} Crítica Retrô: O Homem Miraculoso (1919) / The Miracle Man (1919)

Tradutor / Translator / Traductor / Übersetzer / Traduttore / Traducteur / 翻訳者 / переводчик

Saturday, May 5, 2018

O Homem Miraculoso (1919) / The Miracle Man (1919)


The Miracle Man” is a lost film. No, no copies of it have been found so far. No, I haven’t found some reels in my attic – the most exciting thing I’ve found recently in my attic was a spider. And how come I am writing about it? One of the Commandments of Film Criticism, a list created by me, is “you shall not analyze a film you haven’t watched”. Am I disobeying my own rule?

No. Because I’m not writing an analysis or a critical review of “The Miracle Man”. I’m actually making a reconstruction of this treasured lost film – it’s a detective’s work or, more precisely, an archaeological work. Considered that I flirted with being both a detective and an archaeologist when I was younger, this is not only a huge responsibility but also a dream coming true.

But WHY “The Miracle Man”, when all silent film fans know that the Holy Grail of lost film is another Lon Chaney flick, “London After Midnight” (1927)? Well, I chose “The Miracle Man” for personal reasons. I first heard of it – and of Lon Chaney – when I watched Chaney’s curious biopic “Man of a Thousand Faces”, made in 1957 and starring my favorite actor, James Cagney. Cagney’s recreation of a scene from “The Miracle Man” impressed me beyond words. And then a love for Chaney was born.

The Historical Sources

You might be asking: “how the hell will she reconstruct a lost movie?”. I’ll answer: through Brazilian film magazines. We, Brazilians, usually joke that this country knows no limits. Well, Brazilian film magazines knew no limits either: from the silent era onwards, until the 1950s, when most of them were extinct, these magazines published the whole plot of a film, together with stills. No criticism, no analysis: only spoilers. The magazines, however, were written in an archaic Portuguese – because the Portuguese language went through many changes in the past century.
The Magazine

And thank God for those spoilers! I can only reconstruct the film because of them! I used here, to reconstruct the movie, the magazine “A Scene Muda”, that brought the story as adapted from the novel by Frank L. Packard to the screen. The whole story was published in six numbers in 1921 (numbers 12 to 18), and most images in this article are from the magazine. 

The Story – part 1 – The Swindlers

The Miracle Man” is set in a picturesque New York neighborhood – a place where children are poor and malnourished, yet money flows in nearby cabarets where the bourgeois has fun. At night, the darkness is almost total – only the cabarets offer some light to the sad streets. Looks like “The Penalty” (1920), another Chaney film.
One night, a policeman stops the traffic, and everybody looks at what may be causing the trouble: a horrid shapeless creature, with angry eyes and a face that shows, more than humanity, suffering. He walks with his elbows in the ground, his back protected by a leather piece, and his face turned upwards. He is The Frog and, yes, it is Lon Chaney at the screen.

Many people look at him, some curious, some disgusted, some full of pity. A few of those people put coins in his deformed hand. He can’t say no. An older couple gives The Frog some money and enters a cabaret, an ugly building with a bar, a restaurant and some boarding rooms to rent. There they find all kinds of people: Chinese immigrants, prostitutes with exaggerated make-up, gamblers and drunkards. The woman is horrified with what she sees, while the man seems to be used to that sighting.

A girl is harassed by a drunken man, and goes far from him. She sits with a first-timer, a young man that was the first to give money to The Frog. The young man doesn’t want anything with the girl, and when she goes back to the place she was, the man attacks her – he wanted her to take money away from the silly young man. The young man enters the fight and saves the woman. The old woman, Mrs Higgins, is ecstatic with the action. The young man and the old woman give money to the girl to go away from that life. The young man introduces himself as Tom Burke (Thomas Meighan).

The girl, now with a good amount of money, gets out of the cabaret and in again, after helping a drunken woman. The girl is Rose (Betty Compson), and she goes to the second floor and enters a big room. A few moments later the crippled man enters. With a few movements, he puts all his members back in their place. The Frog is not really crippled: he is a swindler and his name is Jimmy. Lon Chaney has just surprised us. Then, the man who was harassing Rose enters the room and asks how much she had made that night. The man is Harry (J.M. Dumont) and he pretends to have tuberculosis to earn money from donations.

