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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Murder By Television’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you find something interesting just before you change the channel…

Murder by Television (1935)
Distributed by Imperial Distributing Corporation
Directed by Clifford Sanforth

Who knows what we have to fear from this new invention?

This opening pitch for a new film gets applied just about any time there is a breakthrough discovery. Name a tech, and you can find a few films that try and use it in their story as something wondrous yet scary.

You have virtual reality getting such a side eye in The Matrix. We come to fear artificial intelligence with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Colossus: The Forbin Project. Robots that may or may not interface with smart computers come to mess things up in Forbidden Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. And then we have all those countless films about going into space, and what could go wrong when we do.

Many of these films would ultimately end up on television, which itself was part of a film pitch…

Note that there will be some unavoidable spoilers here.

We open with a montage of magazine articles about that new-fangled device, television, before we find ourselves with the board of directors at C. M. P. Television Corporation. They’re concerned about an invention made by Professor Houghland (Charles Hill Mailes, in his last film), the nature of which we’re not informed, save that a rival company offered him five million dollars for it (close to $540M in today’s dollars) which the inventor turned down.

Anxious to get their hands on it, they turn to Richard Grayson (George Meeker), who is made an employee at large. He’s asked to get the invention, but not give his employers any details as to how he does it. In short, Grayson is one of those people who gives “competitive intelligence” a bad name…

We briefly cut to cocktails at the Houghland house, where the inventor has a brief conversation with his friend, Henry Scofield MD (Huntley Gordon), who gets teased by Houghland’s daughter June (June Collier), before we return to the main plot. We find ourselves in the office of Donald Jordan, chairman of the board at the Continental Tel-E-Vising Corporation, the company that offered the five mil and were turned down. Here, we see Jordan (Charles K. French) having a discussion with Houghland’s colleague, Dr. Arthur Perry (Bela Lugosi). Perry leaves the meeting, turning down the offer again for Houghland’s plans, then we watch after a fadeout and fade-in as he buys a paper and sees himself on the front page:

Perry returns to Jordan’s office and lets him know that he’s had a change of heart, that he will be willing to work with him to get those plans. Somehow, Perry has become more willing to engage in industrial espionage, and can be bought for a lot less than five mil.

This act of treachery will be the last time anything in the film takes place away from the Houghland estate. There’s a formal party where the inventor lives, complete with guests in tuxedoes and gowns. The party’s attended by June, Grayson, Scofield, Perry, and local chief of police Milton (Henry Mowbray), who is also a social contact of Houghland’s.

Everyone has gathered to watch as their host goes on the air with a demonstration, where we finally see what all the fuss is about: Houghland is broadcasting a live signal that can be picked up coast to coast without a relay. As he brings the audience live feeds to his show from as far away as France and China, another major discovery, Houghland suddenly has an attack on the air.

At this point the film becomes less about the wonders of technology as it tries to become a drawing room murder. Considering how well they execute the murder, it was probably a blessing that they didn’t continue with the tech, as the film makers didn’t seem to understand television. This seems evident in noting that the producers borrowed an actual television transmission set-up for one shot, using gear that had a value that was twice that of the film’s budget.

In better hands, though, it could have been interesting to follow along with a film about the tech. Houghland’s transmission from a single point to go nationwide is analogous with the advent of cable television; what the film gives us is what Ted Turner helped pioneer 40 years later. That Houghland’s transmission never mentions needing any special equipment for this to happen suggests that this would give broadcasters something closer to a YouTube channel, which had great implications for society at large if everyone could have flooded the airwaves that easily.

(Okay, so the remote live feed in the film was way too easy compared with what we really got when that took place…)

But, instead of a science fiction tale showing us how new technology affects the world, we end up with a drawing room mystery that just makes up its own rules as it goes along. It’s befuddling as the script takes a lot of turns that don’t make any sense, which seem to escape first time director Sanforth’s grasp.

How much of this is actually the fault of Sanford, however, is hard to guess. The film is listed in various places with a run time of sixty minutes, the industry average for B pics coming from Poverty Row at the time, but copies that can be found today only run for fifty four minutes. As there may well be a tenth of this film lost, a film that’s fallen into the public domain from a cheapie outfit whose libraries and outtakes disappeared when the producer did, it’s hard to say with certainty that this is the director’s doing.

What we’re left with in those fifty-four minutes are bad jumps between points in the story that either don’t matter or should not have been bothered with. One especially annoying point is how the crime gets resolved, after the second murder. At one point, soon after he’s caught trying to smuggle some papers (plans, telegrams, they’re not entirely clear on what’s being swiped), we find Perry dead at the top of the stairs.

This is fortuitous, because it enables his twin brother to figure out the case. Yes, Perry had a twin (also Lugosi), who happens to be a G-man, a fed. The fact that Perry gets to solve the crime thanks to sacrificing his twin for the good of the case, well…

Then again, by this point, Lugosi probably had little else to lose. Four years after his most iconic role, not wanting to be typecast and spending his fortune around town carelessly, he ends up in the role(s) here. And it’s not a great outing; there are times when he has to bend over dead bodies where his stance and expression can’t help but make one recall his Dracula role, and his accent gets in the way a few times as he throws around talking points to either explain what just took place or where the plot’s supposed to go.

Ironically, in addition to this film having in the cast an actor four years after the height of his career, we also get an actress who will see her best role four years in the future from when this premiered. The film uses a lot of stereotype characters, one of whom is the cook played by Hattie McDaniel. We see her here playing yet another servant, one of the few options she had when she got work as an actress, four years before her Oscar-winning performance as ‘Mammy’ in Gone with the Wind.

Fate would not be as kind to anyone else associated with the film. The film’s distributor would only pump out eleven more films before folding in 1938, and as noted above the pic would fall into public domain, where it could be used without restriction in bargain bin DVD collections and online outlets.

And yes, lots of broadcasts on television, as well…

 

 

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