In 2016, Richard Koszarski and I composed an international annotated filmography of television in motion pictures from before 1939. The filmography, with Koszarski’s introductory essay, was published in The Journal of E-Media Studies – right here.
The filmography is a work-in-progress, as more research on the topic continues to produce new finds. In this page, I post new entries we have discovered since the original publication, as well as corrections and added information on films we have discovered along the way. Please check for updates, and if you have suggestions for film we should feature here, please let me know in the comments sections below.
Ups and Downs
(1915, VIM, US) dir. Bobby Burns and Walter Stull
US release: Dec. 31, 1915
A short Oliver Hardy comedy. At one scene, the villain uses a “Sniffiscope,” a mechanical device consisting of a film rewind crank and some sort of phonograph horn. As he looks into the device and turns the crank, the film cuts to various masked shots of what else is going on at the time.
(1916, Gaumont, France) dir. Louis Feuillade
In episode 2 of Feuillade’s crime serial, the eponymous caped crimefighter kidnaps a corrupt banker. At his hiding place, he observes the banker using what the intertitles describe as “a moving mirror controlled by an electrical device… like an implacable eye.”
A Message from Mars
(1921, Metro, US) dir. Maxwell Karger
US release: April 11, 1921
This American remake of a British 1913 science fiction feature (itself a take on A Christmas Carol) tells the story of a selfish inventor who is involved in financing a device to communicate with Mars, before dreaming of an encounter with a Martian messenger who makes him see the error of his ways.
Reviews and articles: Film Daily, March 27, 1921
(1922, Gaumont British, UK) dir. E.H. Calvert
UK release: 1922
In this British mystery feature, “an inventor using his television-like device to spy on his wife, whom he suspects of having an affair with a Frenchman, and uncovering a jewel thief in the process.” (Motion Picture Guide Silent Film 1910-1936, 254)
Maciste all’inferno / Maciste in Hell
(1925, Fert-Pittaluga, Italy) dir. Guido Brignone
Italian release: March 31, 1926; US release June 26, 1931
In this late installment of the Maciste series, the legendary strongman goes to hell to fight demons who attempt to corrupt him. In one of the scenes, a she-devil takes Maciste on a flying dragon to watch a television projection of events that that take place at the same time back on earth.
Reviews and articles: Motion Picture Herald, July 11, 1931:35. http://lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/motionpictureher104unse_0193
(1929, Ideal Comedies-Educational, US) dir. Stephen Roberts
US release: March 31, 1929
A 1929 comedy short starring Jerry Drew (aka Clem Beauchamp). A man tells his wife he is staying late at work. “But through her television set she sees hubby at his office planning to go to the party with some chorus girls.” (Film Daily, Feb. 17, 1929).
Reviews and articles: Film Daily, Feb. 17, 1929: 12 http://lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/filmdaily4748newy_0392
The Naggers Go Ritzy
(1932, Warner Bros., US) dir. Roy Mack
US release May 22, 1932.
A Vitaphone comedy short in The Naggers series, starring Jack Norworth and Dorothy Adelphi.
“After the Naggers move into a new luxury apartment, Mr. Nagger discovers that there is a hole in the wall adjacent to his neighbor’s apartment. To camouflage the hole, he places a radio in front of it. When Mrs. Nagger turns on the radio, she peers through the speaker in the receiver, noticing a man in the next apartment. Fooled into thinking that the radio receiver is really a television, she instructs her mother-in-law to look into the set. A commercial for mineral water comes on the air, claiming, “The Cascade Spring Company eliminates the middle-man. You get your water direct from the spring into your home.” Meanwhile, Mrs. Nagger and her mother in-law gaze into the radio speaker hoping to see a televised image. Instead, they find themselves drenched by a stream of water. Since a prior scene in the film shows that the next-door neighbor is actually squirting water at the Naggers through the hole in the adjacent wall, the joke is on the technically illiterate women who can’t distinguish between electrical and real space.” (from Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America, pp. 115-116)
Beauty for Sale
(1933, MGM, US) dir.Richard Boleslawski
US release: Sept. 1, 1933
At the start of the film, the character played by Elliott Nugent comes home and is greeted by his mother. “Is that you, Bill?” she says. “In person,” he replies. “Not by television.”
She Shall Have Music
(1935, Twickenham Film, UK) dir. Leslie S. Hiscott
UK release: 1935
In this British light musical about a band broadcasting a show from a yacht in the South Seas. “Ingeniously used here is the idea that a wrist-watch television set enables the disabled yacht to get into visible and audible touch with home.” (Motion Picture Herald, Dec. 21, 1935)
Reviews and articles: Motion Picture Herald, Dec. 21, 1935: 53. http://lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/motionpictureher121unse_0833
Soft Lights and Sweet Music
(1936, British Lion Film, UK) dir. Herbert Smith
UK release: July 20, 1936
A British variety feature in which comedy duo the Western Brothers view assorted acts through their experimental television equipment.
Hell-O-Vision / Hell-A-Vision
(1936 [?], Roadshow Attractions, US) dir. Louis Sonney
A low budget independent exploitation film, which allegedly cannibalizes footage from the Italian silent version of Dante’s Inferno, and deals with “a scientist’s latest invention: a cathode ray tube that can pick up transmissions from Hades” (Michael Benson, Vintage Science Fiction Films, 1896-1949, page 68.).
Larceny on the Air
(1937, Republic, US) dir. Irving Pichel
US release: January 11, 1937
One scene in this B crime drama features a doctor speaking about the dangers of radium poisoning on a radio broadcast, saying, “I’m sorry that television isn’t in every home today, so that instead of words I could show you the untold miseries brought on by these quack products.”
The Spider’s Web
(1938, Columbia Pictures, US) dir. James W. Horne and Ray Taylor
A television camera, camouflaged as a book, is used as a spying device in this B-serial depiction of an ongoing battle between a masked supervillain named “The Octopus” and a masked crimefighter named “The Spider.”
Mandrake, the Magician
(1939, Columbia Pictures, US) dir. Norman Deming and Sam Nelson
US release: May 1939
In this 12-parts adventure serial, based on a popular comic strip, a large-screen video-telephone device allows a mysterious villain to communicate orders to his hitmen. Interestingly, the device is used only for unilateral communication – the villain speaks to the gang, but they do not speak back; this is all the more cryptic, as the villain always appears on the screen hidden behind a mask.
Reviews and articles: Film Daly, May 11, 1939: http://lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/filmdail75wids_0324
VIDEO (episode 1): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C7KaJ7liZzY
(1940, Selznick International, US) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock
US Release: April 12, 1940
Toward the end of Hitchcock’s first American Film, which was shot in 1939, the characters pass for a brief moment by a large poster advertising a “Radio and Television Exhibition.”
Updates and Corrections
The 1937 film listed as Television Romance appears to be also titled Mr. Mugzee in Television created by animator Charles Bennes. The short puppet animation romantic comedy revolves around Mugzee’s attempts to impress a young woman who is rather enamored with a television star, which include putting up his own television show.
Updated plot description: Comedian Henny Youngman is trying to interest investors in a television device, by showing various musical acts. The film uses a particularly cheapest method of showing a television image on this screen: the curtain in front of the television device is pulled back and the camera tracks in, capturing musical numbers that are staged on a set right behind the device. In other words, what we see is just a hole in the wall of this set, beyond which is where the musical numbers take place. A focusing problem gives the trick away.
For the original published version of “Television in the Cinema Before 1939: An International Annotated Database, with an Introduction by Richard Koszarski” see here.