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After striking pay dirt with Boy's Town (1938), the biography of Father Flanagan co-starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, MGM gave producer John Considine the go-head for not one but two biographies of Thomas Edison, the father of the motion pictures. And just to guarantee that both films would deliver at the box office, they came up with the innovative idea of having Rooney play Young Tom Edison and Tracy play Edison the Man, with the films to be released only three months apart. The move was daring - at the time sequels were considered box-office poison - but it paid off when Edison the Man became an even bigger hit than the first film.
Considine assigned both scripts to one of MGM's brightest young writers, Dore Schary, who had won an Oscar for his original story for Boy's Town. But at first Schary had trouble finding anything screen-worthy in Edison's biographies, and their interviews with the great man's family and friend Edsel Ford didn't lead anywhere either. Finally, however, he came up with a combination of legend and fact to create a fast-moving family drama for Rooney. And by setting Edison the Man in 1929, with Edison as an old man, Schary was able to flash back to the high spots of his adult career. Given the different tones of the two films, and Rooney's and Tracy's performances, MGM added a prologue to the first film calling it merely an attempt to capture the spirit of the great man.
MGM put all of its resources behind capturing the reality of Edison the Man. Using extensive photographs and documentary footage, the art department re-created Edison's long-abandoned laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, including the more than 10,000 devices he had invented. Popular Mechanics magazine lauded their efforts in a major publicity piece for the film: "Where Edison took years to make new devices workable, property men turned out a dozen of his more important inventions in a few days."
But it was star Spencer Tracy who gave the film its greatest authenticity. He started out with an advantage - a slight resemblance to the inventor. He reinforced that by studying biographies of Edison and reviewing all existing film footage of him. The one thing he didn't have to study was the man's deafness - Tracy's son John had been born deaf. The only part of his characterization that deviated from fact was substituting cigars for Edison's trademark chewing tobacco - at the request of his son Charles Edison.
Director: Clarence Brown
Producer: John W. Considine, Jr.
Screenplay: Bradbury Foote, Talbot Jennings
Story: Dore Schary, Hugo Butler
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, John S. Detlie
Music: Herbert Stothart
Principal Cast: Spencer Tracy (Thomas Edison), Rita Johnson (Mary Stillwell Edison), Lynne Overman (Bunt Cavatt), Charles Coburn (General Powell), Gene Lockhart (Mr. Taggart), Henry Travers (Mister Els).BW-108m. Close captioning.
By Frank Miller