Ameche, Young, and Fonda tell... The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939)

When you read the words "The Story of Alexander Graham Bell," if you haven't seen it, you probably think "This sounds terrible." I mean, it must be a stuffy, fact-stretching, superficial account of a man who is suddenly deemed faultless and highly moral, right? Well, you'd be partially correct. Like many biopics, there are liberties taken and I'm not nearly knowledgeable enough to tell you if Alexander Graham Bell is portrayed truthfully or not. To me, though, I know that films like Rhapsody in Blue or Words and Music aren't going to be accurate -- I don't watch them for that, I watch them for the casts or the music. And that's why I was drawn to The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. Don Ameche, Loretta Young, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, and Spring Byington are all great reasons to check out this movie, and it's an added bonus that the film is actually pretty good.

I'm forced to do things a little differently than I normally would with a review because my laptop's disk drive is acting up and I haven't been able to get the screenshots that typically accompany my posts -- it's a real shame and I hate that I wasn't able to capture the shots that I would love to share with you all, but my laptop just isn't budging. So, I apologize for the lack of great photos, but hopefully you didn't come here strictly for the close-ups of Ameche and Young (although I definitely wouldn't blame you if that was your main purpose). With that disclaimer over, let's get to the film!

The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, or Story as I will now call it, tells a narrative that did come from the real Bell's life. The creation of the telephone overshadows Bell's other important work, his primary focus being helping the deaf, something that called his attention because his father, brother, and grandfather were elocutionists who studied those with speech problems and because Bell's own mother was deaf. Naturally, this being Hollywood, the movie centers around the love story of the scientist and his eventual wife, Mabel Hubbard, played by the incredible Loretta Young. Mabel was deaf after contracting scarlet fever at age five, but she wasn't a mute -- she had learned how to read lips, which Young does in the film, and could speak in many languages. Bell took her on as a student when she was fifteen and they were married in 1877 until his death in 1922. Bell's work with the deaf is what steered him towards experimenting with hearing devices until he finally patented the telephone in 1876. From what I can tell, Story is largely faithful to the truth with only slight changes that don't really make a difference, probably because Bell's daughter had final approval on the script. If I make any assumptions that anyone would like to correct, please do so (kindly!) in the comments and I'll amend it.

The picture begins in Boston, 1873. Alexander Graham Bell, Alec as he's nicknamed, lives at a boarding house where he is able to work with six-year-old George Sanders, whose father Thomas (Gene Lockhart) sponsors Alec so he can help his son learn to speak in spite of his loss of hearing. George Sanders was a real student of Bell's, and in the film he provides some of the most sob-inducing moments that I've ever endured. In all honesty, it doesn't take much to make me a crying mess, but still, you'd have to be pretty cold not to get a little lump in your throat at some point. George is portrayed by Bobs Watson, one of the cutest little child actors classic Hollywood had. Anyway, Mr. Sanders brings his friend Gardner Hubbard (Charles Coburn) to the boarding house to see Alec's progress; Hubbard is a businessman who will hopefully finance Alec so George's chances of learning to speak are much more increased. Hubbard is impressed and wants Alec to take on his daughter Mabel as a pupil, ignoring Alec's protests that he's too busy with George and working on his telegraph.

On his way to the Hubbards for dinner, Alec is wiped out on the icy sidewalk by a lovely girl sledding. He chides her and angrily walks away, not realizing that he had just met Hubbard's daughter, Mabel. When they meet again at the house, Alec and Mabel are mutually starry-eyed. Winter becomes spring and while the two are in love, Mabel agrees to wait to get married until Alec gets his radical new idea of "talking on a wire" off the ground. He teams up with an electrician named Thomas Watson, played by Henry Fonda. A year passes until a breakthrough happens, allowing Alec to propose to Mabel. After enduring setbacks and the disapproval of Mr. Hubbard, Alec is ready to give up on the telephone until Mabel tells him that she won't marry him if he stops his work. More months go by and eventually the telephone comes to fruition, and the couple marries. In the movie's final act, Alec's patent is challenged by a company that is backed by Western Union. Alec sues them for infringement and the case goes to trial, with the prosecution brutally attacking him. Mabel is able to prove that Alec came up with the telephone first, and Western Union admits defeat while also offering to go into business with him. The film ends with Alec excitedly relating to Mabel his ideas for getting man to fly.

I want to single out two particular scenes, the first occurring between Alec and Mabel. Ecstatic about a success in one of his early telephone experiments, Alec runs to the Hubbard home to tell Mabel. Knowing that steps in the experiments means steps towards their marriage, they embrace and go to a darkened room to be alone. Alec tells her that he loves her, but because of the lack of light, Mabel can't read his lips. Instead, she lightly puts her fingers to his lips and has him repeat what he said, her face lighting up as she understands. Simple and sweet, the scene is just one example of the great chemistry between its leads.

Later in the film is where we find the second scene. Poverty stricken, Alec and Watson are gratified to be invited to spend Christmas with the Sanders family. Sadness quickly overwhelms their happiness when a group of children sing carols outside one of the windows, reminding Mr. Sanders that his own son cannot join those children. The look on his face inspires Alec to bring George into the room. Sitting on his father's lap, George struggles to say something until the word finally comes out: "Father." Mr. Sanders begins to cry as his little boy repeats the word over and over. I'm getting choked up just thinking about it, oh my goodness, somebody stop me, I'm tearing up...

