Friday September 11, 2020
Movie Review: Trapped By Television (1936)
In the 1920s and ‘30s, as inventors were trying to create a visual version of radio called “television,” the film industry was already exploiting the concept in low-budget movies. Has someone done a study on this? It’s a major plot point in “International House” (1933) starring W.C. Fields, in which various people bid on the invention in a Chinese hotel; “The Big Broadcast of 1936” (1935), where TV is called “the Radio Eye”; a 1935 Bela Lugosi horror film called “Murder by Television”; and this, whose working title was “Caught by Television.”
I was caught anyway. I watched because I was intrigued by the title. And? It’s not much, a low-budget quickie, but it has moments.
Sweeping the country
Rocky (Nat Pendleton, the future Goliath in “At the Circus”) is good-natured muscle for the Acme Collection Agency (“If they’ve got it, we’ll get it”), but in his spare time he likes reading “Popular Science,” which his boss, Greggs (Wade Boteler), calls “machinery magazines.” Berated for not pulling his weight, Rocky is given a new assignment: a guy named Fred Dennis (Lyle Talbot, the future Lex Luthor in “Atom Man vs. Superman”), who is working on a beta version of television.
Rather than strong-arm him, though, Rocky becomes intrigued. He thinks Dennis is onto something and wants to help make it happen. So not only does he not take his equipment, he gets Dennis a job as a debt collector for the agency so he can pay back his debt.
Dennis’ first assignment? Blake Enterprises, Inc., a down-on-its-luck sales/promotion firm run by Bobby Blake (Mary Astor, the future femme fatale in “Maltese Falcon”). That debt isn’t collected, either, of course. Instead, he tells her about his television and she promises to help sell it. Per “Maltese,” she doesn’t really believe in his invention; she believes in the money she might bilk for it.
Mae: [Joyce Compton, Bobby’s wise-crackin’ secretary] Say, you don’t think that machine is any good, do you?
Bobby: I don’t think it can squeeze orange juice. What difference does it make? It looks complicated enough to fool anybody. … Television is sweeping the country. Everybody is interested in it and practically nobody knows the first thing about it. That’s where the chumps come in. Curtis would fall for it like a ton of bricks.
Curtis is the president of the Paragon Broadcasting Company (Thurston Hall), and he doesn’t believe in it, either, but he basically gives her a $200 check to get rid of her. Two-hundred bucks! Bobby and Mae celebrate. Except after visiting Dennis, and seeing the commitment he has to the project, and maybe being a little stuck on him, Bobby, against her better, cynical instincts, gives him the dough.
And he makes it work. Then they demo it for Paragon at a football game with Rocky filming and broadcasting, and … it doesn’t work. Paragon was working on its own version of television until its chief engineer Paul Turner (Wyrley Birch), and his assistant Frank Griffin (Marc Lawrence), went missing. Turns out Turner was kidnapped, and later murdered, by Griffin, who’s working with Paragon executive Standish (Robert Strange). I guess they think they can sell Curtis his own product? Main point is they sabotage Dennis’ demonstration by mucking with the cathode-ray tube. But Dennis figures it out, Bobby sells her prize fur coat to get him a new cathode-ray tube, and, even as the bad guys converge, the new Paragon demo works.
The first thing broadcast? A dull fight scene, blows continually exchanged, between mobster Griffin and scientist Dennis. Prescient.
Whatever happened to…?
“Television” is directed by Del Lord, who seems worthy of a movie himself. He started as a stuntman and a member of the Keystone Kops. Apparently he was adept at crazy, perilous driving. Eventually he became the director of stunt scenes and then Mack Sennett shorts. But when the Depression ruined Sennett, he was let go. A Columbia Pictures executive found him selling used cars. At this point, Columbia had just signed the Three Stooges and they figured the former Keystone Kop/director would be perfect for them. Apparently he was. Over the next 10+ years, he directed more than three dozen Stooges shorts, their best stuff, apparently, and was so revered a New York band named themselves the Del-Lords in his honor.
What he didn’t do much? Feature-length films. IMDb lists 220 directing credits for him, and all but 15 are shorts. He did three features in the ’20s: “Lost at the Front,” a WWI comedy; “Topsy and Eva,” a farce based on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (you can see a clip here, if you dare); and “Barnum was Right,” about a down-on-his-luck hotel owner who drums up business with rumors of hidden treasure. This is his first talkie feature. Don't know why they didn't give him a comedy, but that’s Hollywood.
So is there anything of value in it—other than an early look at the medium that usurped the movies as the preeminent storyteller of American lives? Yes, a few things.
Pendleton’s got good comic timing. He played a similar role in “Manhattan Melodrama”—the not-bright muscle with a heart of gold—and of course he made a great comic foil for the Marx Brothers. Born in 1895, the son of a lawyer, he took to wrestling, and was good enough to win a silver medal in the 1920 Olympics. He kept acting into the ’40s; he died of a heart attack in 1967, age 72.
There’s also a great scene after the Paragon engineer has been kidnapped. They’re in a cabin, the engineer is locked in a closet and banging on the door, while Griffin, the mobster, lays on the bed shooting darts at a dartboard with a blowgun. Splat! Splat! There’s something both indolent and menacing in Lawrence’s movements. He’s another story: Group Theater, good friend of John Garfield, gangster roles, blacklisted, European films, returning to the U.S. for TV and movie roles. He kept acting into the 21st century (take that, HUAC!) before dying in 2005 at the age of 95.
Finally, in “Television,” there’s this early line from Bobby Blake about the titular subject: “Well, if it does what you say it will, the entire industry will be affected.” They had no idea.
* The above photo is taken from the Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, Bradford, Penn., July 11, 1936, Saturday evening edition. “Trapped” is a B-picture from a minor-major studio, Columbia, so hardly any posters were created for it. Even in the newspaper ads back then it was usually listed as an “Also” or “Plus”; it was the other feature you could see when you saw the one everyone was talking about.