Thursday, June 17, 2010

Murder by Television (Imperial-Cameo, 1935)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles duly arrived at 10 p.m. and we ended up watching the download of Murder by Television, a 1935 independent from something called “Cameo Pictures” (the on-screen studio credit goes to Cameo, the posters said “Imperial-Cameo”) starring Bela Lugosi in an intriguing but ultimately disappointing and silly melodrama with a “grabber” title the movie itself never quite lives up to. Produced by William M. Pizor, directed by Clifford Sanforth and written by Joseph O’Donnell from an “idea” by Clarence Hennecke and Karl R. Coolidge, Murder by Television harkens back to a time when the very idea of television was the subject of science fiction — though a few hardy and ill-financed inventors were industriously working to bring it to reality. The producers sought out L.A.’s real-life TV experimenters and borrowed $75,000 worth of experimental TV gear — Milton M. Stern is credited as “television technician,” which I would guess mean that he supplied the equipment and told the filmmakers whatever they needed to know about how it worked — which was more than double the $35,000 they had budgeted to make the actual movie.

The story deals with researcher James Houghland (Charles Hill Mailes),who has invented a new TV system so much better than any that’s come before it — particularly in its ability to transmit over long distances — that all the other TV startups in the area want to get their hands on it by any means necessary. Houghland stages a demonstration and we get to see his daughter June (June Collyer) sing a nice little song called “I Had the Right Idea” as his test program. Then he’s found dead, apparently electrocuted by his own equipment. The suspects include his assistant, Arthur Perry (Bela Lugosi) — who in an early establishing scene was shown having a sinister conversation with another television entrepreneur which seemed to be about Perry stealing Houghland’s secrets and selling them before Houghland had a chance to patent them — and a number of other people, including various hangers-on, other TV researchers and brain specialist Dr. Henry M. Scofield (Huntley Gordon — though the credits leave the “e” out of his first name), who ultimately turns out to be the killer, though both the means of the murder and the motive remain pretty mysterious. Murder by Television also features two racist stereotype roles for Hougland’s servants, Isabella (Hattie McDaniel — amazing that this cheap, cheesy movie features someone who went on to win an Academy Award!) and houseboy Ah Ling (Allan Jung); Jung has to quote Charlie Chan in his role and he looks like he’d rather be playing one of Chan’s sons, but McDaniel acts her stupid role with the power and authority she’d later bring to similar (if somewhat less silly) roles in great films: her superb performance as Paul Robeson’s wife in the 1936 Show Boat and her Oscar-winner in Gone With the Wind.

Originally McDaniel’s role was quite a bit more substantial and gave her a chance to sing — which she could do superbly; before she got into movies she’d been a colleague of Bessie Smith’s on the Black TOBA vaudeville circuit (the initials formally stood for “Theatre Owners’ Booking Association” but the conditions were so rough the performers joked the letters really stood for “Tough on Black Asses”) and in the 1936 Show Boat she’d held her own in a vocal duet with Robeson — but apparently the only prints of Murder by Television that survive are truncated ones in which McDaniel’s song has been removed. (This sort of butchery later affected Lena Horne’s films for MGM in the 1940’s; in most of her films, rather than playing a character, she merely came on, sang and then departed — making it easy for MGM’s distributors in the South to eliminate her altogether.) This explains the discrepancy in the film’s listed running time: the American Film Institute Catalog claims it runs 60 to 62 minutes, while lists 53 minutes — the running time of the version on

Murder by Television is a cheap, shoddy film that’s interesting for Lugosi, McDaniel, all that cool antique television equipment (interestingly, the TV process used in the film still seems to rely on scanning discs eight years after Philo T. Farnsworth invented the electronic TV system that became the basis of commercial TV when it finally started after World War II) but not much else, and is the first of at least two films in Lugosi’s career that used the preposterous plot device of having a character murdered midway through and then turn up, seemingly alive after all — explained by the lame plot device that the “new” person, played by the same actor as the original, is in fact his twin brother. In Murder by Television it is Lugosi who is murdered about 42 minutes into this 54-minute (at least in the version we were watching) print and then reappears as a deus ex machina, an FBI agent who solves the crime — and though we presume Lugosi’s second incarnation is named “Perry” since that was the last name of the first one, we’re never given a first name for Lugosi II. (Six years later, in The Invisible Ghost, Lugosi had to endure this plot device again, though in this one it wasn’t he but supporting actor John McGuire who died and was “resurrected” in the form of a previously unknown twin.)

Murder by Television is just another 1930’s indie, dully directed and flatly photographed (except for the scenes of the TV gear actually in operation), yet another whodunit that turns into a whocareswhodunit and doesn’t really — as I had thought it might — provide Lugosi fans another opportunity besides the quite interesting 1934 serial The Return of Chandu to see him as a genuinely heroic figure.