Television Spy (1939)

‘I wouldn’t know an electronic multiplier if it crept up and bit me.’

An elderly industrialist commits to developing a television system after one of his young employees demonstrates that it’s viable to broadcast signals over long distances. However, there’s a spy in the camp, and the secret is stolen…

Small-budgeted B-movie programmer from Paramount Studios, cashing in on a brand-new buzzword: television. In the director’s chair for only his second full feature outing was ex-studio messenger Edward Dmytryk at the beginning of a long-running and controversial Hollywood career.

Wealthy tycoon James Llewellyn (William Collier Sr.) is frustrated. In poor health and surrounded by grasping relatives, he’s had to abandon his plans to take his radio corporation into the brave new world of television. Despite his scientific genius, he’s been unable to lick the problems of long-distance transmissions. Fortunately, young, hotshot employee Douglas Cameron (William Henry) is not deterred and, assisted by colleague Dick Randolph (Richard Denning), demonstrates a system that works. Collier is in and opens his bank account, provided the invention is given to the U.S. military free of charge.

Work begins in secret in the basement laboratory of the tycoon’s house, but oily butler Frome (Wolfgang Zilzer) has sold out his master to smooth operator Reni Vonich (Dorothy Tree). She tries to sell the blueprints of Henry’s system to enemy agent Carl Venner (Morgan Conway), but he only agrees to the buy if he can get a personal demonstration of the device. Tree recruits Collier’s old business rival Burton ‘Bud’ Lawson (Minor Watson) to build a duplicate machine, playing on a long-standing grudge between the two men. Watson sets up a laboratory at a remote ranch with his pretty daughter Gwen (Judith Barrett), believing that things are on the up and up and the plans originate in Europe.

Television was a buzzword in pre-war America, although experimental systems had been around as early as the 1920s. Rival inventors battled each other through the courts over patents in the following decade, while a practical demonstration took place in Berlin in 1931. Five years later, the German Post Office broadcast more than 70 hours of live television coverage of the Olympic Games to special viewing rooms and a few private receiving sets. These were the first signals strong enough to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, so, yes, if alien races do start monitoring our broadcasts, the first human they’re likely to see will be Adolf Hitler. Three years later, on 30th April 1939, RCA began regular transmissions from atop the Empire State Building in New York, a launch scheduled to coincide with the opening of the World’s Fair in the city where the system was prominently featured.

This last development likely inspired Paramount to order up these cheap espionage shenanigans tagged with the name. There had already been a handful of bargain basement b-features based around the device, such as Cameo Pictures’ woeful ‘Murder By Television’ (1935) with Bela Lugosi. The outcome here is also stubbornly minor, but, coming courtesy of what was then at least a second-division studio, the results sidestep the pitfalls of the era’s poverty row outfits. What’s delivered is 58 minutes of small-scale drama, mostly chat with a few laboratory montages and a sprinkling of climactic gunplay. At such a brief length, the events don’t drag too much, and it’s surprisingly well performed by an appealing cast.

The script comes from a writing team of four and displays a welcome attention to character. Henry may be initially charming, but as the work progresses and the pressure mounts, he becomes increasingly driven and argumentative. In contrast, Denning is the laid-back, good-humoured type, and while their clash of temperaments may not be the stuff of great character drama, it’s surprisingly well-realised for a film of this type. This may be down to the presence on that script team of author Horace McCoy, best remembered now for the novel ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ which was made into a film starring Jane Fonda in 1969.

