It was called spellbinding, striking, “one of the greatest of pictures.” It received ecstatic reviews by critics and transfixed audiences across the nation. It was the great drama The Miracle Man (1919), which not only ended up earning many times its modest budget, but made stars out of its three leads: Thomas Meighan, Betty Compson, and of course, the legendary Lon Chaney.
Naturally, like many other fascinating-sounding silents from the 1910s, The Miracle Man is lost. But in this case, fate has provided us with a rare silver lining. Thanks to compilation film The House That Shadows Built (1931), made in honor of Paramount studio’s 20th year, a couple minutes of footage have survived–including its most famous scene, where Chaney’s character pretends to experience a miraculous healing. Imagine if we had even one minute of London After Midnight!
The Miracle Man was based on a play by George M. Cohan, which in turn was based on a vividly-written novel by Frank L. Packard. It centers around a gang of criminals in Chinatown: ringleader Tom Burke, con artists Rose and “the Dope,” and the contortionist “the Frog.” After reading a sarcastic news article about a faith healer who’s revered by a small town, the gang hatches a plan. They decide to hide out in the town and have the Frog could pose as a cripple. Once he fakes his “miraculous” cure by the faith healer (who’s deaf, dumb, and partially blind), they could then swindle the townsfolk into giving them money (supposedly for a chapel).
But to the gang’s shock, after the Frog pulls his convincing stunt a small boy does receive a miraculous healing. And as news of the uncanny events spread throughout the country, each of the gang members begin experiencing their own healing from their lives of crime.
Reviews of The Miracle Man were enthusiastic to the point of being awestruck–it was called one of the finest works of motion picture art since The Birth of a Nation. Motion Picture News said, “There is cleverness, wit, pathos, sentiment, and satire, which is bound to sway an audience anywhere.” Picture-Play said, “It affected us as few pictures have ever done,” and Exhibitor’s Herald declared, “…The best review that could be written would be but scant justice to the production.”
A Photoplay writer also raved:
As a study in genuine human beings, as an exhibition of the instinctive triumphs of the better nature when that better nature has a chance, as a perfect fabric of life as it is lived–alternately funny as a Chaplin and pathetic as a Warfield scene–and as an adroitly constructed drama, rising from climax to climax and never missing a telling point, I do not recall that the silver sheet has ever offered anything any better than this, and few pieces as good.
Its blend of big city cynicism versus small town sincerity, with an ultimately hopeful view of human nature, apparently had something to offer to everyone. Intellectuals admired its artistry, and the working class found the story spellbinding. Religious viewers found it exceptionally touching, and the non-religious were impressed by its dramatic power. On paper the plot might sound suspiciously hokey to us today, but the film version apparently hit all the right notes, handling the the various twists and character developments with sure-handed grace. “The quality of The Miracle Man is seen in its ability to seem real,” said a critic at the New York Times, “even to those who know it isn’t.”
In a time when a film’s “run” in most theaters was usually only a couple days, in many areas The Miracle Man played for a whole week. Some cities–such as Pittsburgh, Thomas Meighan’s hometown–showed as long as two. It was likely the top grosser of 1919.
Much of its success was thanks to the talents of director George Loane Tucker, then known for the 1913 drama Traffic in Souls. He made the film’s production a profound one for the cast. Chaney recalled in 1920: “We spent twelve weeks making The Miracle Man, and it was a wonderful experience, for Mr. Tucker was certainly inspired, and he inspired us until we were all living our parts every minute of the time. He works very quietly, directing every scene himself, and he went through those underworld scenes relentlessly, with set jaw and cold eyes, while in the emotional moments he cried as hard as the rest of us.”
And, of course, its success was also due to its excellent cast. The three main leads virtually owed their careers to its popularity. Meighan (who had gotten the rights to Cohan’s play of The Miracle Man) was propelled to matinee idol status almost overnight. Betty Compson, who had mainly appeared in Christie comedies, was able to use her newfound stardom to start her own production company.
And Chaney, of course, became a household name. People were deeply impressed by this “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde of pictures,” who had such an extraordinary command of body language and makeup. It was agreed that no other actor could’ve done “the Frog” justice. This fame would result in his starring in The Penalty (1920), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925), and other screen classics. He had been in a number of films prior to 1919, but The Miracle Man was essentially his big break. And fortunately for us, the Frog’s “healing” scene is one of the scenes that survived all these decades, allowing us to get a glimpse of what was perhaps Chaney’s most seminal performance.
Of the many, many lost films out there, there are a few that remain high on my list–including A Country Hero (1917), Saved From the Titanic (1912), Robert Harron’s Coincidence (1920), The Greatest Thing in Life (1918), and of course, Cleopatra (1917). The Miracle Man is near the very top. Not only was it an important piece of cinematic history, but it has one of the most intriguing stories of any 1910s film I can think of. And yes, I admit I’d like to see it just a wee bit more than London After Midnight.
Thanks to the wonders of 21st century technology, you can view the surviving footage here:
This post was written especially for the Classic Movie Blog Association‘s fall blogathon–a big welcome to any new readers who might be dropping by! This year’s theme is “Outlaws”–focusing on films about gangsters, cowboys, fugitives and various other kinds of lawbreakers. I’m proud to be a part of this fine association, and urge you to check out all the posts by its talented members!
