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An early scene in Young Tom Edison (1940) poses a test for the viewer, prompting you to decide how you'll watch the picture. There's teenage Tom working on a gizmo down in the basement, and there's little sister Tannie sleeping late in her bedroom upstairs. Seeing that it's time for Tannie to get up, Tom yanks on a rope attached to her leg, which flops around until she's wide awake. As comedy, this is so cute and corny that no current filmmaker would try to get away with it. Viewing it, you have to choose a side - either pronounce it insufferable and watch the rest of the movie with a scowl, or find it sweetly old-fashioned and watch the rest with a smile. I recommend the second option. At the very least, you'll enjoy pondering the predicament identified by a reviewer in Time, who wrote after the film's 1940 premiere that "puzzled cinema-addicts did not know what bewildered them the most - seeing Mickey Rooney as Thomas Alva Edison or the future Wizard of Menlo Park as ebullient as Mickey Rooney."
MGM concocted Young Tom Edison during Hollywood's great biopic bonanza of 1939 and 1940, which poured forth a wide range of movies - from Jesse James and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell to Stanley and Livingstone and Young Mr. Lincoln - about people whose fame or infamy had made them household names. Shortly before, MGM had struck gold with the 1938 hit Boys Town, starring Rooney as a troubled youngster and Spencer Tracy as Father Edward Flanagan, the celebrated orphanage reformer. So popular was the movie that producer John W. Considine, Jr. parlayed its success into a green light for one of his pet projects, an innovative set of Edison biopics starring Rooney as the boy and Tracy as the man. Considine called in two Boys Town veterans, director Norman Taurog and co-writer Dore Schary, and set to work. The first picture completed and released was Young Tom Edison, which focuses on the inventor's life as a 16-year-old in Port Huron, Michigan, beginning shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War and ending with the lad's departure for Detroit, a big city that will better understand his brilliance, dreaminess, and eccentricity. The movie concludes with a teaser for Edison the Man (1940), showing Tracy reverently gazing at a portrait of the chap who invented (among many other things) some of the first devices for making movies like these.
The screenplay for Young Tom Edison, written by Schary with Bradbury Foote and Hugo Butler, appears to tinker as freely with the facts of Edison's boyhood as Edison tinkered with the chemicals and gizmos in his laboratory. His teacher considers him "addled" and kicks him out of school; he sets up a chemistry lab in the baggage car of a train; he finances his experiments by printing his own newspaper; and so on, one clever scheme after another. As the reviewer for Newsweek took pains to point out, however, these particular things actually happened. Knowing this doesn't obligate us to swallow everything the movie cooks up - that young Tom almost demolished a train with a batch of homemade nitroglycerin, rescued another train by blasting a danger message on a steam whistle, dived under another train to save an infant's life, and saved his mother's life by rigging a slew of lamps and a stolen mirror into a floodlight so a surgeon could perform emergency surgery on her after dark. But considering who the hero is, these fabrications are forgivable, if not believable. "As young Tom," Rooney wrote in his memoir, "I was intrepid." That's putting it mildly.
Although he rose to fame as a child star, Rooney was 20 when Young Tom Edison reached the screen, and in his 1991 autobiography he said he received his "first grown-up Oscar® nomination" for it - a revealing mistake (his 1939 nomination was for Babes in Arms) suggesting that the Edison film wasn't very vivid in his memory. What he and the movie did receive were mostly generous reviews. Comparing the eponymous hero with characters created by Mark Twain and Booth Tarkington, the Variety reviewer called it "one of the finest biographies, from entertainment standpoint, ever filmed" and lauded Rooney for playing down his "past thespic effervescence." A more measured critic in The Commonweal said that while the movie "almost smothers Tom under sentiment, family and dramatic suspense, some of the inventor's early life does seep through." Newsweek called the film "an entertaining rather than a penetrating study" by a director with experience in "adolescent histrionics." Time put Rooney on the cover, noting that his movies had grossed a whopping $30 million for MGM the previous year and praising him for "his most sober and restrained performance to date" as young Edison, "who (like himself) began at the bottom of the American heap, (like himself) had to struggle, (like himself) won, but a boy whose main activity (unlike Mickey's) was investigating, inventing, thinking." Time was less enthusiastic about the screenplay. "One boyhood does not seem enough to hold all the tortures the film Edison undergoes," the critic opined. "If this picture has any influence on the Edison legend, the inventor of electric light will be thought of in future years as an inspired masochist."
That overstates the case, but the critics were correct about Rooney's performance, which remains nuanced and graceful even when the dialogue and directing head for fantasyland. Tom's adoring mother and persnickety father are well handled by Fay Bainter and George Bancroft, respectively, and Virginia Weidler is fine as the feisty little sister. Elsewhere in the supporting cast, Eugene Pallette is properly portly and Dickensian as a long-suffering train conductor, and Eily Malyon gives a touch of the wicked witch to Tom's priggish schoolmarm - on purpose, no doubt, since The Wizard of Oz (1939) had worked magic for MGM a few months earlier.
Young Tom Edison had a special preview in Port Huron on February 11, 1940, which would have been the 93rd birthday of "the man who numbered among his thousand-odd patents that of the stock ticker, the phonograph, the motion-picture machine, and the electric light," as Newsweek put it. Not even MGM claimed much truth value for the picture, and when the more serious Edison the Man arrived, The New York Times noted the studio's sudden insistence that the earlier film was "an attempt...merely to capture the spirit of the great figure." Watch it in that spirit and you'll have some easygoing, old-fashioned fun.
Director: Norman Taurog
Producer: John W. Considine, Jr.
Screenplay: Bradbury Foote, Dore Schary, and Hugo Butler, based on material by H. Alan Dunn
Cinematographer: Sidney Wagner
Film Editing: Elmo Veron
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Edward Ward
With: Mickey Rooney (Tom Edison), Fay Bainter (Mrs. Samuel Edison), George Bancroft (Samuel Edison), Virginia Weidler (Tannie Edison), Eugene Pallette (Mr. Nelson), Victor Kilian (Mr. Dingle), Bobbie Jordan (Joe Dingle), J.M. Kerrigan (Mr. McCarney), Lloyd Corrigan (Dr. Pender), John Kellogg (Bill Edison), Clem Bevans (Mr. Waddell), Eily Malyon (School Teacher), Harry Shannon (Captain Brackett).
BW-86m. Closed Captioning.
by David Sterritt