The genius at the center of Gregory Marquette’s well-illustrated docu “Genius on Hold” is Walter Shaw, inventor of the speakerphone, call-forwarding and conference calls, among other communications breakthroughs. Produced by Shaw’s son, Thiel, whose interviews are interspersed throughout, “Genius” offers a fascinatingly idiosyncratic example of what Marquette decries as corporatism. Unfortunately, the helmer’s preface, a long, rambling denunciation of corporations as the cause of the Great Depression and the current economic crisis, forms an ill-fitting frame to the Shaws’ story, which opened March 1 at select locations.
After running afoul of his employer, Bell Telephone Co., Shaw found himself virtually blacklisted, and wound up working for the mob making “black boxes” for bookies. He was hauled before the Congressional Committee on Organized Crime, and jailed. Leaping madly from the general to the specific, and hemorrhaging credibility along the way, Marquette’s universalized approach blunts the impact of the Shaws’ individualistic, offbeat bios (Thiel was a notorious jewel thief). Nevertheless, the collusion of the government in establishing the Ma Bell monopoly neatly dovetails with the company’s refusal to recognize — or remunerate — the elder Shaw for his pioneering patents. He died penniless.