Edison, the Man (1940)

Passed   |    |  Biography, Drama

Edison, the Man (1940) Poster

82 year old inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Alva Edison is honored in 1929 and he reflects back on his sixty year career of scientific achievement.


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13 November 2004 | theowinthrop
The stock ticker, the electric light, the power grid, the phonograph, the motion picture camera...
Spencer Tracy rarely played real people. He played a character based on Arnold Rothstein in an early film for Fox, and Henry Morton Stanley in STANLEY AND LIVINGSTON, and Rogers of Rogers' Rangers in NORTHWEST PASSAGE, and Clarence Darrow (Henry Drummond) in INHERIT THE WIND, and the Captain of the Mayflower in PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE. It seems like a large number of films, but it is really less than three percent of his movies. He also appeared in this film as the great inventor (over 1,000 patents) Thomas Alva Edison (1847 - 1931).

In 1940 Edison was a national hero. Nobody was quite like him, although Alexander Graham Bell (soon to be subject of a film starring Don Ameche) was a figure of great interest too. So was Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, and Eli Whitney, inventor of the Cotton Gin. However no films were made about them. There was a film with Fred MacMurray and Alice Faye about Robert Fulton and his steamboat, but none about the Wright brothers.

Because of the period of history it was made in, film biography rarely was totally dispassionate. All Americans heroes were flawless, so all questions about Edison's stealing credit from assistants or other inventors was pushed aside (his involvement in the patent battles about the telephone is not mentioned). Nor were his flop inventions: pre-fabricated houses made of cement (actually a good idea, but ahead of it's time), the attempt to be the biggest gold ore refiner in the East (using huge machines to grind the ore out of rocks), the electric car motor. His bigoted feelings towards foreigners (Jews, rival inventors like Nicola Tesla) were not mentioned, nor was his rejection of the offer of a joint 1911 Nobel Prize for Physics (for the accidental discovery of the Edison Affect of carbonization in electricity) because he had to have it with Tesla for discovering alternating current. None of this is mentioned...only the string of great inventions he had a major hand in from 1868 to 1894. As a surface study of his career it is passable, and Tracy and the cast (in particular Gene Lockhart as his critic and nemesis Taggart) are splendid. You'll be entertained, but read A STREAK OF LUCK by Robert Conot for the true story.

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Did You Know?


This was one of the films that Spencer Tracy really believed in and actively supported not because he starred in it, but because he was a great admirer of Thomas A. Edison. This was unusual as Tracy was known throughout most of his career to disparage his own gifts as well as the importance of motion pictures. Also, prior to this film Spencer Tracy had been a very active member of the "Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences". He even hosted the awards show on at least one occasion. However when the nominations came out for the best films of 1940, Tracy was appalled that "Edison the Man" was so overlooked in the nominations. It was only nominated for best writing. Tracy swore he would never attend another academy award ceremony again. He never did. Not without irony is that although he was nominated another 6 times over the next 28 years, Tracy never won another Oscar after that after winning two in a row in the previous two years.


Thomas A. Edison: Well, we failed again. That's the net result of nine thousand experiments.
Michael Simon: Too bad, Tom. We know the work you have done. We are as sorry as you are that you didn't get results.
Thomas A. Edison: Results? Man, I got a lot of results. I know nine thousand things now that...


The montage sequence depicting Edison's inventions lists "electric power transmission" over a shot of a massive transmission line and the tower that holds it up. That technology was actually developed not by Thomas A. Edison but by Nikola Tesla. (Tesla held over 700 patents, including Radio. Guglielmo Marconi stole the radio patent from Tesla. The US Patent office has since revoked Marconi's claim, giving it to Tesla.) Edison insisted on powering his lights with direct current, which could only travel short distances from the generators that produced it. Tesla used alternating current, which could be run through transformers to increase its voltage so it could be moved over long distances, then reduced in voltage again for home use. Tesla's alternating current, not Edison's direct current, quickly became the standard and is what we use today.

Crazy Credits

The opening credits appear as 19th Century sampler embroideries.


Sweet Genevieve
(1869) (uncredited)
Music by
Henry Tucker
Lyrics by George Cooper
Played often in the score
Sung a bit by Spencer Tracy


Plot Summary


Biography | Drama

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