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edison the man, biographical film, biography, review, biopic

Edison, the Man (1940) 

A sub-genre of the Great Man biopic of the 1930’s and 1940’s were films dedicated to scientists and inventors. Warner Brothers' contributed The Story of Louis Pasteur and Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet while 20th Century Fox gave us The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. Not to be outdone, MGM produced a two-part biopic of Thomas Edison, though the first half starring Mickey Rooney played more like 'Inspiration Finds Andy Hardy'. Leaving no doubt that part two would be a hagiopic, Young Tom Edison ended with Spencer Tracy gazing up at a portrait of the inventor while the narrator intoned “Young Tom Edison was a great boy. He lived to be one of the world’s greatest men.”

Edison, the Man was released just three months after Young Tom Edison’s premier. Less fanciful than the first installment, the film was nonetheless a romanticized depiction of the famed inventor. Using the 1929 celebration of Light's Golden Jubilee to frame the story, an elderly Thomas Edison listens as his life is recounted by the ceremony’s toastmaster. Flashback sixty years to his arrival in New York where he finds his first invention, an electronic vote recorder, is being used to age whisky. Realising that there’s not much future in inventing things that people don’t want, Edison improves on an existing ticker tape machine and with the proceeds of its sale sets up his own laboratory at Menlo Park. A montage of patent papers and newspaper articles indicate early success, but before long the creditors are knocking on his door. Fortunately, his invention of the phonograph is just around the corner.

The depiction of this event and his later efforts to perfect the incandescent light bulb are among the film’s highlights. Not only do they encapsulate Edison’s philosophy, quoted earlier in the film, that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration, the quests also serve to illustrate the camaraderie and loyalty of his staff. Much of it is pure hokum of course (would Edison have so easily forgiven a clumsy worker), but with Spencer Tracy in the title role the film remains eminently watchable.

Not conveyed is Edison's apparent obsession with how he would be remembered. This biopic's depiction of him as a heroic figure fighting old technology would be upended by his later portrayal in The Current War.

Spencer Tracy, Thomas Edison, Thomas Alva Edison
fact check, fact vs fiction, inaccuracies, true story

All characters outside of Edison’s immediate family are fictional.

Edison did not invent the incandescent light bulb. His patent was for an improved electric light bulb, using materials for filaments which allowed the bulb to burn for several hours.

Edison did not flick the switch which lit up New York City. He was in J. P. Morgan 's office at the time.

“Sometimes the character of a famous man is revealed in small things which his fame overshadows. In the Edison film, for instance, the inventor’s courage and persistence count for more than his success. To build up the real Edison, we tried to suggest those little ways of friendship, those instincts of loyalty and justice, which made the men in his laboratory devoted to him, and I had to indicate his qualities in his manner, in so far as I could, even when I was saying or doing nothing in particular… Realism is always someone’s idea of reality. It gets the name of ‘real’ when the audience agrees it is true. If I can’t convince the audience, then the portrait won’t seem real, no matter how true it is.”

Spencer Tracy

Only reference to Edison’s contributions to the cinema is a list of his inventions, including motion pictures, projection machine and talking pictures, towards the biopic’s conclusion.

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