"There's fun to be had in Dope!"
This was not the original tagline for The Magnificent Dope ( the Hayes Code would have never approved of that one! ), but it could very well have worked for the film is indeed fraught with humor.
Henry Fonda stars as Tad Page, a country yokel selected by Dwight Dawson ( Don Ameche ) and his marketing manager/fiancee ( Lynn Bari ) as the "Laziest Man in America" for their advertising campaign. Dawson heads up the Dwight Dawson Institute, a self-improvement school for success that is floundering for lack of new students and subscribers to their correspondence courses. Dawson and his fiancee hit upon the idea of holding a contest to find the most complete failure in the country with the purpose of demonstrating that if the laziest man in America can take the Dawson course and find success in life, you can too. Only the bumpkin they selected has no interest in taking the Dawson course.....but plenty of interest in Dawson's fiancee!
The Magnificent Dope was a mild hit upon its release in July of 1942, but today it has been almost completely forgotten, in spite of its many amusing scenes. Had the film been under Frank Capra or George Steven's direction it may have become a memorable classic, but as it is, this Dope could have been made more magnificent. Namely, George Seaton's screenplay - from a story by Joseph Schrank - would have benefited from a subtler touch.
Tad Page is a lazy country boy and his philosophy of enjoying life to its fullest should have been demonstrated rather than described.
"I haven't any respect for a man who was born lazy; it took me a long time to get where I am"
In You Can't Take it With You ( 1938 ) the Sycamore family were good honest simple folk, living life the way they wanted and accepting others who lived life differently, but they never preached their lifestyle unto others. In The Magnificent Dope, Tad Page openly promotes his lazy way of living to every soul he meets, professing that it was a skill he spent years improving upon. At first, you assume that Tad and Dwight are two characters with opposite natures, but upon closer inspection they are very similar - they are both promoters. Dwight promotes hard work and a firm handshake as the ingredients to success, while Tad promotes plenty of rural inertia and fishing as the secrets to a happy life. However, the Green Mountain hayseed holds the upper hand when it comes to natural public speaking. In fact, the Dawson Institute could take a lesson or two from Tad on the power of persuasion!
"This dope," some one discovers, "isn't a failure. He's the happiest man in the world."
However, he puts his happiness and his philosophy of life in jeopardy when he falls in love with Dawson's fiancee, proving that even the Laziest Man in America will work when the stakes are high enough.
The premise of The Magnificent Dope is excellent and a strong leading and supporting cast ( Edward Everett Horton, George Barbier, Frank Orth ) make it an A-class picture, but its script and Walter Lang's direction reduce it to secondary fare. As Frank Capra once said, "If you want to send a message, try Western Union". For this film, subtlety would have been the key to success.