about the possibility of miracles in a pub, mild-mannered George is astonished to discover he can turn a lamp upside down suspended in the air. At home, other small trials of power prove successful.

The next day, George tries to impress a salesgirl he admires by removing her freckles and inadvertently sends a policeman to Hell by shouting “Go to blazes!” (Horrified, he moves the Bobby to San Francisco.) At a loss how to proceed, he consults a vicar and a colonel (Ralph Richardson), both of whom voice selfish plans. George then decides to usher in the Golden Age by creating a utopia which he’ll rule as king with the girl by his side. Suddenly we’re in an immense hall peopled by confused leaders of the world, teachers, musicians, butlers, priests…

Flexing his power, George decides to pause chaos by stopping earth from spinning. He fails to consider basic physics. Things are righted. The gods comment. Wells himself worked on the adaptation revealing concerns about British Upper Class, Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. Terrific fun. Young is wonderful. Free with Fandor trial.

Topper 1937 Adapted from the novel by Thorne Smith. Directed by Norman Z. McLeod. A genuine classic. Stuffy bank president Cosmo Topper (Roland Young) lives an exceedingly well ordered, conservative life with flighty social-climbing wife Clara (Billie Burke). When dissipate friends George and Marion Kerby (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett) crash an expensive car and find themselves stuck “here” as ghosts, they decide to redeem their irresponsible, hedonistic lives by helping Topper enjoy life.

Only Topper can see George and Marion. Objects float through the air, people are touched or rather kicked and pushed. Drinking, dancing, and fast driving bring scandal which elicits interest from the social elite who previously ignored the Toppers. Clara has made such a scene, however, that her husband moves into a hotel with Marion who declares herself unmarried by reason of death. More highjinks occur. A screwball comedy. Free on Old Movie Time.

#2 Topper Takes a Trip 1938 is not available. Same director, same cast except for Grant. #3 Topper Returns 1941 Directed by Roy Del Ruth. Different director. Same Cosmo and Clara Topper, otherwise a different cast. We really miss the Kerby’s. Free with Amazon Prime

The Devil & Daniel Webster 1941 Adapted from Stephen Vincent Benet’s short story. Directed by William Dieterle. A retelling of the Faust story set in 1840s rural New Hampshire. Poor farmer Jabez Stone (James Craig) is at the end of his rope. When he declares he’d sell his soul to the devil for relief, Mephistopheles appears as Mr. Scratch (Walter Huston). Jabez signs a contract. He becomes rich and influential, cheats associates and eventually ruins his marriage when seduced by Scratch’s agent Belle (Simone Simon).

Realizing his time is almost up, the farmer pleads with acquaintance Daniel Webster  (Edward Arnold) to take his case. (Pursuing the presidency, Webster had turned Scratch down.) In order to secure trial by jury, Webster has to wager his own soul. Mr. Scratch chooses the most notorious men in history to sit in the box. John Hawthorne (H.B. Warner) magistrate of The Salem Witch Trials is judge. Webster is eloquent and humane. The end is clever. Well spoken, well produced. Rent on Amazon Prime.

I Married a Witch 1942 Based on The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith. Directed by Rene Clair. Totally nifty. Denounced by a relative, father and daughter witches, Daniel and Jennifer Wooley (Cecil Kellaway and Veronica Lake), are burned at the stake in Old Salem, their ashes sealed into a tree. Jennifer curses all Wooley male descendants to marry the wrong women. Centuries pass and the spell holds fast. In 1942, lightening splits the tree releasing them. Father and daughter discover relative Wallace Wooley (Frederic March), candidate for governor, is about to marry spoiled socialite Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward) and resolve to make mischief.

They take over bodies and kind of blend in. When Jennifer proves unsuccessful at seducing Wallace, she brews a love potion, but through mishap, ends up drinking it herself. Father and daughter crash the wedding at cross purposes – now she loves the groom. Daniel gets too flamboyantly drunk to work magic (marvelous comic scene) and lands in jail. Estelle discovers her fiancé in a compromising position and cancels the marriage. Wallace has of course fallen for the witch.