Your wish is the wish of many and if we close our eyes tight and wish on the bright star maybe we’ll all be real boys – oops! – maybe that unsearched attic will reveal The Miracle Man to us.
C’mon, unsearched attics, don’t let us down! And you, forgotten nooks and crannies in old renovated movie theaters, you better help out, too. 😀
I am a big fan of Lon Chaney. I have everything of his that’s available. I fervently wish this and London After Midnight could be found.
I’m keeping my fingers crossed, too.
Oh, man…how, how, how did we ever let that one get lost? Surely somewhere, someday…
It was so hugely popular back then, there’s gotta be a copy or two that survived somewhere…! We can only hope (and pray).
Hey Lea! I love this! 🤗
This movie might be my choice if I could have just one lost film “brought back from the dead”. (I’m glad I have no say in the matter. That’d be too much pressure!)
As far as lost ones go, I’ve had the nicest experience with this one. I read it was lost but didn’t find out about the surviving footage until a few months later. I was over-the-moon excited when I found out WHAT scene survived! It was a glorious day. 😁
Anyhow, thanks for your excellent writin’ and research! New Silentology posts always make my day!
Aw, thank you Debbe! That’s what I like to hear. 🙂
Isn’t it wonderful that the most important scene survived?! It’s kind of uncanny, actually. You can see why it made Chaney so famous–when his “crippled” body untwists, you can almost feel it yourself.
Thank you so much for this post. It’s the second post today for the blogathon regarding a lost film and Thomas Meighan (the other being The City Gone Wild). So wonderful to be able to – at least – see some surviving footage.
Not all lost films were as lucky.
Thank you for reading, Martha–I’m glad you enjoyed it! Writing it was a tantalizing experience, you want to sit down and watch it so bad. 😀
A fantastic piece and wouldn’t be incredible to finally see this film after all these years. I wrote a rebuttal recently to Charles Epring’s article that the loss of many silent films was nothing to stress over and used The Miracle Man as an example to back up my argument. You reflected so many of my own thoughts! Really enjoyed your article and keeping toes and fingers crossed that someone somewhere somehow finds The Miracle Man – a miracle in itself!
That WOULD be a miracle, ha ha! C’mon, film, live up to your name and reappear somewhere–preferably in a gorgeous print, please. 😉
Thanks for this great article about film preservation and a lost film. It’s actually kind of amazing that the one scene we do have from The Miracle Man is so pivotal to the film and such an amazing display of Chaney’s singular talents. There’s never been anyone like him, before or since.
Absolutely–when we consider what an influence Chaney was on acting, on fellow actors, and even on the horror genre itself, that clip has very deep historical significance.
What a great job you’ve done capturing what’s fantastic about this film even without viewing it! I’m so intrigued, and though I haven’t heard of it before, now find myself plotting for its return. Thank you.
You’re so welcome!
Wonderful post—sounds like it would make a fantastic night at the cinema—both today and 100 years ago. I was fortunate to have see the 1931 Paramount film at Capitolfest this year. Those lost films are like ghosts—we’re haunted by only a tiny but intriguing bit of substance.
Indeed. Even the silents that survive often have something ghostly about them–often the props, costumes, sets, and of course actors are all long gone, leaving only those images on the nitrate.
You probably would like to know that I reconstructed the whole plot of The Miracle Man a few months ago through a series of tell-it-all Brazilian film magazines. I also added many stills from the magazines: https://criticaretro.blogspot.com/2018/05/o-homem-miraculoso-miracle-man-1919.html
That is AWESOME, I’ll definitely have to check those out!
Hi brilliant article. Could you please tell me exactly which issue of Motion Picture News, 1919 you came across for the two-page spread piece please?
Hi Daniel! The issue was September 13, 1919.
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Last week I was in MediaHistoryProject.org skim/reading through Photoplay from 1916 onward and got absorbed reading Julian Johnson’s monthly Shadow Stage film reviews. If today one was to collect all Johnson’s reviews, it would bring one closer to experiencing what a movie goer in those long ago days saw on the screen and what they thought about the stories and stars the producers thought they wanted to spend their dimes on to see.
Johnson was hugely enthusiastic about The Miracle Man and what he had to say made me want to see it too, especially because Meighan and Compson are 2 of my favorite silent actors. This film was such a phenomenon that Photoplay continued writing about it in later issues. One about the director and another about how Tucker chose Compson to play Rose, after having considered “hundreds” of other actresses. Another article told of how Meighan bought the film rights from Cohan for $25,000 as a starring vehicle for himself, and talked Tucker into directing.
It is puzzling that this film is lost. It was SO important to Tucker’s career, and Meighan’s as well, but neither had a personal copy? DeMille had copies of all his films, as did some other directors and stars. The film would have been reissued over the years, and yet no distribution company has a copy? Wouldn’t a copy have been given to the Library of Congress to protect its copyright?
I assume that 90% of all films made that are lost deserve to be lost. But not The Miracle Man!