The cast is also fine across the board. Barrett gives a very naturalistic, winning performance as the heroine, and Tree makes for a splendidly charming villainess. It’s also good to see Denning at the beginning of a cult movie career that reached its apex when he led the expedition to find ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’ (1954). However, it’s in the supporting roles where the real interest lies. The duplicitous Tree has two sidekicks, Boris (John Eldredge) and Forbes (Anthony Quinn). Eldredge was always good value as a cad or small-time hoodlum, but Quinn shines. Even this early in his career, he displays some of the emerging charisma that would eventually lead him to 4 Oscar nominations and two statuettes. We also get the well-travelled Byron Foulger as one of Collier’s greedy relatives. Although best remembered by 1960s baby boomers as the train conductor on TV’s ‘Petticoat Junction’, Foulger amassed a list of over 450 screen credits in a career of almost 40 years. Usually cast as bank employees, clerks, secretaries and other functionaries, he appeared in a staggering 34 films in 1944 alone. Also on board is Olaf Hytten, who may have played more butlers than any other actor in screen history and can be spotted in most entries of Universal’s ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

Dmytryk was the son of Ukrainian immigrants who grew up in San Francisco but left for California as a teenager. He began at Paramount as an editor in 1930, getting his first chance to direct on Western programmer ‘The Hawk’ (1935) and delivering similarly efficient, if unremarkable, pictures over the next few years with titles such as ‘Mystery Sea Raider’ (1938) and ‘Her First Romance’ (1940). The war years brought more interesting projects his way, an early highlight being the offbeat horror ‘The Devil Commands’ (1941) with Boris Karloff. His big break came with the propaganda triumph ‘Tender Comrade’ (1943) with Ginger Rogers, although, somewhat ironically, the film would have unfortunate consequences later in his career.

Dmytryk followed up with one of the classic Film Noirs, ‘Murder, My Sweet/Farewell, My Lovely’ (1944), which transformed the career of actor Dick Powell. More significant work followed, such as ‘Crossfire’ (1947) which gathered five Oscar nominations, including Dmytryk for best director. Unfortunately, the House Un-American Activities was grabbing headlines with its mission to out Communists in Tinseltown, and Dmytryk was a known traveller. Refusing to answer questions before the committee, he was blacklisted as one of ‘The Hollywood Ten’ and fled to England. Forced to return when his passport expired, he was jailed for four months for contempt of congress. Appearing before the committee again, he ‘named names’ and was allowed to resume his career.

Initially, he could only find work in the low-budget arena, but producer Stanley Kramer insisted on hiring him to direct ‘The Caine Mutiny’ (1954) with Humphrey Bogart. The film was a massive box-office hit and was nominated for two Oscars, including Best Picture. More prestige projects followed, including a couple of vehicles for Spencer Tracy, ‘Raintree County’ (1957) with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor and epic ‘The Young Lions’ (1958), which paired Clift with Marlon Brando. Later work included smash hit ‘The Carpetbaggers’ (1964), ‘Shalako’ (1968) with Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardo and writing and directing Richard Burton as ‘Bluebeard’ (1972). He retired from filmmaking later that decade and passed away in 1999.

This film is often labelled as ‘science fiction’, but, as a definition, that’s up for debate. The script makes much of the experimental nature of long-range broadcasts, and the technical terms seem to be at least broadly accurate. However, the first such transmission occurred over a decade earlier, in 1927, between New York and Washington DC, a distance of over 200 miles. It’s unclear just how far the development of such work had advanced by 1939, although it is true that the first ‘coast to coast’ telecast didn’t take place officially until 1951, and the wall-sized screens featured in the film were certainly not available in the shops back then! It’s also curiously prescient that the hero and heroine first interact over a screen. In fact, they don’t meet in ‘real life’ throughout the film, although we can be pretty sure they’re not going to waste much time before putting that right.

If you don’t expect too much from this minor programmer, you may be mildly entertained.

The World Will Shake/Le monde tremblera (1939)

‘I’ll multiply by ten the crazy people in the streets of Paris.’

