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.
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]: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x240j0y?start=950
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.
(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)
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. http://lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/motionpictureher104unse_0193
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.
(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
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.
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.
(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.”
(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.
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. http://lantern.mediahist.org/catalog/motionpictureher121unse_0833
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)
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.).
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.”
(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.
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
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.
(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
An image from the film
Trådlöst och kärleksfullt
An image from the film
Images from the film
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.