Bela Lugosi: Murder by Television (1935)
Release Date: Sometime in 2006 by Digiview Entertainment
Another looong DVD Review by Joe Torcivia
Summary: TV or Not TV? That is the question! OR: You think it’s murder just WATCHING television these days?
I’m still enjoying the “History of Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema” course that I’ve been attending, as well as benefiting from the instructor’s particular practice of awarding a DVD artifact of entertainment-days-gone-by to each attendee. It’s kinda like getting the “home-version” of the game show you were just on, but much more fun!
You can read about a previous such award HERE. And, the subject of this post is another similar item.
But, before we discuss the film, we simply cannot proceed without critically viewing this absolutely frightful cover packaging. Yeah, it’s “public domain”, but this may rank as the single worst DVD cover design effort I have EVER seen!
Look at it!
Is it Bela Lugosi?
…Or, is it “Bella Laosi”? …With a GUN for the “L” of “Laosi”, no less!
For a moment, I wondered if this were NOT a Lugosi film after all, but rather one of those made-for-DVD parody productions.
And, PLEASE… Tell me what is up with those alternating capital and lower-case letters that make up the text at the top of the package. Never mind the “inverted L-Gun image” also substituting for the letter “R”!
The colorized illustration of “Mr. L-Gun Laosi”, fronted by a more modern looking title logo, doesn’t exactly speak “vintage Poverty Row” era filmmaking, but that’s at least a marketing decision that I can understand even if I disagree with it.
For more on this – and a similarly botched comic book cover – see THIS POST, and be sure to read its spirited Comments Section!
The unfortunate thing about this cover image atrocity is that “public domain / dollar bin stuff” doesn’t need to be packaged this hideously, as this polar-opposite example proves.
|...And they spelled his NAME right!|
To the film itself:
Television, at the time of this film, is in its absolute infancy. In fact, it may have just embryonically arrived – at least, per the set-up of our story. It is depicted here as more of a techno-dream – or even a “magic box of tricks” – than the common component of everyday life that is has become.
That our old and comforting friend the television set is presented in such science-fictional terms (in times that are NOT REALLY all that far back along the universal time line), is perhaps the key point of interest, in a tale that throws so many “look-alike and sound-like” characters at you in its opening minutes that, frankly, you’ll have trouble keeping track. I actually watched this film TWICE in succession in order to better dope everything out. …And that only helped a BIT!
|Oh, there are LOTS of us!|
Even the great “Bella Laosi”… pardon, Bela Lugosi (here, playing TWIN BROTHERS) doesn’t truly distinguish himself from the pack until about 43:20 of the remarkably short 56:44 film.
“It is my hope to be able to prove that television is the greatest step forward we have yet made in the preservation of humanity. It will make of this earth the paradise we’ve always envisioned, but have never seen!”
|A BETTER DVD Cover for this film -- (Just not the one I have!)|
I suppose it’s a good thing the idealistic Prof. Houghland never lived into the era of trashy “Reality TV”. …Then again, he didn’t live much more than a few minutes longer, anyway!
Surrounded by friends and colleagues at his ornate (for 1935) home, the professor trots off to a studio in another room of the house to host what is to be an extraordinary (and fateful) broadcast.
“This is James Houghland, owner of Experimental Station ‘ZY3’, located at White Plains, New York, televising on a site channel of ¾ meter [ JOE’S NOTE: Whatever THAT means! ]. We are attempting to reach the entire United States direct – without the use of relays…”
And, so the amazing broadcast goes, transmitting scenes from throughout the globe – and, amid the promise of an even bigger surprise breakthrough at the end of the show, the professor suddenly seizes-up and DIES on camera! (…Not exactly the surprise he promised, I’d say!) There is no known assailant – after all, the event was seen as it happened, and no sign of a wound.
So, who dunnit? Was it one of the guests? Could it be Bela Lugosi slipping back into the role of DRACULA, to claim a new victim for a source of fresh blood?
|Oops! Wrong movie! Nice COVER, though!|
...Or maybe it was the designer of the DVD packaging – if ANYONE here is guilty of SOMETHING HEINOUS, that would be the guy!
