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The Story of Alexander Graham Bell

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell(1939)


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teaser The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)

Henry Fonda was not yet the first-billed star he would become (Young Mr. Lincoln would come out a month after this, The Grapes of Wrath the following year), so Don Ameche got the title role and top billing in this story of the life, love, and technological triumph of the man credited with inventing the telephone. Fonda plays his trusty assistant, the recipient of the first phone call with the legendary line, "Mr. Watson, come here, I want you!"

Second-billed Loretta Young plays Bell's love interest and eventual wife, a deaf woman who inspires Bell in his work. One likely apocryphal story that has grown up around this production is that Bell's wife was also mute, and the studio's refusal to let Young play the part that way angered her enough to go freelance instead of renewing her contract. In fact, Mabel Hubbard Bell had learned to lip-read and speak in several languages, even testifying before the Massachusetts legislature at the age of 9. Young may have been told Mrs. Bell was mute and may well have been angry enough with her studio to quit, but the highly intelligent and accomplished woman she played was not the real cause. And Mabel Bell was also not the inspiration for "Ma Bell," the slang term by which the national telephone company was once known.

Speaking of slang terms, the picture's star made enough of an impression in this popular film that for a time, the telephone device itself became known as the "Ameche." In the Marx Brothers movie Go West (1940), Groucho points out that the setting of the story is 1870 and that Ameche hasn't invented the telephone yet. In Ball of Fire (1941), Barbara Stanwyck, schooling Gary Cooper and his colleagues in contemporary slang, explains that the phone is known as the Ameche because the actor "invented it in the movies." Luckily the term didn't stick or we'd now be referring to the iAmeche and, worse for the actor's legacy, bad performers would be accused of "amecheing it in."

The sisters of Loretta Young's character are played by the actress's real sisters, Sally Blane, Polly Ann Young, and Georgiana Young. This was the only time all four appeared in a movie together.

Bell's daughter, Mrs. Gilbert Grosvenor, had official approval over the script, which during pre-production was titled "American Miracle" and simply "Alexander Graham Bell."

In story conferences, Twentieth Century-Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck slammed the script for putting too much focus on science at the expense of the story's romantic angle. He also suggested Eddie Albert for the part of Watson, Nancy Kelly for Mrs. Bell, and Edna Mae Oliver as Mrs. McGregor.

There's no record of whether Zanuck also wanted the studio's main male star, Tyrone Power, for the lead, but New York Times critic Frank S. Nugent got in hot water applauding the studio's decision not to put the actor in the role. In his review, Nugent wrote, "If only because it has omitted Tyrone Power, the 20th-Fox production of The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, at the Roxy, must be considered one of that company's more sober and meritorious contributions to the historical drama." The remark reportedly cost the paper some $50,000 in studio advertising. Nugent had long been critical of Fox's output, but following his glowing review of its John Ford film The Grapes of Wrath (1940), the studio hired him as a script consultant. Nugent became a favorite of Ford, writing 11 of the director's films, including The Quiet Man (1952), for which he was Oscar nominated.

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell was written by Lamar Trotti, another Ford collaborator. Trotti wrote four screenplays for the director, including Henry Fonda's next two pictures after this, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939). Trotti had a way with historical biographies, turning out scripts for Brigham Young (1940), Belle Starr (1941), the biopic of singer Jane Froman With a Song in My Heart (1952), and Wilson (1944), his Oscar-winning bio of Woodrow Wilson.

Appropriately enough, the film had its premiere at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, where advances in technology and industry were touted.

Ameche reprised his role in a 60-minute Lux Radio Theater adaptation broadcast May 14, 1945. His younger brother, Jim Ameche, played the part in his only feature film role in The Story of Mankind (1957), an all-star production featuring the Marx Brothers, Hedy Lamarr, Vincent Price, and Ronald Colman.

Director: Irving Cummings
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, story by Ray Harris
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Editing: Walter Thompson
Art Direction: Richard Day, Mark-Lee Kirk
Music: Ernst Toch (uncredited)
Cast: Don Ameche (Alexander Graham Bell), Loretta Young (Mabel Hubbard Bell), Henry Fonda (Thomas Watson), Charles Coburn (Charles Hubbard), Gene Lockhart (Thomas Sanders)

By Rob Nixon

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