A Heroic Portrayal of Thomas Edison

Edison, The Man 1940, MGM

1940, MGM

I stumbled across the movie Edison, The Man (1940) with Spencer Tracy and had to watch it.  First, Thomas Edison is the quintessential inventor whose innovations—such as the cost-effective, long-lasting electric lightbulb and other electric appliances—changed the global energy landscape forever. Second, Spencer Tracy is a Hollywood icon worthy of watching in all of his films. He had also done another energy movie that same year (Boom Town with Clark Gable), so I wanted to compare the two. Since we are just leaving Academy Award season, it is worth noting that Tracy garnered nine Best Actor nominations over his career, and won twice.

While Boom Town captures the tumult of the hasty rise and fall of oil wealth by portraying the onset of an oil boom on a small town, Edison, the Man recounts the industrialist’s life deliberately and thoughtfully.  The two movies contrast the essence of the wildcatter and the painstaking inventor.

Some great energy themes appear in this movie including the tension between natural gas and electric lighting and corruption by politicians who are aligned with entrenched energy interests.  The imagery of the first illumination of lower Manhattan by the historic Pearl Street is fun to watch .  In many ways, this movie chronicles the energy transition from kerosene and natural gas to electricity for illumination.

Overall, the movie, produced in partnership with Edison’s archivists, portrays Edison as the champion of the little guy, combatting entrenched economic forces.  There is no doubt that Edison was a hero in many ways, bringing light to darkness and an inventive spirit to the slow process of innovation, but this portrayal stretched the truth in places and went a little over the top with its flattering depiction.   This presentation contrasts with today’s less positive depiction of Edison as a man who stood on the shoulders of other men (Tesla, among others) for his own personal gain. Nevertheless, the movie accurately captures Edison’s larger-than-life persona and his impact on energy as we know it today.

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