Saturday, May 30, 2015

The 75th Anniversary of a Movie’s World Premiere in West Orange, New Jersey

During mid-May of 1940, in order to hold the World Premiere of motion picture biography, Edison, the Man starring Spencer Tracy, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took control of the four New Jersey towns known collectively as “The Oranges” (West Orange, East Orange, South Orange, and Orange). The festivities in the so-called “Edison Pageant of Progress” included dedicating a replica of Edison’s first motion picture studio; firework displays; a premiere ball; a parade held during a disastrous rainstorm which ruined each and every one of the ornate floats; and the unveiling of a huge Edison portrait which was hung in the portico of the West Orange Town Hall. That unveiling was also captured as one of the very first television broadcasts although the television aspect was little more than a science-fiction novelty because of the infinitesimal number of TV sets in operation. Everything culminated in the May 16th screening of the film at six different area movie theatres. Tracy and his co-star, Rita Johnson, duly visited each theatre before each screening.

The idea for the premiere was supposedly the brainstorm of several local committees who “petitioned” M.G.M. for the honor but the actual concept came from the movie studio itself so as not to pass up a publicity goldmine by tying the film to Edison’s adopted hometown of West Orange where his factory was still thriving and where his widow still resided.

The premiere also renewed old rivalries in that wealthy East Orange had far too much input at West Orange’s expense. It was a rivalry which had already caused West Orange to begin lying about its founding date so that it didn’t have to share the same celebratory month and year with East Orange (whose deep pockets and mastery of attention-getting always put it on top). During the premiere, the Hollywood Theatre in East Orange became a particular sore spot by garnering all of the attention photographically because the word “Hollywood” prominently displayed on that theatre’s marquee gave images an immediate link to the film capital.

But for all of the hoopla and animosity garnered during that spring of 1940, the event had been all but forgotten until fifty years later when author John Dandola used it as the backdrop for a mystery novel. As it turns out, that mystery novel is the only accurate and detailed representation of the event because Dandola had access not only to local participants but Hollywood participants and original documents as well. As a result of his research, he became friends with the late movie actress Ann Rutherford who attended the Premiere Ball as M.G.M.’s “Ambassador of Good Will”. She, more than anyone, proved invaluable in the depiction of scenes and of the goings-on behind the scenes. His other windfall was that local residents gave him their personal amateur photos of the event. When the novel initially debuted, Dandola was even called upon by the archivist at the Edison National Historic Site to identify the people in their photos of the premiere which, until that point, were unlabeled.

“I had accidentally stumbled into a void which needed filling,” the author explains. “Anyone writing about the event since 1940 had fallen prey to the conflicting and hyperbolic newspaper articles put forth during the premiere celebrations. Made-up or misinterpreted scenarios continued to be passed on because no one knew that the so-called sources in such cases should be scrutinized. I’ve even run up against the rumor that Tracy was drunk during the festivities. Because that rumor was started by a 1940's politician who wanted to appear superior while calling attention to himself and because people always want to believe the worst, that rumor still gets repeated. The fact of the matter is that Tracy did have a drinking problem but he kept it under control by only indulging when not working and when he could be alone for long periods of time away from the spotlight. On top of that, the movie studios during Hollywood’s Golden Age assigned multiple chaperones to ensure that no such misbehavior could present problems. That was an all-important consideration because such things would greatly impact both the studio’s reputation and the star’s reputation. The bottom line is that the rumor about Tracy being drunk was just that—a rumor, idle gossip—it was neither possible nor true. Tracy wanted to play Edison so badly that he never would have jeopardized it in any way.”

Dandola’s statement is also bolstered by the fact that Spencer Tracy, who is still lionized today for his acting talent, immersed himself in ways of trying to bring Edison to life even going so far as to interview Mrs. Edison about her late husband. In fact, Mrs. Edison could have proven to be the toughest and only real hurdle for M.G.M. because the film portrayed Edison’s deceased first wife but it was the involvement of his second wife and widow which was pivotal to the World Premiere. The second Mrs. Edison handled things very graciously and she was more than thrilled at having the festivities held locally. Ultimately, she developed a bit of a crush on Tracy and the two spent a great deal of time together socially.

