Trapped by Television (Del Lord, 1936)

Trapped by Television 5This is my contribution to the Film Preservation Blogathon, being hosted for its final day (May 17) by  Sam and Allan at  Wonders in the Dark. The blogathon aims to raise funds for the restoration of the intriguingly titled 1918 silent film Cupid in Quarantine, a Strand comedy which is centred on a couple trying to start a smallpox outbreak! To support this cause, please scroll down to the bottom for the donation button, and do visit Wonders and the other host blogs, Ferdy on Films and This Island Rod.

Science fiction is the loose theme of the Film Preservation Blogathon. In all honesty, the comedy-drama Trapped by Television, starring Mary AstorLyle Talbot and Nat Pendleton (all pre-Code veterans), doesn’t entirely fit the bill. However, this film does take off from the science fact of the time, as it focuses on efforts to develop the first TV sets. It also seemed an appropriate choice because it’s one of the many movies which have landed up in the public domain. This means they are freely available on the internet and on many cheap DVDs – but also usually means nobody is prepared to fund a restoration. Trapped by Television is actually in a better state than many of the films existing in this sad copyright limbo, but still suffers from a rather grey picture and some surface noise. Watching it is a reminder of why it’s so essential to preserve and restore our film heritage. I watched the movie at Archive.org, but I think the picture quality is slightly better at http://free-classic-movies.com/.

Trapped by Television 4

Talbot with the surprisingly large-screen TV

Despite the film’s need for a proper restoration, I enjoyed this rather slight offering, which has a running time of just over an hour. Bizarrely, it has been included in one book about the worst films of all time, but I can’t imagine whyAlthough it’s no masterpiece, it’s a lot of fun, and directed at a brisk pace by Del Lord, who made more than 200 films over his long career, including many shorts starring the Three Stooges. 

So what’s the story? A handsome and talented but poor young inventor, Fred Dennis (Talbot) has been developing a revolutionary new TV process in his bedsit – even though he doesn’t have the money for all the parts he needs. Debt collector Rocky O’Neill (Pendleton) calls round to demand payment, but, as a big fan of sci-fi magazines, he’s instantly smitten with the half-finished television set in Fred’s room. Soon Rocky is busy trying to find funding for Fred, and the two men have become best friends.

Mary Astor and the prototype television camera

Mary Astor and the prototype television camera

Bobby Blake (Astor), a businesswoman trying to market new inventions, decides that Fred’s machine could be her ticket to the big time – and also becomes romantically interested in the inventor. However, some double-crossing crooks are keen to spoil the party, and hatch a fiendish plot to make sure a media company goes with a rival television system instead.

If you like the wisecracking comedies of the 1930s, as I do, you’ll find plenty of one-liners to enjoy here. Mary Astor and Joyce Compton, as her tough-talking colleague, Mae, make a good partnership, as do Talbot and Pendleton, predictably cast as a character who is endearingly loyal and good-humoured but somewhat slow on the uptake.

Mary Astor and Joyce Compton

Mary Astor and Joyce Compton

Despite its slightly futuristic theme, the film is firmly grounded in the reality of the Depression, and most of the characters are permanently short of cash. Fred is hounded by debt collectors and his kindly landlady (Lillian Leighton), who seems slightly half-hearted in her demands for the overdue rent. Bobby puts on a show of wealth and glamour (something the effortlessly sophisticated Astor does very well), swanning around in a fur coat to impress the businesses she visits. But in reality she and Mae are almost penniless, and have to concoct an evening meal from two eggs, which is all they have in the house. They even have to share a bed, which gives a slightly daring flavour to one scene in this film made under the Code, although they aren’t seen stripping off, as they doubtless would have done a few years earlier.

Mary Astor and Lyle Talbot

Mary Astor and Lyle Talbot

However, the real fascination of the film to anyone seeing it now has to be the technology. Once television did actually appear on the scene, cinema studios saw it as a threat, and often tended to portray it negatively, if it got a mention at all. But in this film, at such an early stage in the development, everybody is excited about the possibilities. Fred’s television set is a thing of beauty, with a surprisingly large, flat screen compared to the real first TVs – presumably taking some of its inspiration from the cinema screen. Reality took several decades to catch up. The fictional TV is big and heavy, as is the TV camera. But the film looks forward in time by showing a football match being televised live, and even gives an early glimpse of the new technology’s power to fight crime, many years before the advent of CCTV.

