Program Notes: The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)
Every now and then an actor becomes inseparable from a role.
Here’s a sobering thought: So popular was the 1939 release The Story of Alexander Graham Bell that for nearly 20 years after it was common to substitute the word “Ameche” for “telephone.”
As in: “They’re installing a new Ameche in my den.” Or: “You’re wanted on the Ameche.”
It was an impressive display of the culture-molding potential of a hit movie.
The film unfolds mostly in the 1870s and ‘80s when the Scottish-born Bell was struggling to perfect the technology that would allow the transmission of sound over copper wire (a widely-held misconception was that telephone wires were hollow, carrying sound like water through a pipe).
It’s a classic tale of a starving genius. Bell and his cohort, engineer Thomas Watson (Henry Fonda), live in a series of mildewed garrets and practically succumb to hunger before their big breakthrough.
The film does a pretty good job of laying out the basics of Bell’s story – his interest in teaching the deaf to speak (his mother was hearing impaired), his marriage to a deaf woman (played by the gorgeous Loretta Young).
It all leads up to the moment when Watson hears Bell’s voice over the telephone line requesting “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” (Actually, Bell really did need Watson’s help. He had accidently spilled a vial of acid on his trousers and his legs were burning.)
Ameche launched his film career in 1935, and in the four years leading up to The Story of Alexander Graham Bell he had been very busy, appearing in more than a dozen films, usually as the second male lead. His biggest hit of this period was In Old Chicago, a spectacular recreation of the 1871 fire in which Ameche played a member of the O’Leary family, whose cow was blamed for kicking over a lantern and setting off the conflagration.
At the same time Ameche was omnipresent on the radio, serving as a master of ceremonies on a slew of programs. By the time he turned 30 he was a household word.
Whether he was much of an actor, though, is still debated. Ameche was considered versatile...but that may have been mostly because his rather bland performance style lent itself to a wide variety of roles. With his moustache and friendly manner he was a dapper presence – but nobody was going to cast him as, say, a villain. (At least not for another 40 years.)
In Alexander Graham Bell Ameche provides a comforting and hugely earnest anchor, but the real acting chores fall to his supporting players. Comic relief is provided by Fonda as the kvetching Watson, and stuffy Charles Coburn as Bell’s father-in-law, a man who directs the lives of his family members according to a carefully thought-out timetable.
The greatest moment in the film belongs to veteran character actor Gene Lockhart and 9-year-old Bobs Watson, playing a father and son. The little boy is deaf and has never spoken, and when (thanks to Bell’s teaching methods) the child utters the word “father,” Lockhart’s character – and anybody watching this movie – breaks down in sobs. It’s Hollywood tear-jerking of the highest order.
The real Alexander Graham Bell was undoubtedly a genius whose interests and inventions included optical telecommunications, hydrofoils, a metal detector, and airplanes. (He was also a talented pianist and ventriloquist.)
But his breakthrough with the telephone was also controversial. The process detailed in Bell’s patent application was very similar to that being developed by scientist Elisha Gray, and many accused Bell of stealing from his fellow inventor.
The last 30 minutes of The Story of Alexander Graham Bell is a hugely simplified version of the legal wrangling between Bell and Western Union over just who created the telephone.
“At that point the picture trails away into hokum and blather,” observed Frank Nugent in his review in The New York Times. “Bell, who had been a modest young man before, is made to toss court-room procedure to the winds, call himself a genius and make a specious plea for the rights of an inventor – as though Bell Telephone itself is not keeping its inventors on salary. And Western Union, in the film, magnanimously admits it had been misinformed, would not otherwise have dreamed of squeezing Mr. Bell out.
“At that point the doves should have been released and the celestial choir broken into song. It almost, but does not quite, destroy the film's validity. Its earlier three fourths were too strong for that.”
Don Ameche’s film career continued to flourish in the 1940s. When parts started to dry up, he fell back on radio, having a huge hit with the comedy The Bickersons. Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s he was a popular guest star on TV programs. And he often performed in Broadway shows like Silk Stockings and Our Town.
Then, in 1983, Ameche and fellow Hollywood veteran Ralph Bellamy were cast as evil millionaire brothers in John Landis’ Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. As a result Ameche was discovered by a whole new generation of moviegoers, though he objected to having to utter profanities on film. Ever the old-fashioned gentleman, he worked his way around the set apologizing to cast and crew members for his expletive-heavy dialogue.
That success led to his being cast in Ron Howard’s Cocoon, playing retirement home resident who rediscovers his youth after an encounter with an alien race. Ameche won the Oscar for best supporting actor for his work in the movie.
He died in 1993 at the age of 85.
Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: True Lives”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- May 3: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) Not Rated
- May 10: The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939) Not Rated
- May 17: Stanley and Livingstone (1939) Not Rated
- May 24: Juarez (1939) Not Rated
- May 31: The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.