Wednesday, August 7, 2013

DVD Review: Bela Lugosi: Murder by Television (1935)

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!

…Now, tell me who’s the star of the picture? 

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.   

We're TWINS!

But, let’s hear from “Professor James Houghland”, a principal member of our overcrowded cast, as he explains the breakthrough he has made to almost supernaturally enhance the new and uncharted medium of television: 

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.
On with the show!  Dig those CAMERAS!

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…”

Prof. Houghland (left) in his wondrous studio!

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! 
Why even one of the Bela Lugosi twins is murdered along the way...

 ...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! 

One of the many characters that gum-up populate the film is named “Dick Grayson”.  In 1940, five years after the release of  Murder by Television”, comic book artist and creator of Batman Bob Kane (or one of his many “ghosts”) would create Robin the Boy Wonder for DC Comics, whose civilian identity would be “Dick Grayson”.  Other early Batman imagery and trappings have been attributed to films of the era, so why not this? 

DETECTIVE COMICS # 38 (April, 1940)
Television appears as a large, wide-screen device, as it would 70-80 years in the film’s future!

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. 

And, if I were you, I’d “watch” your TV in MORE than the usual sense – because it may just be watching you! 


scarecrow33 said...

Another great review, Joe!

One question, though--after the discussion about the packaging of this DVD--and I agree one hundred percent with your objections to that DVD cover--about midway through the article you post a DVD cover that supposedly "gets it right" as far as the spelling of Lugosi's name and looks like a much better cover. So has the film been previously released on DVD? I'm curious about that alternate cover--maybe I missed something, but I don't recall a reference to it. It's just that I usually recognize where your source material comes from and this one I somehow missed. Why couldn't this alternative cover have been used for the present release? Obviously it was designed by someone who knows vintage films, or at least understands how they deserve to be treated.

What a great dividend for taking a class--a vintage film to add to your library! I'd like to hear more about this class and what types of stuff gets covered.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I once again enjoy reading one of your reviews...I savor the graphics, which help to create perspectives and visual references to "the issue at hand" and I relish your wit and perceptivity, plus the obvious appreciation that you have for vintage material like this. It's a great way to start--or end--the day!!! Thanks, Joe!

Joe Torcivia said...

And, thank you, Scarecrow, for never failing to provide interesting comments and observations!

I apologize if anything about this review appeared confusing (…and, if you think the review is confusing, you should see the FILM itself!), but I’ll try to sort things out among the many graphics I employ to try and liven things up.

I actually SEE what you mean in that there IS an alternate DVD cover to “Murder By Television” that is posted below the “Twin Lugosi” images, and directly below the first “light reddish” quote from Professor Houghland.

That is NOT the version I have – nor have I ever seen that version of the DVD packaging, which is quite good! The one that I have is the one I’m melodramatically critical of – not without good reason.

Public Domain DVDs are released by a wide variety of houses, and the cover illustration you cite is apparently another such release from another producer/distributor.

That alternate version was simply placed there because it was a good image. And, I should have been more explicit in identifying it as such. I HAVE SINCE ADDED A CAPTION THAT MAY CLARIFY MATTERS.

In the course of the review, I also threw in the REALLY NICE cover for “Mr. Wong”, as proof that these things can be done well if someone cares – and really badly, if someone doesn’t (…not unlike Disney comic books). And, the DRACULA DVD cover was there for the throwaway “who dunnit” gag.

But, yes… I should have been more explicit concerning the image in question, and hope the added captioning helps.

The class is a wonderful experience, and loads of fun to boot. I've taken a few different iterations of it - both Horror / Sci-Fi and Comedy. Kudos to its instructor, Keith Crocker (Hope he doesn't mind me calling him out!)

Chris Barat said...


You wondered about the state of TV technology at the time of MURDER BY TELEVISION. Mechanical television had been around for a while, at least since the 1920s, but electronic TV was indeed in its infancy. Even so, this movie appears to have been well ahead of its time in terms of examining what the future of electronic TV might look like (sans death ray, of course!). By the time of WWII, the BBC was conducting regular TV broadcasts, and the U.S. would probably have followed suit had the war and the demands of war production not intervened.


Joe Torcivia said...

Very interesting, Chris!

Of all the important “histories” there are to study, the “History of Technology” is one that really gets short shrift. It’s gotten so that, if one hasn’t “lived it” and seen it with their own eyes, as we’ve seen the evolution of B&W tube TVs to wide screen HD monitors (and the home video revolution that grew up around that path, from Beta to Blu-ray and beyond), one can become truly unaware of anything that predates one’s own personal recollections.

Whatever else this film might be, both good and otherwise, it’s certainly a reminder of a (not THAT long ago) technological period that has become almost un-relatable to our everyday existence.

top_cat_james said...

Joey, you neglected to list my favorite home entertainment advancement - Smellevision replacing television.

And Winston Sharples "sez" it works just fine!

Joe Torcivia said...

“Winston Sharples”? I thought it was Carl Stalling.

Say, if we watch Bela Lugosi’s “Magic TV” (the original “MTV”?), we might find out it was actually William Lava!

If there’s one thing I learned from this film, it’s that “The TV Will Tell!”

But maybe Winston Sharples sez “It’ll never replace the Magic Eight-Ball”!