A day before the election, Estelle’s father denounces his ex-son-in-law in his chain of newspapers. Jennifer’s conjuring both gets him elected and convinces Wallace she is, in fact, a witch. When Daniel tracks down the happy couple, he strips his daughter of her powers intending to put her back in the tree. Things don’t work out as he plans. March’s pre-production comment that Lake was “a brainless little blonde sexpot, void of any acting ability” didn’t make on the set relations smooth. Rent on Amazon Prime.

A Guy Named Joe 1943 Adapted from a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm. Directed by Victor Fleming. Pete Sandridge (Spencer Tracy) is a reckless ace pilot out of England in love with Women’s Airforce Service Pilot Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne). When his commanding officer proposes reassignment to the U.S. as a flight instructor, Dorinda begs him to go. Pete agrees, but not before one last mission with buddy Al Yackey (Ward Bond). Though his crew and Yackey make it, Pete does not.

A year later, Pete is sent back from Heaven to pass on knowledge to Ted Randall (Van Johnson in his first major role) whose commanding officer turns out to be Al. The new pilot falls in love with still grieving Dorinda. Despite sensing Pete’s presence, she slowly returns his feelings. Her ex grows jealous. Ted is given an extremely dangerous bombing assignment. Dorinda steals the plane and almost doesn’t make it but for Pete’s help.

Tracy and Fleming made Dunne’s life miserable until Johnson was in an accident and the studio wanted to replace him. In exchange for shutting down during his recovery, they promised to lay off the actress.

Remake: Always 1989 Directed by Steven Spielberg. Aerial fire fighting replaces the original WWII backdrop. With Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss, John Goodman as Al and Audrey Hepburn as Hap, an angel. Engaging. Rent on Amazon Prime.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan 1941 Directed by Alexander Hall.  When boxer/amateur pilot Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) crashes his small plane, angel #7013 (Edward Everett Horton) precipitously retrieves his soul and Joe’s manager cremates the body. The angel’s boss Mr. Jordan (Claude Reins) then discovers the victim was due another 50 years. In order to go back, Joe must take over the body of a corpse. He insists the man be in good shape in order to continue boxing.

Jordan takes Joe to crooked banker/investor Bruce Farnsworth who’s been drugged and drowned by his wife Julia (Rita Johnson) and her lover Tony     (John Emery). Becoming Bruce, Joe pays back investors in worthless securities whose sale Farnsworth blamed on Bette Logan’s (Evelyn Keyes) innocent father. (Joe’s sweet on her.) He also convinces his trainer Max “Pop” Corkle (James Gleason) who he really is and has him book a fight.    

Mr. Jordan tells Joe that he’s destined to be champion but not as Farnsworth whom Tony then murders (again). A second body, that of a fighter named Murdock is quickly secured. As Murdock, Joe wins the belt, tells Corkle where Farnsworth’s body is and has his memory wiped by Mr. Jordan. When the boxer and Bette meet in passing, they feel they know one another. Rent on Amazon Prime.

A second iteration of this one is Heaven Can Wait 1978 Directed by Warren Beatty, Buck Henry. Quarterback Joe Pendelton arrives in the afterlife by mistake and is convinced to accept the body of millionaire industrialist Leo Farnsworth who has just been…etc.etc. The athlete does immeasurable good in Pendleton’s body, falls in love with an activist (Julie Christie) and remains involved with his team. A second attempt at the businessman’s murder succeeds, but Joe is given a last chance to play ball and another at love. Entertaining. Rent on Amazon Prime.

Angel on My Shoulder 1946 Directed by Archie Mayo. Relegated to Hell, murdered gangster Eddie Kagle (Paul Muni) is offered a deal. In exchange for inhabiting the body of Judge Frederick Parker (on the side of justice/ good) and ruining his reputation, “Nick” -the devil (Claude Rains), offers Eddie opportunity for revenge against his former partner. As Parker, however, everything Eddie does with bad intent inadvertently turns out to enhance the judge’s prestige. He falls in love with Parker’s fiancé Barbara Foster (Anne Baxter) and faced with his killer, never draws a gun.

Defeated, Nick takes Kagle back to Hell where the gangster blackmails him into a status position. Well done. Free with Amazon Prime.

Top photo: Bigstock

About Alix Cohen (877 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.