The gang
A man enters pretending he is from the police. It’s Tom Burke, also part of the scheme. After him enters the Japanese man (Kisaburô Kurihara) who guides the bourgeois to the cabaret, wanting his share of the money. Rose only presents a little of it, and the Japanese man gets angry, but Tom dissuades him of fighting. He goes out. Tom announces that he’ll use all the money in a new scheme, to what Jimmy protests, wanting his share. Tom orders all to give away the money, and they do.

Tom’s scheme is based on a newspaper article he found, about a deaf and blind man who can cure any illness. Tom tells that his plan is to go see the man in the village he lives in and pretend he was cured. Then Rose and Harry would go after him to help the story spread through newspaper, and at last Jimmy would do his contortionist trick and they would start managing the blind man’s cures – for a big price, obviously.

The Story – part 2 – The Miracle

Tom hit the road and, near the village of Needley, started pretending he was suffering from vertigo. Tom got out of his car and was quickly surrounded by peasants. He asked for a doctor. They said there was no doctor there, but he could see the Patriarch (Joseph J. Dowling). Tom is taken to him by peasant Hiram Higgins (F.A. Turner). The Patriarch, a strong old man in his seventies, was already waiting for them in front of his house. Tom felt some strange feeling when he got near the Patriarch.

Tom and Rose
The Patriarch walked to Tom and put his hand over Tom’s head, what impressed Tom very much. The Patriarch then left and Tom, saying he was cured, started talking with Higgins again. After Higgins offered him a place to stay, Tom saw Higgins’ daughter, Ruth (Lucille Hutton), with a little boy who walked with crutches (Frankie Lee). Tom learned that the little boy was the local teacher’s son, and his father didn’t want the boy to see the Patriarch because he didn’t believe in his curative powers.

Rose arrives at Needley two days later, wearing simple clothes and not using any make-up. With a few fake documents, she was going to impersonate the Patriarch’s niece, who left Needley as a child and never returned.

Tom and Rose in Needley
Jimmy and Harry followed, and traveled calling all the attention they could. In the train, Jimmy kept saying that he was going to see a miracle man who would cure him of his deformities, which called the attention of the other passengers, including siblings Richard (Lawson Butt) and Claire King (Elinor Fair). They were rich, and Claire suffered with a paralysis and needed a wheelchair to go anywhere. Listening to Jimmy, they decided to see the miraculous man, too.

At the same time, Tom tried to send the boy with crutches away to not spoil the whole miracle show, however the boy’s father once again refused, saying his son had an incurable disease and wasn’t going anywhere.

On the big day, a crowd followed Jimmy and Claire to the Patriarch’s house. Jimmy had convinced many of the train passengers to follow him and watch the miracle – including two journalists. Jimmy was covered in sweat and was making an extra hard effort to walk, with his elbows, on the irregular soil. He moved like a reptile on the ground.

When they arrived, the Patriarch started walking towards them. Everybody seemed skeptical – everybody but Claire, who started smiling with hope when she saw the Patriarch. In the front line, the boy with crutches observed.

Jimmy nears the Patriarch
Jimmy started shaking when he got near the Patriarch. It was show time. With his face pale, Jimmy seemed to suffer while doing his gymnastics, and put his members on the right place, one by one. He stood up and touched the Patriarch.

Silence. Everybody was impressed. An old woman passed out. The happiest of all people was the little boy with crutches, who then realized he could be cured, too. The little boy ran to the Patriarch, excited, and as he ran his legs got stronger, he left the crutches, and suddenly he was walking freely. The little boy hugged the Patriarch, moved. This is the scene we have extant,and it’s beautiful!

Everybody is speechless, but Tom, Rose, Harry and Jimmy are speechless. Tom feels he just committed sacrilege with his trick. Soon Claire King got up from her chair, in a suave and delicate way, and started walking, too.