...prompting the surviving Bela (a heretofore unknown undercover special investigator) to step forward, finally assert his charismatic command over this near-floundering picture [JOE’S NOTE: Just in time, too!], and clue the audience in on the particular method of the titular television murder – while revealing the identity of the killer in grand style to the incredulous assemblage.
“Earlier tonight, in view of thousands, Professor Houghland was killed by his own invention. His killing was not accidental. It was a deliberately conceived cold-blooded execution, cleverly maneuvered so as to give the murderer a perfect alibi.
“Little did Professor Houghland realize that the surprise he promised you would aid in discovering his murderer!
“The television shows the killer’s actions tonight. A permanent record of everything televised was made on film. Now, you’re going to see part of that record…”
YEAH! “You tella, Big Bela!”
And, sure enough, the TV, exhibiting Houghland’s uncanny proposed breakthrough, has miraculously recorded the killer on the premises of Houghland's house. He is seen setting into motion, via telephone, actions that, in keeping with this film’s unusual internal logic, use the TV-technology to unleash an invisible death ray upon the poor professor! …Talk about being an ill-mannered houseguest! I’ll bet even the CALL was long distance!
|Death ray?! I'm just calling about my dry cleaning! ...And I'm NOT EVEN IN this picture!|
Wow! After this, I’m never even going to cheat on my DIET, in front of the TV! Never mind, considering what the NSA could do with this puppy!
|...And it looks so TRUSTING, too!|
Yeah, I guess that legitimately qualifies as what we now call a “WTF moment” but, considering all of the bizarre and unreasonably imaginative things we’ve let pass in the name of “science fiction” in the intervening years, we can embrace this Poverty Row Era effort, and its studio “Cameo Pictures Corporation”, for the decidedly unusual picture it is.
Besides, there are other interesting aspects to “Murder by Television”… besides supernatural, hyper-technological, all-omniscient, death ray-spewing TV sets, that is!
|DETECTIVE COMICS # 38 (April, 1940)|
When one scene shifts to another on Professor Houghland’s particular brand of television receiver, is it delineated by a “swirling circular effect”. Did Houghland also presage the Psychedelic Era?
What would a 1930s Hollywood production be without one or more racially stereotyped characters to serve as comedy relief? Here, we have both a male Chinese valet, to quote Charlie Chan and Confucius at every turn, and a Black female cook to react to the strange happenings at Houghland House with the unfortunately expected “wide-eyes and Lawdy-Lawdy!” The latter is played by Hattie McDaniel, pre “Gone with the Wind”.
|See the image above... Now in COLOR!|
There’s also an annoying guy who keeps trying to break into the house, saying “I have business here!”, only to be continually ejected by the valet and cook, or the police. Oddly, unless I’ve totally missed something over TWO VIEWINGS, he never figures into ANYTHING plot-wise, despite his recurring interruptions.
…At least in CARTOONS, characters who “keep butting in” throughout the picture almost always figure into the final gag somehow. Could something be cut from this particular print, or am I not paying close enough attention? If anyone reading this has ever seen “Murder by Television”, please let me know.
|Yeah, I'm annoying, but I PAY OFF in the final gag!|
From Porky Pig "Curtain Razor" (1949)
“Murder by Television” is also distinguished by some very creative “transitioning of scenes” within the film itself. Dissolves or wipes occur (A) from top-to-bottom, (B) from the MIDDLE and moving out toward the outer edges of the image, and (C) an expanding CIRCLE that first appears at the center of the screen, eventually overlaying the image that preceded it. That’s PRETTY GOOD for a film of this era and budget!
I had a great time with this film, despite its many flaws. If you are as forgiving as I tend to be, in consideration of the times and technology, you will too!
Bela Lugosi (not “Bella Laosi”) can only be suppressed by the less-than stellar script and indistinguishably populous cast for so long until he finally breaks out and becomes “All the Bela he can be”! Even a “film’s final fifth” of Lugosi is worth the wait!
If only the packaging was prepared with as much care, and an appropriate sensibility of the film’s own era, as was this MUG – which we will close with an image of.