I’ve been watching quite a few glossier and more recent movies lately, but seeing this one reminded me why 1930s films,  in glorious black and white, are my true love. Hoping to feature more of them on the blog over the coming weeks. And please, if you can support the blogathon…

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23 thoughts on “Trapped by Television (Del Lord, 1936)

  1. Pingback: Film Preservation Blogathon anchors at Wonders in the Dark | Wonders in the Dark

  2. This film definitely sounds like one to see. I think I’d really like it.

    Also, thanks for the link to the Worst Films book. I had no idea such a book existed! I might have to add it to my collection. :)

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    • Thanks, Ruth, hope you enjoy it. I haven’t read that book, just saw a reference to it including ‘Trapped by Television’ somewhere – seems it includes a lot of films which other people like, so it might be a very personal selection by the author!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, I’ll watch anything with Mary Astor! And this sounds like it might be fun. Thanks especially for the link to the free classic movies site. It’s perfect for my purposes. I haven’t found anything else so nicely organized by years.

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    • Yes, Mary Astor is wonderful, isn’t she? I need to see more of her films. This one is fun. I’ve only just come across that site myself and think it looks good for public domain films – hadn’t struck me that the organisation by years is ideal for you! Thank you, Bea.

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  4. Fascinating how television played a role in 1930s cinema (there’s apparently even footage from the late 1930s featuring a very young Margot Fonteyn dancing for a test TV broadcast). The comedy International House also features an inventor trying to market his TV invention (which he refers to as visual radio) to possible investors; the attraction of his invention is that it’s going to broadcast a 6-day bicycle race. There’s even a 1930s horror film called Murder by Television (starring Bela Lugosi, of course!). Thanks for such an interesting post!

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    • Thanks for that information, G.O.M., very interesting! This reminds me that in Wellman’s ‘The Conquerors’, made a few years earlier than this one in 1932, near the end of the film a character says:”We will have television – and we’ll be able to fly across the whole continent in a couple of hours!” I will have to get hold of International House and give it a look, sounds like an interesting counterpart to this one.

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    • International House is on DVD (I don’t know if it’s available in Britain); it has an amazing cast: W.C. Fields, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Bela Lugosi (!)–and is a weird, funny pre-Code comedy. Its style is a kind of slapstick improvisation (the plot really doesn’t make sense), but I recommend it.

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    • Thanks, I see it is in a WC Fields set – not available in the UK, but quite cheap on import so I will bear it in mind!

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    • Thanks, John. It’s available on many websites as it is in the public domain – there are also DVDs, but I don’t know if the picture quality is any better.

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  5. Hi Judy. You make me want to see this one. By 1936, the BBC was broadcasting television using two different system on alternating days, so television was making process, although the war stopped everything for a while. There are some interesting websites on the subject.

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    • Thanks, Joe, that’s very interesting – I knew there was work going on in developing TV by this time, although it was very early days, but didn’t realise that regular broadcasts started in 1936. I just found an interesting site on this:
      http://www.teletronic.co.uk/tvera.htm

      Hope you enjoy this film if you get a chance to see it.

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  6. Caught it on You Tube. Very enjoyable. So glad you featured it. I had never heard of it. Nice to see Joyce Compton getting away from her usual dizzy roles.
    Mary Astor always wonderful.
    Little did they know how TV would take over our lives! Though these days I seem to only use my TV for watching DVDs.

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    • Glad you enjoyed it, Vienna – and amazing to think how far TV has come since those days (though I also watch a lot of DVDs on mine!) I don’t think I’ve seen many Joyce Compton films, must watch out for more of her roles.

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  7. Embarrassingly late here for this splendid write-up on a film I have not yet seen. I have, however seen a number of films by Del Lord, and am a huge fan of many of his Three Stooges shorts. Yes it is hard to believe someone would relegate this to a ‘worst film’ list, a conviction I assert even though I haven’t watched it. Sounds like it is worth a look, warts and all. As always your engaging work is fully motivating.

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    • Sam, many thanks for the comment and for all your work on the blogathon! I knew you were a fan of the Three Stooges and would know a lot about Del Lord. Yes, this one is good fun and worth a look, I’d say, although it isn’t a masterpiece. Thanks again!

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