Claire and the boy hug the Patriarch

The Story – Part 3 – The Business

Tom believes that both the “miracles” were a matter of suggestion – maybe a disease of the mind prevented Claire and the boy from walking? Anyway, Tom talks to the journalists, saying that he, too, was cured by the miracle man. Tom shows them the Patriarch’s house, and there he informs that he wants to create an economical fund to help poor sick people travel to Needley to see the Patriarch.

Everybody likes the idea and contributes. Tom writes a big check and Richard writes one twice as big. Rich men from Needley give money, and even the little boy gives a few coins to the fund. Rose is there, helping the Patriarch to sit in his usual chair to rest.

The three crooks
When everybody left, Rose hugged and kissed Tom. He told her to get out. Then she lit a cigarette, something Tom also criticized. Rose sat in corner, feeling upset.

The newspapers talked about Jimmy’s cure, the most impressive of the three that happened that day, and people started peregrinating towards Needley. All those people were rich, and after their cure – or the cure of their relatives – they gave a lot of money and expensive jewels for Tom’s fund. Tom, of course, kept everything and didn’t help any poor sick person.

Tom took care of the business while the others had fun. Jimmy started helping an old lonely woman who lived next door to the Patriarch. She said her only son would be Jimmy’s age if he hadn’t died. As Jimmy helped her with daily activities, she offered to pay him. He refused and said that, because she lost her son and Jimmy didn’t have a mother, he’d consider her as his mother. The old lady cried of happiness.

Jimmy and his new mother

Harry was at first upset with the lack of action in Needley, but he fell in love with Ruth Higgins and accepted a job at her father’s farm, to Tom’s surprise. Harry worked hard and, one day, decided to be totally honest with Hiram Higgins and tell him what he felt about Ruth. Mr. Higgins agreed with the relationship, and Harry and Ruth got engaged.

Harry and the Patriarch
The day before Harry got engaged Rose refused a pearl necklace from Tom, preferring to sew the Patriarch’s coat. Rose was also being courted by Richard King, but Tom didn’t pay attention to that, because he was worried only with his profit. That’s why Tom didn’t accept Richard’s invitation for a boat ride, but Rose did. When Jimmy said that Richard liked Rose, Tom punched him, and Jimmy fell. Jimmy, however, decided not to fight further, and left. When he passed near the Patriarch, Jimmy prayed for him to convert Tom and turn him into a good man.

Richard’s boat got stuck in sand, and couldn’t leave the place until the following morning. To save Rose’s reputation, Richard was willing to swim to the shore, but Rose stopped him, because he wasn’t a good swimmer and could die. They hugged, but Richard resisted the urge to kiss her. In his house, Tom was crazy with jealousy, and willing to kill Rose and Richard when they came back.

Rose and Richard

The Story – Part 4 – Conclusion

When they saw Rose arriving the next morning, Jimmy and Harry told her to be careful. With her conscience clean, Rose entered the house. Tom had given up his violent plan. Tom started being sarcastic, and Rose started defending Richard. Tom got more and more nervous, and when he put his hands up to hurt Rose, the Patriarch entered the room and put both his hands over Tom’s shoulders.

Tom put his hands down and, putting his head over one of the Patriarch’s hands, started crying. Harry and Jimmy entered the house, speechless. Tom was sorry, and decided to end the fund and leave Needley. Tom said he would keep the jewels, and the other three could share the money. Jimmy was the first one to refuse, saying he preferred to remain poor with his beloved new mother.

Harry refused, too, saying his fiancée wouldn’t accept the money, because they lived a simple life. Jimmy and Harry left. Tom stayed with Rose, and asked her what she would say if Richard asked her to marry him. Tom wanted to kill Richard and go away with Rose. Rose answered Tom: “you’ll know”.

Harry's change
Richard arrived as Tom left. Tom shook his rival’s hand, in a fake act of politeness. Richard and Rose started walking through the fields, and he proposed. She said she couldn’t marry him, and told him the truth about her life. Richard asked if Rose still loved Tom. She said yes.

Richard left, met Tom, said goodbye and told him to go on with the fund for poor sick people. Tom felt extremely ashamed and went back to the Patriarch’s house. He opened a case full of jewels and started crying. He was alone and ashamed of his villainy. He wanted to be like his friends, who changed and became simple, good people in that village.