“Socializing was something Tracy usually had little tolerance for so he must have genuinely liked Mrs. Edison,” adds Dandola. “According to my grandfather, who had been Thomas Edison’s personal messenger boy during the 1910's, there wasn’t much about Mrs. Edison not to like.”

Therein lies Dandola’s connection to it all. Not only did his grandfather know Edison personally but his ancestors arrived in what would become West Orange more than two-hundred-and-fifty years ago. “We were always observers—inadvertent witnesses. My ancestors had ties to the Edison family besides working in various municipal capacities. My own childhood was in a period of time before urban sprawl obliterated the town’s original views so I was familiar with the landscape my ancestors had known and that’s served me very well in putting things into proper historical perspective.”

Historical perspective is always something of importance. Nowadays, when discussing old movies, it’s more in fashion to be smug and condescending than to understand the realities of a different time and place. Edison, the Man was a “bio-pic” of the type very much in vogue in Hollywood from the 1930's to the 1950's and it was the type expected by audiences at the time. Such movies were designed to be uplifting and they managed to develop little fictions which propelled the story for entertainment value while being basically true to the facts which were given a show business gloss and simplicity. To expect a film from that period to show a tawdry side is an impossibility and in this case there was no tawdry side to what the film was depicting about Edison. Revisionists, who don’t understand how the business of inventing was during that period of time, have often chosen to semi-vilify Edison on how he ran his company but Edison, the Man certainly doesn’t deal with any portion of Edison’s life which can be vilified. The movie doesn't pretend to be anything more than a straight-forward celebration of the subject.

“If you really want to nickpick,” Dandola says, “I’ll offer you this: focus on why Edison’s hair is full and wavy throughout the film but in the last scene, as an old man, his hair is thin and straight and limp as Edison’s was for his whole life. It’s all because Tracy hated wearing too much make-up so they limited it to one scene.”

As a screenwriter and expert on Hollywood history, Dandola knows what he’s talking about. In fact, his novel about the Edison premiere was written during a screenwriters’ strike. As the author recalls: “I had a few movie projects in the works when the strike hit so—forbidden from working on those—I wrote the novel. While I was wondering how to proceed from there I met some book editors at a party who were anxious to try their hand with their own imprint. I was more interested in getting the book to market in time for the fiftieth anniversary of the Edison, the Man World Premiere. They managed that and then the book just took off. The movie rights have been optioned quite a number of times—which was good since the screenwriters’ strike caused my—and a whole lot of other people’s—movie projects to fizzle. The novel was picked up by a larger publisher and it has spawned five sequels. The fifth sequel debuts later this year. A sixth is currently being written.”

The novel’s original title, West of Orange™, was trademarked because those words had never before been used together as a description for the town of West Orange and it kept things very local since the storyline was as much about the behind-the-scenes infighting between Orange, East Orange, South Orange, and West Orange as it was a murder mystery. Twenty-five years ago, before the internet, that made for a tremendous amount of local appeal and there were articles about the novel in all the north Jersey papers. Today, copies of the original small print run have been known to sell for surprisingly large sums if in mint condition.

“I hadn’t intended it to be any more than a one-time stand-alone novel,” Dandola confesses. “But no matter what else I was working on, the novel kept being mentioned. Finally, it went into national release with a title change to Dead at the Box Office. It’s never been out-of-print and it’s even had foreign editions. But the saddest thing is that although readers worldwide know about the Edison, the Manpremiere because of my novel, the actual event has once again been completely forgotten about in West Orange and by all the New Jersey newspapers. Nowadays, local history seems to have lost all sense of importance."

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