Earlier this spring, PBS broadcast a documentary on Alexander Graham Bell that included clips from a 1947 film called "Mr. Bell," featuring what looked like a very young Mason Adams as Thomas Watson. If you search for "Mr. Bell" on your personal computer, you will not find it but if you add the year 1947, not only will you discover "Mr. Bell" in its entirely, but also a wealth of many other historical films at archive.org. Seven years before he made the Disney blockbuster "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," Richard Fleischer was a young contract director at RKO studios. In addition to his "B" picture assignments, Fleischer also made theatrical featurettes like "Mr. Bell," released 25 years after the inventor's death.
Except for the Friends of Old Time Radio, not too many people remember Raymond Edward Johnson (who died in 2001 at age 90) but for many years, Johnson played not only the host of the "Inner Sanctum" & the title role in "Mandrake The Magician," but also Mr. Bell himself on "The Telephone Hour." He worked hard on the film recreation of his famous radio role, making clear that Bell thought of himself first & foremost as an educator, before all of his many other life achievements. Mason Adams, the radio star of "Pepper Young's Family," would eventually become a well-known character actor on both big screens & small, but his Thomas Watson was light years away from "Lou Grant's" editor Charlie Hume. Also in "Mr. Bell" were Taylor Holmes as Gardiner Hubbard (he would also star in 1947's classic film noir "Nightmare Alley" opposite Tyrone Power), Jed Prouty as Willis J. Watson & Sara Anderson as Mabel Anderson.
As with all his RKO efforts ("The Clay Pigeon," "Follow Me Quietly," "Trapped," "Armored Car Robbery" & "The Narrow Margin"), Richard Fleischer was an expert at wringing the best results out of the tiniest budgets. In its own quiet, sincere way, "Mr. Bell" compares favorably with Fox's lavishly produced "Story Of Alexander Graham Bell" starring Don Ameche, Henry Fonda, Loretta Young & three of her sisters. The Internet archive I visited at archive.org contains many short documentaries by professional & non-pro filmmakers, which gave me a chance to see a Berkeley resident's home movies of the 1922 East Bay fire that devastated many neighborhoods as well as "Molly Grows Up," a minor 1953 educational film which succeeded in making its subject matter seem like a major pain. I saw dozens of other titles I'd never seen before & certainly didn't expect to see right now this minute on an Internet monitor. Now if they'd only find a way to put newspaper microfilms & silent movies online (hint-hint}! If you've never experienced or even witnessed it before, the past isn't really the past: its lessons help us understand the present & the future, too.
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 5/29/02
USA - 1947