The Miracle Man (Paramount, 1919, 1932)
The Miracle Man (Paramount, 1932)
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Starring Chester Morris, Sylvia Sidney, and John Wray
The Miracle Man (1919) is, unfortunately, almost entirely lost. Clips from two scenes were included in Movie Milestones (1935), these being the part of the Chinatown segment in which Tom outlines his scam to his accomplices, and a portion of the healing segment, beginning with the Frog’s approach and ending with Jack running to the Patriarch. The latter clip was also used in The House That Shadows Built (1931). These two clips, totaling two minutes and twenty seconds at sound speed, are all that survives of The Miracle Man today — insofar as moving images are concerned, at least. There are quite a large number of stills.
The last film I attempted a photo reconstruction of was The Juggernaut (1915). It had considerably more surviving footage to build around, but only a handful of production stills to use in recreating the missing sequences. Conversely, I had nearly sixty stills to work with from The Miracle Man, with almost every lost scene represented by at least one photo. I also had the benefit of a scene-by-scene plot synopsis and quotes from many of the original intertitles.
The story of The Miracle Man began as a book, then was adapted into a stage play, then into a silent film, and then remade as a talkie. The 1919 adaptation was critically acclaimed and wildly popular with audiences, making instant stars of its lead actors. It credits the play as a source, but is based more on the book — although it does make some significant changes I’ll discus in a moment.
Tom Burke (Thomas Meighan) is the ringleader of a gang of con artists working in New York’s Chinatown. Their primary game is running scams on slumming tourists, but when Tom learns of a faith healer in a small Maine town, he concludes that the real money is in fleecing gullible believers.
Tom goes to scope it out. This miracle man, called the Patriarch (Joseph J. Dowling), is blind, deaf, and dumb. He’s no longer able to care for himself and the townspeople are searching for his niece, who none have ever met before, in the hopes that she’ll come to attend him. Tom’s plan is for his girlfriend and accomplice Rosie Vale (Betty Compson) to assume the role the Patriarch’s niece, then the Frog (Lon Chaney) will enter the scene. The Frog, a skilled contortionist, will pretend to be a mangled cripple that gets miraculously cured by the Patriarch. News will spread and pilgrims will follow, bringing tens of thousands of dollars in donations, all of which must go through Rosie.
Everything goes according to plan, until the Frog’s pretended cure is followed by two real ones — Jack Andrews (Frankie Lee) and Claire King (Elinor Fair). Tom’s accomplices — Rosie, the Frog, and a cokehead called the Dope (J.M. Dumont) — are shaken and begin to doubt whether they should keep up the scam.
Claire’s brother, Dick (W. Lawson Butt), is a wealthy asbestos magnate who at once donates $50,000 and wishes to provide further funding for the Patriarch. Tom is interested in Rosie courting Dick’s money, but becomes jealous when it appears the two are falling in love. Things come to a head when Rosie stays out all night with Dick (quite innocent – their boat was stuck on a sandbar and they had to wait until the tide came in to float off). Tom intends on killing Dick, but at the last moment stays his hand.
Realizing the error of his ways, Tom apologizes to Rosie, who forgives him and accepts his marriage proposal. The two go to the Patriarch to thank him, but find him dead.
The most immediately obvious difference from the novel is also the least important: all the character names are different. More significant are Claire and Richard King. In the film, they’re siblings, Claire has been paralyzed since infancy, and Dick is supportive of anything that might help his sister, however slim the chance. In the book, Naida and Robert Thornton are married, Naida has only been wheelchair bound for a number of years, Robert is dismissive of her ever being cured and has grown rather tired of her, and he plots adultery even if he never actually commits it. Most significant, the novel hints that the Patriarch isn’t actually a miracle worker at all. It either suggests or outright postulates that both Naida Thornton’s and the Holmes boy’s (Jack Andrews in the film) paralysis is caused by a nervous disorder, and that it was their belief in the Patriarch that cured them rather than the Patriarch himself. Now, the last line of the 1919 film does leave some opening for this interpretation, but until that point, the miracles are presented as being nothing but real.
In the novel, the last chapter flashes forward several years to see where the gang went with their lives after the Patriarch’s death. The Flopper (the Frog) married a local girl and works at the general store. Pale Face Harry (the Dope) moved out west and became a farmer. Helena Smith (Rosie Vale) and Doc Madison (Tom Burke) are married and have a young son — the book ends with them visiting the Patriarch’s grave and retelling the story to the boy. It’s not really necessary and I think it’s for the best that the film ends where it does.
The silent Miracle Man was a record-breaking film and extremely successful from a financial standpoint — making back its budget nearly 24 times over. Of course it was remade, as a talkie, in 1932. The remake starred Chester Morris, Sylvia Sidney, and John Wray and is still extant, although it never has officially been released on video (bootlegs are readily available). It adopts some of the changes made in 1919 version — Margaret and Robert Thornton (aka, Claire and Richard King; aka, Naida and Robert Thornton) are still siblings, for instance — but on the whole, it follows the play more so than it does either the book or previous film. The most noticeable difference and the one that most changes the dynamic of the story (to its detriment, I would say) is that the Patriarch isn’t mute.
The remake was designed as a vehicle for John Wray and Paramount had hoped to would launch him as the new incarnation of Lon Chaney, but it did not, nor was the film itself very well received. If it’s remembered at all today, it’s for Boris Karloff’s rather small role as Nikko. Nikko is roughly equivalent to Tong-Fou (Kisaburo Kurihara) in the 1919 film. Tong-Fou is only in one scene and is not particularly relevant to the plot — he’s a Chinese man occasionally paid off by Tom to take care of the police. Nikko is Madison’s Chinatown landlord. Madison catches him spying on Helena undress and grievously injures if not kills him. That’s the reason why he leaves New York — not because he plans on exploiting the Patriarch, but to evade arrest.
It had its moments, but I didn’t think the remake was very good overall. The book I liked, but not as much as other Frank Packard novels I’ve read. The original film, of course, is hard to judge. So little footage survives and stills only give an idea of how it may have looked. I can say that it has the tightest plot of the three, and in a contest between Lon Chaney and John Wray, there can be no doubt who the winner is. It was surely better than its remake and may have edged out the book as well. I don’t know.
Available from Harpodeon