1939 was indeed a magical year for Hollywood, and this classic biopic of one of American's most celebrated inventors during his most interesting period is one of the less remembered highlights. I was very surprised at the rather few reviews at this site, compared to the several hundred reviews of "The Grapes of Wrath", released the following year. Both were shot in high quality B&W. Although it much simplifies, and often grossly fictionalizes, the details relating to the invention of and subsequent patent battles relating to the first practical telephone, it definitely succeeds as a vibrant theatrical presentation of Bell and his associates during this exciting time period. Bell makes a particularly appealing subject for this sort of film because of his primary interest, during this period, in teaching the deaf(including his future wife) to communicate by visuals and speech training(although he was very opposed to a special sign language!). Also, his status as a poor(overly emphasized) lone inventor, trying to scoop some well financed competitors.
Ironically, the invention of an auditory means of instantaneous long distance communication served to further isolate the deaf from mainstream society, being at least partially dependent on visual communication. The profoundly deaf would have to await the advent of relatively cheap FAX machines and PCs to participate directly in relatively fast long distance communications, other than using the telegraph...The viewer should also be aware that it was Tom Edison's subsequent invention of the carbon-based transmitter-receiver that finally provided clear speech over long distances, and thus greatly increased the utility of the telephone.
The casting was near perfect. The classy, infectiously hyperactive, Don Ameche and gorgeous, always empathetic, Loretta Young had played husband and wife before, in "Ramona", and were a very charismatic match in this film. Loretta mostly just had to look lovely, supposedly learn to communicate using lip reading, and be continuously supportive of Bell's 'crazy' inventive obsessions. Having her real sisters play her stage sisters was a nice embellishing touch.
Some complain that Ameche constantly grossly overacted. But, to me, his hyperenthusiasm about whatever he was doing translated into greater interest in the film proceedings. He personifies the obsessive enthusiasm of the inventor or scientist who feels he is on the verge of a great discovery, as well as the dogged determination of the healer, who feels his efforts make a life-changing impact on his patients.
Just as Dr. Watson was indispensable to Sherlock Homes. and Jim Watson partnered with Francis Crick in figuring out the structure of DNA, young(20-22y.o) Tom Watson was hired to make Bell's experimental efforts at an improved telegraph and telephone. Bell was not mechanically gifted, thus required such a person to make his ideas a practical reality. Some complain that Henry Fonda's Watson was too much the opposite of Ameche's hyperenthusiatic, sometimes nearly hysterical, Bell: laconic, frequently complaining and pessimistic. However, theatrically, Fonda's Watson serves to help balance Ameche's Bell, giving the audience a respite. He also served to articulate the many frustrations and sacrifices typically involved in trying to invent something revolutionary.
The very familiar character actors Charles Coburn and Gene Lockhart play their usual roles as mature authority figures, serving as Bell's reluctant source of financing during this period, Coburn also playing Bell's future father in law. They are later characterized as risking their entire fortunes in financing Bell's patent war. Thus, they also achieve the status of heroes in this film.
There is a villain in this story, in the form of competing inventor Eliza Gray and his supporting corporation :Western Electric, who file a patent infringement suit against Bell's fledgling company. Both filed a patent for very similar devices on the very same day, thus the assumption is that one must have stolen the idea from the other, but who did the stealing? Things look bad for Bell during most of the trial, but it's resolved in fictitious melodramatic style when Loretta unexpectedly reads a dated love letter from Bell to the court, then, oh, incidentally, reveals that it was written on the back of a diagram of his key thinking and breakthrough apparatus. Historically, Eliza Gray was no villain, but a competent inventor of other things. This trial segment afforded Ameche the opportunity to articulate a memorable impassioned plea not to allow well-healed corporations to bully poor individual inventors into giving up legal credit for their inventions. This speech reminds me of a number of other impassioned speeches in films of this era, such as those of Paul Muni , when playing Louis Pasteur, or Emile Zola, and Spencer Tracey, when playing Henry Stanley, or defending Clark Gable's character in "Boomtown", for example.
Granted that this film was mainly about Bell's invention of a telephone. However, Tom Watson's essential contribution to this invention has been consistently downplayed, although the easy going Watson never seemed to care. Watson was actually much like Bell in that he easily got bored with a given lifestyle, thus periodically attempted to shed his skin. After a few additional years making all of Bell's early commercial telephones, he decided to play farmer for a few years, but soon grew bored with that. Then, he began making marine motors, and eventually built his company into the Fore River Ship and Engine company, one of the largest in the US. During a period of financial trouble, he quit this and tried his hand at being a geologist, after study at MIT. Not very successful, he then decided to become a stage actor and playwright, later adding public lectures on various topics, in his declining years. His last celebrated dealing with the telephone occurred in 1915, when he joined Bell in the symbolic first transcontinental phone conversation, thus commemorating their first , accidental, phone conversation in the lab. Incidentally, Bell disputed his claim, dramatized in the film, that this conversation was occasioned by Bell spilling acid on himself.