Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Edison, the Man (MGM, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Later we ran the 1940 film Edison, the Man, partly because I had just recorded it off the Spencer Tracy tribute on TCM and partly because Charles had mentioned that he’d looked up on the Internet important things that happened on his birthday (August 31, the same as my brother’s, though three years later) and the most significant item was that on that date Edison got his patent for the Kinetoscope, his pioneering movie camera. MGM bought the rights to Thomas Edison’s life story and, after deciding that a single film based on his entire life would be too long, split the project into two separate movies, Young Tom Edison (1939), with Mickey Rooney as Edison, and this one, with Spencer Tracy. Ironically, Young Tom Edison was an enormous hit (it was made at the height of Rooney’s fame, at a time when he was making more money for MGM than any other contract player except Clark Gable) while Edison, the Man was a flop.

Produced by Orville O. Dull (whose name was, predictably, the source of jokes — during the time he was billing himself simply as “O. O. Dull” the inevitable bon mot was that his name was actually a warning about the quality of his films: “Oh-oh! Dull!”) and directed by Clarence Brown (who was too good a director to be written off as a hack but not good or innovative enough to be considered a major creative artist either), Edison, the Man suffers from the attempts of scenarists Dore Schary and Hugo Butler (story) and Talbot Jennings and Bradbury Foote (screenplay) to shoehorn Edison’s life into the usual movie clichés, but it also benefits from the quiet strength of Brown’s direction and Tracy’s performance.

If it does nothing else, it certainly manages to dramatize Edison’s famous definition of genius as “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration” (at least that’s how it’s given in the film: other versions of the quote have the relative percentages of inspiration and perspiration at 2 and 98, and even 10 and 90); though the only things we actually see Edison invent are the phonograph and the electric light, the film certainly depicts the arduous struggle behind every advance in science and technology. The film also depicts Edison’s laboratory at Menlo Park filled with various assistants, helpers and fellow researchers — a far cry from the usual conceit of Hollywood biopics that the subject did all his important work heroically alone, without any help at all!

Indeed, there are quite a few effective character actors in the movie, including Lynne Overman (a boy named Lynne, a fine comedy character player who had the misfortune to be stuck in supporting roles while the friends he’d scuffled with on the New York stage in the late 1920’s, Tracy and James Cagney, became superstars) as Edison’s business manager and Felix Bressart as one of his assistants. They help make up for the relative dramatic nullity of Rita Johnson as Mary, Edison’s wife, who gets one charming scene in which Edison taps out his proposal to him by hammering Morse code on the pipes of the telegraph building where they both work, and she communicates her acceptance similarly. (In real life Mr. and Mrs. Edison communicated by tapping Morse code on each other’s shoulders, not as an endearment the way this film presents it but because Edison was so deaf — the result of a boxing on the ears he got from his dad when he was a boy — that was the only way they could talk to each other.)

Not surprisingly, the film downplays Edison’s deafness — the film is set in flashback from the “Light’s Golden Jubilee” in 1929 at which an M.C. narrates Edison’s life (though no voiceover is used) while waiting for him to arrive at the hall, and he’s shown as hard of hearing in the framing sequences but not during the bulk of the film, and it appears he’s simply lost part of his hearing with advancing age. (Violinist Louis Kaufman, who made his first recording for Edison’s label, recalled that, unable to hear anything by the 1920’s, Edison monitored his recordings by watching how much the cutting stylus vibrated as it bit into the master disc — and as Kaufman poured on the vibrato à la Fritz Kreisler, Edison decided the vibrations were too extreme and fired Kaufman on the spot.)

Aside from that, the film is a succession of contrived but nonetheless entertaining scenes showing Edison and his lab constantly on the verge of bankruptcy — Edison even has a hideout on the ground where he can secrete himself when the sheriff and/or the creditors come a-calling — from which a new invention suddenly bails them out, and the climax is an exciting suspense-filled sequence in which Edison, given six months to wire one block of New York City for electric lights, watches in horror as his generators break down five hours before the deadline and then hits on an idea to fix them and finally gets the lights on with literally a minute to spare. Most of Edison’s own inventions are shown merely towards the end of the film, in a montage depicting scenes of them in action while written titles tell us what they are (one would have thought a movie studio would have made more of Edison’s invention of motion pictures than just a brief glimpse in a montage sequence!), and the montage contains one major error.

Edison is credited with inventing “electric power transmission” over a shot of a long-distance powerline, a technology Edison not only didn’t invent but actively fought against. Edison insisted on running his lighting system on direct current, which means the generators have to be close by to the power users; it was Edison’s great rival, Elihu Thomson, who relied on alternating-current generators because alternating current, unlike direct, could be “transformed” — i.e., its voltage could be changed so it could move great distances at high speed and then changed back to a level suitable for consumer use — and therefore made the current electrical grid of large, centralized power plants and massive networks of wires to communicate the power to its users possible.

Nonetheless, it’s ironic that for all the talk about 20th century inventions and how they shaped our lives, the two most important inventions that shaped life in the 20th century were both made towards the end of the 19th: the automobile and the electric power grid. One may debate the relative merits of radio, TV, appliances and whatnot, but the fact is none of them would have been possible without (virtually) every home having access to a reliable source of electricity with which to make them work. (As I write this, my computer and my fan are both wired to the power grid — as are the machines I’m using to record a film, another Edison invention; and earlier I was playing recorded music that, though I was listening to it via the CD technology that superseded Edison’s stylus-and-groove system, was originally recorded for stylus-and-groove release, albeit on flat, lateral-cut disc records rather than Edison’s vertical-cut cylinders.)