A scientist invents a machine that can predict the exact time of the death of any test subject. Willing clients flock to his laboratory for the information, securing the inventor’s fame and fortune. However, the burden of such knowledge has a heavy psychological impact on each recipient, modifying their attitudes and behaviour with sometimes disastrous results…

Intriguing slice of speculative science-fiction from director Richard Pottier, based on a novel by Francis Didelot and Charles Robert-Dumas. At this time in film history, with a few notable exceptions, science-fiction had been relegated to movie serials and mad scientist-horror, so this well-budgeted French production is somewhat of a rarity.

Dr Jean Durand (Claude Dauphin) is a man on the edge of a significant scientific breakthrough. For years, he has been working with assistant Julien (Julien Carette) on a machine that effectively measures someone’s life force and can predict the time of their death. He has neglected fiancée Marie-France Lasserre (Madeleine Sologne) and best friend Dr Martelet (Armand Bernard) in the service of his dream with financing provided by mysterious businessman Monsieur Frank (Erich von Stroheim).

Dauphin and Carette attempt to persuade an ageing prostitute to be the machine’s first human guinea pig, but she heads for the hills instead. Fortunately, a runaway thug (Raymond Aimos) is more amenable after he’s caught breaking into the lab, but his test shows that he has only 20 minutes to live. Dauphin’s confidence in the machine is justified when the housebreaker is murdered as he e the house by gang members hidden outside. The machine works.

Further validation follows, and soon Dauphin is not only the toast of Paris but world-renowned. Von Stroheim attempts to exploit Durand’s discovery by suggesting a life insurance scam, but the suggestion repulses the inventor. Shortly afterwards, he finds out that the sinister Von Stroheim’s trued identity is Emil Lasser, reckless businessman and father of his beloved. The connection is a shock to everyone concerned. Meanwhile, finding that he has only a short time to live, a billionaire determines to ruin a hated rival at all costs. His reckless action sends the stock market into freefall and precipitates a global economic crisis.

This is an intriguing and exceptionally well-presented drama, thanks to Pottier’s sure hand on the tiller and an intelligent, well-developed script. The character of Dr Durand is so well constructed that his behaviour takes on quite a different flavour when considered in retrospect after the film is over. On first viewing, he seems to be little more than the dedicated scientist, a little too focused on his work perhaps and neglectful of personal relationships as a consequence, but certainly not ill-intentioned or badly misguided. His obsession is also understandable to an extent. He’s been working on his discovery for years with no peer recognition and unreliable financing. He also feels unable to marry Sologne until he has achieved success.

Initially, the inventor is mainly concerned with the congratulations of colleagues and the recognition establishment. It’s this success alone that he toasts with Sologne and Bernard; all three seem blissfully unaware of how such knowledge might impact an individual. General practitioner Bernard soon begins to entertain misgivings, but Dauphin is too busy riding the crest of a wave to listen. Pottier cleverly keeps things light at this stage, focusing on a sickly rich man who gets the good news that he has another 60 years to live. However, the notion of all that time remaining becomes depressing, and he clumsily attempts suicide. And, of course, fails. It’s sly, black humour and, it’s to the filmmaker’s credit that it works without distracting from the wider story.

Meanwhile, Dauphin has started to make some serious money but, more importantly, is getting off on his machine’s influence over people’s lives. Early in the film, there’s a scene where he makes a remark comparing his invention to God, but it’s played in such a throwaway fashion as not to raise an obvious red flag. Dauphin’s performance is also so subtle that it’s only much later that we realise his total absence of empathy and borderline sociopathic personality. It’s also a nice touch that his attitude has influenced Solange, who only rediscovers her humanity when assisting Bernard with caring for an injured child. Again, the contrast between the scientist and the family doctor is nicely delineated; they are both men of science with the stated intention of helping humanity, but one is missing his soul.

The infallibility of Dauphin’s machine also raises some interesting questions. It doesn’t just predict death due to disease and poor health, but also in cases of accident and murder. Ironically, these predictions would probably have more credibility if they emerged from a supernatural source rather than a scientific one. As it is, Dauphin’s invention indicates that all human action is predestined, and free will is an illusion. Sensibly, the film sidesteps this thorny philosophical question and leaves such considerations to the audience.

