This 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 Astor, Lyle 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/.
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 why. Although 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.
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.
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.
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…