“The Story of Alexander Graham Bell” screens at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, May 10, 2014 in the Durwood Film Vault of the Kansas City Central Library, 14W. 10th St. Admission is free. It’s part of the year-long film series Hollywood’s Greatest Year, featuring movies released in 1939.
Every now and then an actor becomes inseparable from a role.
Anthony Quinn will always be Zorba the Greek. Mention Christopher Reeve, and you can’t help envisioning him wearing Superman’s cape.
And Don Ameche will always be Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.
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.