There are also several other interesting, if not so significant, things to consider. One of these revolves around the opening scene where Dauphin tries to persuade the prostitute to be his first test subject, and she runs out of the laboratory. At first glance, it seems to be little more than an introduction to the story until you ask an important question. If the streetwalker had taken the test, how exactly was Dauphin going to verify the results? Keep tabs on her for however long it took until she met her maker? Weeks, months, years, perhaps? The burglar then provides that necessary verification, which is convenient, and later, he gets permission to test a condemned prisoner on death row. But how was he going to get that confirmation from the prostitute?

Pottier was born in Austro-Hungary but spent his entire professional filmmaking career in France. Despite relative obscurity outside his adopted country, some other titles in his filmography bear examination. Romantic comedy ‘Fanfare of Love/Fanfare d’amour’ (1935) provided the story framework for Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot (1959) and ‘Meurtres’ (1950) was an early drama concerning the right to die. One of his final projects was ‘David and Goliath (1960) with Orson Welles, although, unsurprisingly, Welles insisted on directing his own scenes.

Screenwriter Clouzot went on to an award-winning writing and directing career, delivering acknowledged classics ‘The Wages of Fear/Le salaire de la peur’ (1953) and the massively influential thriller ‘Les Diaboliques’ (1955). Heading the other way was von Stroheim, a famous director from the silent days. His legendary perfectionism and refusal to compromise famously resulted in an alleged 5-hour cut of his film ‘Greed’ (1924), which MGM edited against his wishes. After ‘Queen Kelly’ (1932) went twice over budget with no end to filming in sight, he was fired, and his directorial career was all but over. Instead, he parlayed his notoriously formidable presence into a second career as a noted character actor, most famously appearing as Gloria Swanson’s butler in the award-winning classic ‘Sunset Blvd.’ (1950). Ironically, it had been Swanson, as the star and producer, who had fired him from ‘Queen Kelly’ (1932) almost two decades earlier.

An intelligent, unusual science-fiction drama that lingers long after the final fadeout.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Island of Lost Souls (1932)‘Not to spill blood, that is the law. Are we not men?’

A cargo ship rescues a man adrift on a raft in the sea, but the Captain arranges to put him ashore on a remote island where a scientist is carrying out secret experiments. Suspicious of his host, the young man attempts to escape, but finds the jungle filled with strange, frightening creatures, part human, part beast…

Major studio adaptation of HG Wells’ classic novel ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ which served to hammer another nail into the Hollywood science-fiction coffin, and relegate it to serials and the occasional low-budget production for almost the next 20 years. Although the production code had yet to censor Tinseltown’s output, its dark themes and content did not sit well with either critics or audiences of the time, and the film flopped. However, it’s come to be judged far more favourably in recent years and is now generally highly regarded.

Shipwreck survivor Edward Parker (Richard Arlen) is plucked from the sea by a freighter sailing to a small, uncharted island. It’s carrying a cargo of live animals under the supervision of a Montgomery (Arthur Hohl) and crewed by the ugliest bunch of sailors who were ever shanghaied from a backstreet waterfront dive. In point of fact, they look barely human. Despite that, Arlen intervenes when the drunken Captain (Stanley Fields) strikes one of them to the deck. Later on, when Hohl and the animals are offloaded, Fields has Arlen thrown into their boat as revenge. As Fields sails away laughing, our hero is left to the dubious hospitality of Dr Moreau, played by Charles Laughton.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘No, I don’t want my drive repaved, nor do I want to buy Conservatory.’

