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Mickey Rooney, the cheeky adolescent of the Hardy pictures, the little tough guy of Boys Town, the flashy little hoofer of Babes in Arms, was going to have to interpret the boyhood of one of the most significant Americans who ever lived. Mickey Rooney was going to interpret a boy, 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. Mickey Rooney not only had to make young Tom Edison plausible, he had to create the boyhood basis for a legendary manhood. He gave the role his most sober and restrained performance to date. That he did not succeed entirely was partly the fault of the production, partly because the picture featured Mickey in a role so different from his usual ones that puzzled cinemaddicts did not know what bewildered them mostseeing Mickey Rooney as Thomas Alva Edison or the future Wizard of Menlo Park as ebullient Mickey Rooney.
Their quandary was not helped much by the producers' decision to make mildly misunderstood young Thomas Edison a sort of juvenile Arnold von Winkelried.
One boyhood does not seem enough to hold all the tortures the film Edison undergoes. 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.
Proudly Thomas Edison's home town, Port Huron, Mich., previewed this picture in three movie houses simultaneously on the eve of the 93rd anniversary of his birth. The Port Huron of the picture is a less appreciative human hive with no movie houses. Its citizens seem to have little else to do but torment Tom Edison. Even Tom's kindly father (George Bancroft) begins to look askance at his gifted offspring, who is universally called "addled" or "tetched." Mother Edison (Fay Bainter) explains the unhappy state of affairs: it is because "Tom is looking for causes, not effects." Tom seems to feel most of the effects. He is roughed up, slapped down, has his ears boxed (causing deafness), is thrown off a train by a friend four times his size (Eugene Pallette), is laughed at and denied work.
The villagers are not at all impressed by Tom's repeated examples of resourcefulness. They resent, too, such boyish pranks as his smoking out the school-house with a chemical mixture, bringing a bottle of nitroglycerine aboard a crowded train, setting the baggage car afire with phosphorus. Not until Tom sends a Morse code warning with a locomotive whistle, prevents a train wreck, do chastened citizens acclaim him a hero.
As his erstwhile tormentors cheer and wave, Tom chugs off to greater things, soon to be revealed in Edison, the Man (with Spencer Tracy) now in production.