The problem with descendants of the inventor of the world’s first plastic, Bakelite, bankrolling a film about the paterfamilias is that a critical distance is unlikely to be achieved. That is precisely what is wrong with John Maher’s All Things Bakelite: The Age of Plastic, an otherwise entertaining, made-for-TV (59 minutes format) documentary about Belgian born American chemist Leo Baekeland, who invented Bakelite in 1907.
Baekeland’s story undoubtedly deserves attention; he is a giant among the inventors of his time, the equal of far better-known contemporaries, such as Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla. And Maher takes a professional and smooth drama-documentary approach to his subject, with sequences on the stubborn and curious little boy, always asking questions as he grows up in Ghent, studies chemistry at university, and marries his professor’s daughter, Celine.
Feeling stifled by the expectations of his father-in-law, the young Leo emigrates to America and is taken on as a chemist by a manufacturer of photographic paper. A financial and health crisis that lays him flat on his back gives him the pause to understand that he needs to concentrate his energies on one subject if he hopes to make something of his life. He chooses a better, faster way to develop film and Velox photographic print paper is born, which when sold to George Eastman’s Kodak Corporation sets up Leo financially.
It is this freedom that allows him to address the pressing industrial issue of the day – coming up with a reliable synthetic alternative to organic compounds or rubber as an electrical insulating material.
Baekeland’s story undoubtedly deserves attention
Maher takes to the chemistry and chronology of this period with gusto, introducing a host of top chemists to explain processes and setbacks in finding better ways to secure copper wires than Shellac – an organic compound made from resinous secretions from the Asian lac bug. Entertaining archive footage, musical interludes and cartoon capers are added to the dramatised sections of Leo wandering around his laboratory in Yonkers, New York, or scribbling in his diary.
The film is a rollicking tale with narrative by one of Leo’s great-grandson’s (Hugh Karraker, also the film’s executive producer) and voiceovers in a decidedly dodgy Belgian accent from Leo’s own diary entries.
Leo – and many others – is already experimenting with creating an artificial resin from phenol (derived from coal tar) and formaldehyde (a gas . . .
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