It’s not long before Arlen realises that there’s a bad smell in paradise, of course, and that the stench is coming from Laughton’s lab, known locally as ‘The House of Pain.’ If you’re even vaguely familiar with the source material, you’ll know what Laughton is up to; turning animals into people with experiments informed by vivisection. His crowning glory is The Panther Woman (Kathleen Burke), who he presents to Arlen as a native islander, hoping that the two will mate. When Arlen’s fiance (Leila Hyams) turns up later on looking for him, Laughton plans to mate her with one of his beast-men instead, the expression on his face giving the definite impression that he’ll have a ringside seat when it happens. Purely for scientific purposes, of course.

Out in the jungle, Laughton’s previous experiments are living in a loose colony, headed up by the Sayer of The Law (Bela Lugosi). Unfortunately, the horror icon is dreadfully under-used, even if he does get to intone the famous ‘Are We Not Men?’ dialogue. The fact is that he only joined the picture for a few days after Laughton had completed all his scenes, their appearance in the same scene courtesy of an editor’s post-production work. Lugosi does get some great close-up’s though, which showcase the intensity he brought to his performance. It’s just a crying shame he’s not given more to do. Similarly, there are some wonderful production stills of the beast-man makeups by Wally Westmore and yes, what we do see is quite impressive, but we’re don’t see nearly enough of them, with a lot of the footage of the creatures shot in semi-darkness.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘Look, I know we’re back in Lockdown, but I want to get my haircut.’

Paramount was looking to cash in on the sudden success of so-called fright pictures and had already scored big with ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ (1931) which brought an Academy Award for star Frederic March. However, they rather overstepped the mark with this film, which is good news for us but was bad news for the studio. The overt themes of bestiality, sadism, torture and a man trying to play god (Laughton even utters a similar line to the famous one Colin Clive shouts out in ‘Frankenstein’) pretty much ensured the film was going to run into serious censorship problems. It was banned in 14 states in America and outright in the UK until 1958 when it was only issued heavily cut. All references to Moreau having created the beast-men were removed, which must have made it a confusing experience for the audience.

Part of the problem for the censors was Laughton. He is just too damned good as Moreau, outwardly a gentleman but with every smirk and gesture suggesting a barely suppressed depravity. It’s a masterclass in performance as a man whose appetites and work are dangerously intertwined to the point of all-consuming obsession. None of the other cast members gets much of a look-in. However, it’s worth mentioning that Hohl makes a lot out of his role as Laughton’s alcoholic assistant, providing subtle, understated support.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘It’s first right past the House of Pain, you can’t miss it.’

The studio wanted a complete unknown for the Panther Woman and ran a nationwide campaign to find her that received around 60,000 entries. They picked Kathleen Burke, who was working as a dental assistant at the time, although it was less publicised that she had already acted on the stage and the radio. She does give an interesting, off-centre performance, although how much of that was intentional, and how much down to inexperience is unclear. She never escaped the shadow of the Panther Woman and her brief screen career only featured one other notable appearance, as the second female lead in the Lionel Atwill shocker ‘Murders In The Zoo’ (1933).

Apart from this film, director Erle C Kenton is best known for three of the final films in Universal’s ‘Frankenstein’ saga. Although it would have been interesting to see what a more visionary director would have brought to the table with this material, he does deliver a sharp, pacy film with plenty of energy. Of course, that’s to be admired but, at a brief 70 minutes, a longer running time could have served to flesh out the characters a little and provide more story development. It would also have had been good to get more of Karl Struss’ excellent black and white photography and see more of the beast-men.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

‘Like careful with the threads, man.’

Still, despite a few flaws, this remains quite easily the best version of Wells’ tale. The 1976 remake with Burt Lancaster was bland, and the 1996 version was a disaster. The unprofessional behaviour of some of its cast, and original director Richard Stanley’s inexperience with handling a big studio picture making for the worst combination possible. The uncredited version ‘Terror Is A Man’ (1959) is probably the best alternative take on the material, but it’s not really in the same league as this film.

A slick, exciting picture driven by a powerhouse performance by its star, Charles Laughton. A longer running time might have taken it to the highest level, but it’s still a high-quality effort.

