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Wednesday, 7 March 2012

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)

A scary feature of today's cityscape is seeing crowds of people shuffling about talking into their mobile phones, with slightly glazed eyes, occasionally reminiscent of a bunch of Romero's zombies.  So who, we may ask, is initially to blame for the invention of the telephone?  Well, Don Ameche of course!  Or rather Alexander G. B. as embodied by this actor, to the extent that it threatened to become his signature role and slang of the following years did call the phone an Ameche. 


The 1930s were a landmark period for the various studios churning out biopics of 'great' men from "Young Tom Edison" to "Edison the Man", from "The Story of Louis Pasteur" to "Doctor Ehrlich's Magic Bullet".  The above movie was 20th Century Fox's prestige entry in this field.  All of these films share the objective of making what is largely a history lesson into a popular entertainment and this movie is as good an example as any.  While the facts of Bell's life were roughly adhered to, they were simplified and condensed to produce a rattling good yarn under the aegis of the legendary Daryl F. Zanuck.  Set in Boston in 1875, it's the story of a teacher of the deaf struggling to invent a better telegraph until he became captivated with the idea of 'sending sound over a wire', of his falling in love with a woman left deaf after an early bout of scarlet fever, and of his staving off the breach of his patent by wealthy rival Western Union.  It may not sound exciting stuff, and the film does have the occasional longueur, but an accomplished cast make it all worthwhile.


Ameche was a stalwart at 20th Century, but studio contractee Tyrone Power was offered the cream of lead roles -- and yes, he was far prettier than Ameche.  However while Power's looks hardened with age and while he unfortunately died young, Ameche's career went on until the early 1990s and included such late career highpoints as the popular 1980s' flicks "Trading Places" and "Cocoon".  He plays Bell with great conviction and earnestness and it is just as well that his sidekick Henry Fonda, just before his elevation to leading man status, brings some humanity and humour to their inventive struggle. The dewy-eyed Loretta Young plays the object of his affections and parenthetically it is the only movie in which Young and her three actress sisters (Sally Blane, Polly Ann Young, and Georgiana Young) all appear in the same film.  They play the daughters of prolific character actors Charles Coburn and Spring Byington, where Daddy discourages Bell's affections for his daughter until he can provide her with a secure life and Mommy knows that her deaf daughter is lucky to have found a suitor.  A big deal is made of the fact that Young is able to lip-read so her character is graced with plenty of dialogue.  The cast is rounded out by other recognizable faces including Gene Lockhart, Harry Davenport, Elizabeth Patterson, and Beryl Mercer as Queen Victoria, who agrees to have Bell's newfangled invention installed at Buckingham Palace.


Despite contrived heart-tugging moments like Bell's teaching Lockhart's deaf son to speak his first word -- 'father' --, the film's excellent production values and art decoration ensure that this is a polished production, and it continues to be more than watchable today.  The movie was later renamed "The Modern Miracle" according to IMDb, but somehow I doubt that Bell could have guessed that his original invention would morph into the indispensable attachment of today's cellphone shufflers. 
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