Tom and Rose
Rose touched his shoulders. She had a pious look, and remembered him he still had a salvation. She said he isn’t an evil man, and she trusted him to run the fund, just like Richard said. A few minutes later, they went downstairs holding hands. The Patriarch, Jimmy and Harry were there. The Patriarch touched Tom’s and Rose’s hands and died.

The Patriarch’s dog licked its owner’s hand. All the people cried in the room. Very moved, Jimmy said they owned everything to the old man, and they could go on with his work if they were good people, because the Patriarch’s key for being a miracle man was having good thoughts.


The Miracle Man” premiered in Brazil in 1921. In the beginning of the following year, it was voted as the second best film shown in the country in 1921 by the readers of the magazine “Para Todos”, after only “Male and Female”, a DeMille-Swanson picture.“The Miracle Man” had such an impact that, in some 1924 numbers of the same magazine, it is still cited as an example of a great film yet to be matched.

The film was remade in 1932, with Sylvia Sidney, Chester Morris and Hobart Bosworth as the Patriarch. In the 1957 biopic “Man of a Thousand Faces”, the scene in which Jimmy is cured by the Patriarch is seen been shot, and it curiously is more moving in the 1957 recreation, probably because it shows Cagney in close-up, while the original scene was in a long shot – and the highlight in the 1919 movie was the little boy being cured, not Chaney.

Director George Loane Tucker made only one more film after “The Miracle Man”, and passed away in 1921. When this happened, the magazine Cinearte called him “the greatest director after Griffith”. “The Miracle Man” was a turning point in the careers of both Betty Compson and Lon Chaney, who then became big stars. Thomas Meighan was already popular – and, according to one publication, wasn’t able to cry on camera, so the director let him starve and not sleep until for two days he managed to do the scene and cry out of exhaustion.  

We can know the exact plot of “The Miracle Man”, but a lot is still lost: the expressions, the energy put in the performances, the special effects and camera angles. All of those could only be analyzed and enjoyed if the film is found. They say an image is worth a thousand words. This is, by far, my biggest post here, but still not enough to fully recreate the experience of watching “The Miracle Man”. Let’s hope for a copy to appear – after all, miracles do happen in the silent film world.

This is my contribution to the Lon Chaney blogathon, hosted by Ruth and Maddy at Silver Screenings and Maddy loves her classic films.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Le! I love how you have reconstructed the film using images. This sounds like a real lost treasure. Maybe one day someone will find the reels and the film could be shown (I wish!). I really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for joining us to celebrate Lon Chaney Sr. Maddy

Silver Screenings said...

Le! Bravo! When you said you were going to reconstruct this film, I was pretty excited, but I had no idea you'd be able to fill in so much detail. Well done, you!

This sounds like a powerful film, and it's not hard to see why it would be praised so highly.

Thank you, thank you for joining the blogathon and giving us this wonderful treat. In a way, I feel like I've just seen the movie!

Caftan Woman said...

Thank you for this wonderful recreation which I am sure was a labour of love on your part. I can sense the emotion in your feelings for Cagney, for Chaney, and for this film we all hope to see someday.

Rebecca Deniston said...

What a great idea! Non-horror Chaney films seem like such an endangered species, and this one looks very interesting.

Rich said...

I would like very much to see a separate piece on Brazilian film magazines also.

Victor Kong said...

This is amazing! I hope some day someone finds the movie or remakes it.

Unknown said...

Wonderful recreation of this film! Your account was riveting. That would indeed be a beautiful thing if they could find the complete version of this film. Chaney sounds magnificent (and you have made me very curious to see the Cagney film, too).

Anonymous said...

Thanks to you.

This movie fascinates me. I loved the key scene we know and what i loved what i knew about the script (which is more or less what you wrote here but with much much more details i didn't know about). I'm not surprised, i expected something like that. But i'm glad. These images, unknown to me, and this detailed sum-up of the whole story really helps me with the frustration i had / have with this movie. Maybe one day it will come back to us. Thanks.

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