Television in the Cinema Before 1939

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.

New Entries

Ups and Downs

(1915, VIM, US) dir. Bobby Burns and Walter Stull

US release: Dec. 31, 1915

A short Oliver Hardy comedyAt 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.

Rovedderkoppen [The Spider’s Prey]

 (1916, Nordisk Film, Denmark) dir. August Blom 

The surviving 25 minutes of this Danish crime drama, written by Carl Theodor Dreyer, feature two different optical surveillance devices. The first is a screen device hidden behind a desk calendar and tracks people in the street outside; the second – perhaps an electrical instrument, perhaps a periscope – is hidden inside a framed picture, and equipped with a crank that allows controlling the camera position from afar.  



(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.”


Die Spinnen I: Der Goldene See [The Spiders, part I: The Golden Sea]

(1919, Decla-Bioscop, Germany) dir. Fritz Lang

German release: October, 1919

The first part of Fritz Lang’s adventure film includes a scene in which Lio Sha, leader of the mysterious “spiders” group, uses a visual device masqueraded as a normal mirror in order to spy on a meeting that takes place in another room. The film is ambiguous about whether or not it is in fact an electrical transmission device, but some hints suggest that it might be wired, and for some contemporary viewers it was understood as a televisual device. Lotte Eisner’s seminal The Haunted Screen, for example, describes the device as a mirror “which ‘televises’ scenes” (p. 239).             

VIDEO [starting at the relevant scene]:

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

La tempesta in un Cranio [Kill or Cure]

(1921, Campogalliani Film, Italy) dir. Carlo Campogalliani

Italian release: July 7, 1921

This madcap comedy that freely mixes dream, reality, fiction, psychoanalysis, and drunken hallucination features an adventure sequence in which the protagonists stops criminals from stealing the newly invented phototelephonophotograph. Depicted in the film as a hybrid of camera with a vacuum tube, the phototelephonophotograph is used for wireless visual communication at a distance, making it an early imaginary for of visual radio- telephony.

Le Canard en ciné, no. 2

(1921, Les Dessins animés Robert Lartac and Pathe, France) dir. Lortac (Robert Collard)

French release: Oct. 28, 1921

This episode from French cartoonist Lortac’s series of “cheerful animated newsreels” features a scene where a New York scientist uses a screen device to operate a remote-controlled driver-less car, causing multiple incidents.

Silent Evidence

(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)

Haunted Valley

(1923, Pathé Exchange, USA) dir. George Marshall Pathe

US release: May 6, 1923


Episode 6 of this Ruth Ronald 15-episode serial features the villain making use of unique visual device – a combined camera and projector which, with the aid of electrical connection, can display moving images at a distance without the use of a screen. Concealed in the villain’s underground hiding place, the device is used to scare one his enemies and drive him off a cliff.


Wunder der Schöpfung [Wonders of Creation / Our Heavenly Bodies ] 

(1925, UFA / Colonna-Film GmbH, Germany) dirs.: Johannes Meyer, Rudolf Biebrach, and  Ewald Matthias Schuhmacher.

German release: September 14, 1925  

This feature-length kultirfilm, which ambitiously aims to describe the universe and man’s place in it, depicts in its sixth act a journey outside solar system. In a spacecraft located ninety-five billion kilometers from earth, an astronaut switches on an electrical screen device (which the intertile dubs ‘fernseher’) in order to see what is happening back home. Due to the immense distance from earth, the screen image shows what has occurred ten year earlier. As the spacecraft increases its speed beyond the speed of light, the astronaut is able to reverse the temporal order of the televised images and to the receive image from previous times, back to the biblical era.  


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.


Wiener Bilderbogen n. 1

 (1925, Seel Film, Austria) dir. Louis Seel

Depicting novelties for a radio exhibition in New York, this animated short depicts  a multi-purpose domestic radio device. Among its functions is an optical-radio receiver, with which a woman can observe her adulterous husband at a distance.