Rip Roaring Riley/The Mystery of Diamond Island (1935)

Rip Roaring Riley/The Mystery of Diamond Island (1935)‘You mean the fellow who was drummed out of the army for being mixed up in that chemical warfare scandal?’

Top athlete and all-round he-man, Rip Roaring Riley also works undercover as a crack government secret agent. When rumours surface of a notorious villain experimenting on a remote island with poison gas, he’s sent in to deal with the situation…

Independent, low-budget programmer from Puritan Pictures that ticks many of the same boxes as the movie serials produced by the larger studios of the time, but with much less success. Who are our characters? The handsome square-jawed hero who is good with his fists, the naive but game female lead and the ruthless bad guy who will stop at nothing, of course. What are they all trying to do? Get hold of the secret weapon ‘that must not fall into the wrong hands.’ Unfortunately, there’s a distinct lack of production value here, and that means no significant stunts or big set pieces, even ones re-used from other films, although we do get some riveting stock footage of navy radio operators!

Disgraced military man, Major Gray (Grant Withers) has gone into business for himself; convincing top scientist Professor Baker (John Crowell) that he’s developing his lethal gas for the US government, rather than for sale to the highest bidder. The duo have set up shop on the otherwise uninhabited Diamond Island, along with Withers’ small gang of goons and Cowell’s daughter Anne (Marion Burns). She’s not keen on the whole business and finds Withers vaguely repellent, although, as far as we know, he hasn’t been making any moves on her. But he is an utter cad so I wouldn’t put it past him.

Rip Roaring Riley/The Mystery of Diamond Island (1935)

Villains were always difficult to spot in the 1930s

These shenanigans have come to the attention of American intelligence, so Chief Martin (Wilfred Lucas) calls in Rip Roaring Riley (Lloyd Hughes). Despite being fully aware of the gravity of the situation, rather than sending in a task force, the best option is to give the job to just one man and Hughes is that man. Also, there’s absolutely no point in giving him a decent cover story, a fake identity, or any detailed instructions at all. Just grab a boat, get him some fishing rods as an excuse to be out on the water and point him in the general direction of the island. He can just wing it. Hughes doesn’t seem to mind, though. It’s the 1930s, he’s a hero, and it’s all a bit of a lark really.

Leaving to get to the boat, Hughes is chased and captured by some thugs in hats who don’t shave, but he escapes, his double executing the only serious stunt work in the film; transferring from a moving car to a truck carrying planks of wood. Who these goons are is never really explained, because if they are working for Withers, then how come he doesn’t know who our hero is when he arrives at the island later on?

Rip Roaring Riley/The Mystery of Diamond Island (1935)

Diamond Island needed to rethink their tourist policy…

Yes, after faking an accident with his boat, Hughes gets plucked from the water by Burns while Withers and his cronies are less than enthusiastic about performing a rescue. Once on the island, it turns out that Hughes was once Cowell’s star pupil at college (is there anything this guy isn’t good at?) and the battle lines with Withers are drawn. The big bad isn’t buying Hughes’ (almost non-existent) cover story for a minute and instructs bumbling henchmen Bruno (Kit Guard) and Sparko (Eddie Gibbon) to keep an eye on him and do the necessary if required.

Meantime, Cowell and Withers don chemical suits and test the poison gas just off the beach. It’s not a particularly impressive scene; but it’s about the best the film has to offer. Unfortunately, there is no musical soundtrack to any of these events and, without accompaniment, a lot of the action scenes and bouts of fisticuffs come over as seriously lifeless, flat and poorly choreographed.

Rip Roaring Riley/The Mystery of Diamond Island (1935)

‘Fancy a cold one?’