Henry Fonda is essentially the funny sidekick, but if anyone could steal a movie, it's Fonda. Watson is sarcastic, weary, and would rather have food to eat than dedicate everything to the telephone like Alec does. In one pivotal moment, Alec wonders where a spring is that Watson was supposed to buy, Watson admitting he used their sparse cash to buy a sandwich instead after days of starving. Alec is furious but their argument leads to an important realization, one that Watson undercuts by saying that every electrician has run into that realization, only they didn't know what it was. As always, Fonda provides a steady presence that enhances an already-solid film. Without him, it surely wouldn't be the same.

Story is one of Don Ameche's most well-known films, and it's certainly the one most often associated with his name. In Ball of Fire, for instance, a gangster calls the telephone "the Ameche" as a form of slang. Since this film was such a hit for the actor, he was cast in a fair share of biopics, such as So Goes My Love. In the Fred Allen film It's in the Bag, Ameche played himself, Allen's character finding him working as a singing waiter. When asked why he's sunk so low, Ameche says that Hollywood ran out of historical people for him to play. I love me some Don Ameche, so you won't hear complaints about his performance from me -- sorry, Ameche haters.

While Story is often considered the leading man's film, I'd say it's equally Loretta Young's. I was actually surprised to find out that Young was in this picture; I only heard people talk about Ameche and I figured if he had a romantic interest, she must have been a B-list name. After seeing the movie, it's inexplicable to me why Young doesn't get as much attention as her male counterpart. She absolutely grounds Story, lending her grace and beauty to create a marvelous portrayal of a fascinating woman. This film marked the only time Young starred with all three sisters, Sally Blane, Polly Ann Young, and Georgiana Young. Unfortunately, they're not in the film much, probably to the disappointment of Loretta. Story was a turning point in her career as it was the final film she would do under
contract to 20th Century Fox. Hearing that the real Mabel Hubbard Bell was mute in addition to being deaf, Young wanted to play her that way, but the studio refused. Incensed, she opted to be a freelancer rather than renew her contract. Ms. Loretta has become one of my favorite actresses lately, proving time and time again that she could do no wrong. There was no one else quite like her, and yet she doesn't get near the admiration she should have.

Clocking in at 97 minutes, Story is nicely paced and despite its scientific babblings, it never feels dull. I'm not the best at science, but Story dumbs down the technical stuff enough that you understand what's going on and you actually learn a few things. You can watch the film here on YouTube -- I hope you find it as enjoyable as I do!

With love,
Michaela

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This is my entry for the fabulous Loretta Young Blogathon, which honors the great lady for her birthday. Please be sure to check out the roster here to celebrate the divine Ms. Young.

Comments

  1. This is fantastic! You've done a wonderful job of capturing the best of the film. I absolutely adored the scene you referenced between Alec & Mabel. It's one of those film moments where I'm like, "I just need a minute to lie in the floor and cry over this sweetness,but I'm fine, super okay." :) Thank you so much for participating!

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    1. I'm the same way! Every time Alec and Mabel were together, I felt like squealing -- so much cuteness. Thanks for the kind words! I can't wait to read the other entries and see all the love for Loretta.

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  2. This is a movie I love and have seen many times. You did a wonderful job capturing the things which make it special. It's one of Loretta's loveliest performances.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  3. This is a movie I love and have seen many times. You did a wonderful job capturing the things which make it special. It's one of Loretta's loveliest performances.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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    1. I'm beginning to realize that maybe part of why Loretta isn't appreciated as loudly as some is because she just made everything seem effortless and easy. I would definitely classify her performance in this film as one of my faves from her. Thanks for the comment!

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  4. One of my total favorite films of Loretta's and the scene in the darkened parlor is my all-time favorite. Loretta's expressive eyes say it all. But it's Bobs (the little boy) who makes me sob in this one...when his father hears him say "Fath-her" in that broken well...well, I have to reach for my hankie! Lovely review!

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    1. Thank you! Little Bobs gets me every time. I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about that scene! Such a good film.

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  5. I have not seen this film but thanks to your fantastic post I am definitely going to make an effort to do so soon! Thanks for joining in and for such a great post!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, and thanks for co-hosting such a wonderful event! Loretta Young, without a doubt, deserves her own blogathon and it's great to see that happen. I hope you enjoy the film when you do see it.

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  6. This is a lovely film. I came for Fonda, but fell in love with Ameche. I agree with so many things you wrote: that Fonda is a great, hungry sidekick and mainly that Loretta gives a very good performance, and shoul receive a lot of credit for her role.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. It's kind of funny seeing Henry Fonda play second fiddle to Don Ameche -- history hasn't been as kind to Ameche as it has been to Fonda. Thanks for stopping by, as always!

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  7. I really want to see this as I love both Coburn and Ameche (from So Goes My Love). My laptop has been having issues too. I can only load blogger, fb, and pinterest but to read this I had to get on someone else's computer :/ So frustrating!

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    1. So cool how her sisters are in the movie!!! I saw a clip of one of her sisters once who looked just like her!

      I watched "It's in the Bag" before I knew who Ameche was. Now I need to watch it again!

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    2. Boy, I know what you mean about computer problems -- I've been having quite a few myself. Lately it's been my disk drive, which is never good for a film blogger. I hope you get it fixed soon!

      If you liked So Goes My Love, I'm sure you'll like this one. It's not as offbeat as So Goes My Love, but it's just as sweet and lovable. It is interesting to see Young's actual sisters play her sisters. No one can complain that her movie family doesn't look like her!

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