Willis Zukunftstraum

(1928, Degeto, Germany) dir. Paul N. Peroff

An animated short about a young boy’s dream of life in the year 2950. Two scenes in the film depict television devices: in the first, a group of children watch a large bee giving a math class over a large screen; in the second, a concerned father communicates with his child who is mid-air, falling from an airplane.


The Adventures of Sammy and Sausage 2: Television

(1928, British Pathe, UK) dir. Joe Noble

UK release May 30, 1928

The second in the series of short animated films about a boy and his dog, released as part of the Eve’s Film Review magazine. 

Wise Wimmin

(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

Sankaku no sekai [TriangularWorld]

(1931, Shinshin Kinema Sha, Japan) dir. Hakusan Kimura

Release date unknown

An advertisement for this little known animated science fiction short, published in the magazine Eiga kyoiku (August 1931), reveals that it featured a television apparatus that allows spying on a secret meeting of aliens from the Triangular world who plot to destroy humanity.

Die vom 17er Haus

(1932, Allianz-Film, Austria) dir. Artur Berger

This promotional film, made for the Social Democrats’ campaign at the 1932 city elections in Vienna, depicts a futuristic utopian Vienna of the year 2032. An archivist is seen using a television device to communicate with his grandson as well as to transmit historical multimedia materials.

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)

I Ain’t got Nobody

(1932, Paramount, US) dir. Dave Fleischer

US release: June 17, 1932

A Fleischer “Screen Song,” featuring a lion zapping through various dance bits from all over the world on his television set, eventually watching a performance by the Mills Brothers Quartette. 


Blessed Event

(1932, Warner Brothers, US) dir. Roy Del Ruth

US release: Sep. 10, 1932

This pre-code feature does not depict televisual devices, but comments about them in the dialogue. Trying to get reporters to interview Dick Powell, Reilly (played by Frank McHugh) tells them “Ask him about sex appeal by television.” “By television?” answers George (played by Ned Sparks), “I tell you right now it’ll never prove a popular method.”

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.”

Scrappy’s Television

(1934, Charles Mintz, Columbia Pictures, US) dir. Sid Marcus

US release: January 29, 1934

An animated short featuring Scrappy and his friends as they watch programs of classical music, jazz, farming, and a boxing match on a hand-built television set, which appears to consist of both vacuum tubes and a scanning disc.


Hips, Hips, Hooray!

(1934, RKO, US) dir. Mark Sandrich

US release: February 2, 1934  

This Wheeler and Woolsey musical – notorious as one of the last pre-code films – starts out in the showroom of Maiden America beauty products, a lingerie manufacturer that promotes its product line through a combination radio broadcast and showroom parade. As one of the store models (Dorothy Lee) takes her place in an adjacent show window to attract a crowd, a large circular insert appears in the right of the frame. No explanation is given in the film, though it seems to be the output of a camera positioned just behind her make-up table, reproducing her actions in real time. It is worth noting that by the time the film was made, television sets have been used in department stores as a selling aid.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century 

(1934, John F. Dille Co., US) dir. Harlan Tarbell

US release: 1934

This low budget science fiction short was commissioned by John F. Dille’s newspaper syndication service to promote the Buck Rogers comic strip and premiered in the Chicago World Fair in 1934. Two futuristic devices are used in the film by scientist and Rogers associate Dr. Huer (who is played by Harlan Trabell, a stage magician and illustrator who also directed the film). One is a :cosmo-radio-photograph” that shows a picture of where the “war arrow” of a Martian attack is pointing; the other is a “cosmic radio-television” which shows the doctor views of the spaceships of the tiger men from mars as they are attacking earth.


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.

