What is success? Everyone defines it differently, and the conflict in The Magnificent Dope (1942, directed by Walter Lang) comes from people with very different philosophies of success. Don Ameche is Dwight Dawson, the gung-ho proprietor of a failing success school and Lynn Bari is his business helper and fiancee. Together with their business partner, (Edward Everett Horton), they hatch a publicity stunt to save their jobs: they will conduct a nationwide search for the nation's biggest failure and put him through their course. The man they get is 'boat-renter-outer' Tad Page (Henry Fonda), who wants nothing more than to take his prize money back to Vermont, hand it over to the fire engine fundraiser and then go back to watching trees bend in the breeze. It's a bit of Mr. Deeds as Dawson and friends try to change the loser into a success, but instead find his philosophy rubbing off on them. It's an interesting lesson on doing what works best for you (and on how that can be sold as well).
Motivational speakers and success brokers are prime movie fodder for comedy and pathos (think Little Miss Sunshine) because by definition they have to be excellent immediately; there's really no room for trying or for negatives if one is going to hold oneself up as a model of success. However, there is a good deal of room for psychological coercion through guilt, peer pressure and outright manipulation, as Dawson's character shows. This breed has been around for a very long time in many guises, but what surprised me most about The Magnificent Dope was how all the trappings for modern motivation were already in place in 1940: the brochures, magazine articles, publicity, books, posters - all so similar to today, except for the art deco fonts.
It's a bit of difficult thing, researching motivational speakers and success brokers - as stated above, the profession has been around in various versions for ages. There is one case that stands out that may have provided a model for the Don Ameche character, or at least provided him with a profession. One of the most famous influential self-improvers of the past century was Dale Carnegie. He had originally worked as a successful salesman before entering acting school. When success was not quick in coming on the acting front, he began to lecture on public speaking at local clubs. He had originally wanted to lecture on the original self-improvement circuit, Chautauqua, but it was through the club lectures and experiences that he developed his principles for success. Carnegie had been lecturing on public speaking and confidence-building since around 1910, and his most famous book, 'How To Win Friends and Influence People', was published in 1936, a few years before this movie came out. At about the same time, his Carnegie Institute was churning out graduates of its school, guaranteeing success in business.
Side Note: Lynn Bari
Lynn Bari, who co-stars as the love interest, is classy and fun to watch in this picture, and I wanted to find out more about her. She was a B movie actress who appears to have had the talent, looks and impressive speaking voice to do more than second-rate pictures, but the prime roles never really came in. She was known to many GIs through her pin-up pictures and was second only to Betty Grable as a favorite pin-up at Fox during the war. This had to be a bit of a vindication for her, as only a few years earlier she had been traded to Fox by United Artists in return for expensive camera equipment.