The story of a man wrecking his life over an invention as ingenious and trivial as the intermittent windshield wiper is incredibly ripe for tragicomic satire, and that’s why I wish a wit as sharp as Preston Sturges were still around to turn the odd life of Robert Kearns into a quirky feature film.
The most amazing aspect of Kearns’s struggle against the auto industry is that he wasn’t after the money; when he discovered that his invention had been stolen from him, Kearns suffered a nervous breakdown so severe that his family had to check him into a mental hospital. Years later, he began suing Ford not for a hefty settlement (and he apparently could have received upwards of $50 million), but, instead, for the right to run his own factory where he would manufacture his prized invention.
Being something of an inventor himself, Sturges would’ve had a unique insight into Kearns’s madness, which was brought on by the failure of the American dream. All this guy wanted to do was produce and refine the intermittent windshield wiper; for some reason, his happiness and mental health hinged on this. When it was taken away from him by the notoriously ruthless auto industry, he lost his reason to live.
Sturges probably would’ve come up with an ironic conclusion to Kearns’s story; I’m not so certain that a first-time director like Marc Abraham will have that kind of chutzpah. Though he’s rounded up a solid cast (Greg Kinnear will play Kearns and Lauren Graham will co-star as his wife), and has a screenplay co-written by an ace like Scott Frank, Abraham seems more interested with dramatizing "the high cost someone can pay for refusing to compromise their dignity." That’s all well and good, but the real story here is that the man’s dignity was tied up in the intermittent windshield wiper; there’s something quintessentially American about this.
The film, currently titled Flash of Genius, is set up at Universal, and will begin shooting this July in Toronto.