Been a while since I’ve seen The Story of Alexander Graham Bell and I’ve always loved it, so when I saw it was going to be on Fox Movie Channel again, I couldn’t help but record a fresh copy on my DVR. It occurred to me only a few minutes into the film that I incorrectly named my iPhone and decided after nearly a year that it should be named Ameche. [Really, I’m not obsessed at all.] The film opens with a fellow who walked ten miles to give a lady a message. She says he shouldn’t have walked all the way over and he assures it was no problem as it was only a two hour walk. Only a two hour walk–hits home now, especially as we don’t even need to walk over to a telephone wire to receive a call. In 1939, the telephone was well-used but still fairly new–really didn’t catch on in the United States until the 1920s. After this film’s release, Ameche became a household name for telephone. Now his name is but a memory when attached to the telephone except to the faithful few fans who love this film.
Alexander Graham Bell (Don Ameche) is in the process of inventing a more efficient telegraph. He has trouble getting backing and decides to go to dinner at the home of a man who has the means and the leverage to potentially back his project if Graham worked with his daughter (Loretta Young) who lost her hearing when she was only a little girl with Scarlet Fever. Ameche plays Bell as an absent-minded professor–always living in his mind with his leading trait running his hand through his hair when he gets into a spot. When he tries to convey ideas, Alexander speaks with so much enthusiasm that you would think that Ameche would become lost in the lines the way they trip eloquently off the tongue. The following dialogue is from testimony given by Bell to protect his patent:
“…shall the lonely scientist, the man who dreams, and out of his dreams benefits the world, is he, that often half-starved, lonely little man, to be told the world has no need of him the moment his work is done? Is he to be told that others, less gifted, but stronger, men with money and power behind them, are waiting to take the product of his genius and turn it to their own uses–leaving him with liar and thief branded on his brow as his only reward? Do that, and you stop the clock of progress. You smother the spark of genius that lies hidden here and there throughout the world. Do that, and the world stands still.”
Bell’s plea really brings the plot around to a lovely end. It’s lovely, progressive, and idealistic. In fact, through Alexander Graham Bell, the film itself mocks points of view outside of science a bit. Hollywood also gave Don Ameche back his baby-face, when he left his trademark mustache behind. History and Hollywood took many liberties with the film. It’s a little ironic in the historical time frame that someone who was half Italian played a Alexander Graham Bell, a Scotchman.
There has been much debate well over the past 100 years about who really invented the telephone. The United States government acknowledged Italy’s Antonio Meucci’s early work on the telephone in 2002 after a long battle by Italy for recognition. That didn’t end the debate by historians though. Like Bell in the film, Meucci didn’t have any tangible evidence of his invention, so the battle rages on. Hollywood played around a bit with events, though it follows Bell’s life a bit closer than many biographical pictures did at the time.
Darryl F. Zanuck, as head of Fox, was quite interested in these biopics. Within three years, they made many films based on inventors, politicians and entertainers including: In Old Chicago (1937, the O’Leary family in Chicago), Lillian Russell (1940), Swanee River (Don Ameche also starred in this film, also released in 1939 as Stephen Foster), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, Henry Fonda), and Jesse James (1939, Henry Fonda). That’s only the beginning. Could rattle off Tyrone Power films and others made by Fox at the same time.
Loretta Young’s three sisters who were actresses appeared in this film as Loretta’s sisters. It was the first and only time this happened for Loretta. She is beautiful in this film, just radiant and enchanting–very sympathetic character, indeed. She could have played the role for sympathy though the dialogue clearly dismisses any urge to feel pity for her character. She provides ‘Alec’ the friendly ear to bounce ideas off of and inspiration when he’s ready to give up. (Incidentally, Young rivals Alice Faye for the most film appearances with Don Ameche, she was just one short of Faye–unless you count Clive of India where Don Ameche had a bit part–still haven’t spotted him). The film also sports a great supporting cast that includes Henry Fonda (just coming into recognition), Spring Byington, Charles Coburn, Gene Lockhart, and the lovely Henry Davenport who must have played a judge in at least 10 films. Spring’s character is not so easily flustered in this film, which is a nice change of pace for one of her roles. Gene Lockhart has beautifully acted scenes with child star Bobs Watson. Henry Fonda is charming with the gift of timing and wit you generally don’t see in his roles. Over all, the film is magnificently, if not masterfully done. Though it had no recognition by Oscar, it might have had it been released in another year, perhaps the film would have garnered more awards. Oakland Times reviewer H. M. Levy said this of Alexander:
On occasion, the motion picture becomes a radiant and perfect thing, fulfilling its emotional and intellectual mission with a completeness that defies the cynic’s sneer and the fool’s ridicule. Such a play is “The Story of Alexander Graham Bell,” which started what should become a long and useful career at the Paramount yesterday—one destined to reach the dizzy heights, perhaps, of 1939’s “big” films. The excellence of this biography lies in the careful fusing of incident and characterization; of inspired acting and masterful direction; of gentility and conflict; of realism and the stuff of dreams. Each element would have made an acceptable drama; all of them together form a monumental and beautiful work. – H. M. Levy, Oakland Tribune, April 7, 1939
A stunning contemporary tribute to the film, Levy speaks to the importance the film may have had in another year. Don Ameche had been panned a bit for earlier roles as invoked again by Levy who says Don Ameche gave a “surprising” performance. He called Loretta Young’s performance “delightfully different.” All of the performances were wonderful, however, and it all gels together with just the right dose of emotional charge.