The Perfect Setup

(1936, MGM, US) dir. Edward L. Cahn

US release: February 1, 1936

A short film in the long running MGM series of cautionary tales, Crimes Does Not Pay. “Sanders, a brilliant scholar in high school, secures at graduation a job in a local radio factory. He thinks he has perfected a new method for television, manages an interview with the president of the company, is told that the company’s engineers will examine the idea, although it does not sound possible … Believing he has been sidetracked by the company, sanders willingly tells an old acquaintance how to put how to put a burglar alarm out of commission. He is soon running a radio repair shop as a blind, and providing his friend’s gang with the technical advice which makes their crimes possible. He later takes part in a holdup, is surprised, and shoots a man.” (Catalog of Films for Classroom Use [New York: Teaching Film Custodians, 1939], p. 245)

Calling the Tune

(1936, Phoenix Films, UK) dirs. Reginald Denham and Thorold Dickinson

UK release: July 7, 1936

A British drama, set in the early days of the gramophone industry, that features Eliot Makeham as an inventor who has created an early image and sound recording system akin to John Logie Baird’s actual invention of the Phonovison. Towards the endof the film, the recording system is used to capture the confession of a rival who has tried to destroy the inventor’s manufacturing operation.

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.


The Hills of Old Wyomin

(1936, Paramount, US) dir. Dave Fleischer

US release: July 24, 1936

This short animated parody of scientific-novelties newsreels features a televisual “fool-proof telephone,” with which a suspecting wife can check on her unfaithful husband.


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.).

Calendar of the Year

(1936, GPO Film Unit, UK) dir. Evelyn Spice

UK release: 1937

 A short film produced by the General Post Office film unit (the same year as their more memorable Night Mail). The 1948 MoMA catalog of documentary and educational films describes it as “An impressionistic study of seasonal activities, showing how the Post Office is adapted to deal with them in transmission of radio and television, in the telephone service and in the collection and distribution of mail.”

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.”


Puddy’s Coronation

(1937, Terrytoons – Fox, US) dirs. Mannie Davis, George Gordon, and Paul Terry

US release: May 14, 1937

 A short “Puddy the Pup” cartoon from Terrytoons, in which the puppy and his kangaroo friend watch a live transmission of a coronation on an NBC television. Just two days before the cartoon’s release, the BBC televised the coronation of King George VI, its first outside broadcast. 

VIDEO: (on the BBC broadcast, see here)

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.”


The Return of the Frog

(1938, Imperator, UK) dir. Maurice Elvey

UK release:  24 November 1938

A sequel to the 1937 crime film The Frog, wherein the titular criminal uses television and radio devices to communicate with his minions while in hiding.

Sundae Serenade

(1939, Warner Bros., USA) dir. Roy Mack

US release: 25 Feb. 1939

In this short film, part of the Vitaphone “Broadway Brevities” series, a drug store worker purchases a television set from a salesman in order to boost the store’s business.

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:

VIDEO (episode 1):

Dick Tracy’s G-Men

(1939, Republic Pictures, USA) dirs. William Witney and John English

US release: September 2, 1939


In the first episode in this third Dick Tracy serial produced by Republic, international spy Zarnoff is navigating from a distance a boat full of explosives at distance, using a wireless controlling device equipped with a television screen.


Weltraumschiff I startet [Space Ship 1 Takes Off

(1937 [?], Bavaria-Filmkunst GmbH, Germany) dir. Anton Kutter

German release:  November 1940

This Nazi-era science-fiction kulturfilm depicts the launch of a space rocket, which is preceded by a televised press conference. Production of the film started in Munich in 1937 or 1938, but budgetary and political constrains held the release until 1940.


Macao, l’enfer du jeu [Gambling Hell / Mask of Korea]

(1939/1942, Demofilms, France) dir: Jean Delannoy

French release: December 9, 1942

Shot in 1939 by released only in 1942 (and in the US in 1950), this adventure film features a scene in which Sessue Hayakawa, playing an operator of a gambling hall in Macao, observes gamblers on a television set constructed in his office desk. Notably, the television apparatus seems to be connected to several cameras and the operator can choose among them.


(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

Magie moderne

An image from the film

Trådlöst och kärleksfullt

An image from the film

La fessée


Images from the film

Television Romance

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.


Television Highlights

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.

One Reply to “Television in the Cinema Before 1939”

  1. Feature-length promotional film, in Technicolor, sponsored by Westinghouse. A family from Indiana visits the 1939 World’s Fair (mainly the Westinghouse pavilion) and attends a television studio demonstration.

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