Yes, this is pretty low-rent stuff, with the only spark of creativity on offer being supplied by the character of Withers’ houseboy, Lun (Joe Hirakawa). He may be a Chinese agent, but he wants to destroy Cowell’s weapon, rather than snatch it for his own government, which makes for a nice change. Unfortunately, far too much running time is allotted to the hilarious antics of Guard and Gibbon. They are onscreen almost as much as our hero! Still, their tired schtick does help to pad out the massive 53-minute running time!

Director Elmer Clifton wielded the megaphone on almost 100 films, most of them being bottom of the barrel Westerns with titles like ‘Swing, Cowboy, Swing’ (1946), ‘The Stranger from Arizona’ (1948) and several starring Tex Ritter such as ‘Raiders of the Frontier’ (1944). He did leave the saddle on occasion, though, and was behind shambolic early movie serial ‘The Secret of Treasure Island’ (1935), which also featured Withers as the villain. He returned to chapterplays almost a decade later to split duties with John English on the first screen appearance of well-known crime fighter and future Avenger ‘Captain America’ (1944).

An unremarkable, cheap programmer that shares a good deal of DNA with the movie serials of the time, but without the necessary dash or outlandish qualities which make those still an enjoyable diversion today.

An Invisible Man Goes Through The City/Ein Unsichtbarer Geht Durch die Stadt (1933)

An Invisible Man Goes Through The City:Ein Unsichtbarer Geht Durch die Stadt (1933)‘We’ve never guzzled as posh as in your place.’

A hotshot taxi driver finds a machine finds an invisibility machine in the back of his cab after his fare is chased off by the police. Using his new skill set, he rigs a race at the track so he can clean up with the bookies. But his new-found wealth brings its own problems…

Good-natured invisibility comedy film from writer-director and star Harry Piel. It’s probably no coincidence that this German film was produced at the same time as James Whale’s ‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) and Piel managed to get it into local cinemas ahead of the Universal classic.

The handsome and dashing Harry (Piel, of course) is the fastest cab driver on the streets of Berlin but is still having problems making ends meet. He lives in a small apartment with friend Fritz (Fritz Odemar) and certainly doesn’t have the cash to help prospective love interest Annie (Annemarie Sörensen). He does bring customers to the door of her florists as often as possible, but she is facing eviction along with her mother (Olga Limburg).

One night he picks up a customer on the run from the police and winds up in possession of the man’s left luggage. This contains a machine that can make him invisible, along with any object that he picks up. Sensing the ‘get rich quick’ possibilities, he uses it (with a rattle) to startle horses at the track and ensure a long shot wins. Collecting his ill-gotten gains, he buys a flash motor and a big house, but his offers to help Sörensen are rebuffed. She’s a good girl and doesn’t believe that he’s come by his new wealth honestly. Justifiably miffed by her lack of trust, he takes up with actress, and regular passenger, Lissy Arna instead.

An Invisible Man Goes Through The City:Ein Unsichtbarer Geht Durch die Stadt (1933)

‘You’re not going out dressed like that, are you?’

Although this is an efficient and mildly enjoyable opening, what follows is less satisfactory. Moral lessons about the evils and pitfalls of wealth are always a bit hard to stomach when delivered by successful filmmakers with privileged lifestyles. Piel had been in the film business for about 20 years by this point and had enjoyed a string of hit films, so crying in his beer on-screen about ‘hangers on’ and ‘people taking advantage’ isn’t likely to solicit much sympathy from a more sophisticated, modern-day audience.

In the story, of course, Piel the character sees the error of his ways when the device is stolen. Odemar is sick of being treated as a servant by his former best friend, and lifts the gizmo, carrying out a bank robbery and fleeing in a zeppelin. The twist ending that follows is predictable and tiresome but may have been a surprise to the audience of the time.

An Invisible Man Goes Through The City:Ein Unsichtbarer Geht Durch die Stadt (1933)

The world’s first Selfie camera was a little on the bulky side…

What does sink the movie to some extent at least is its 104-minute length. Trimming of individual scenes would have helped to tighten the picture and improved the pace no end. The invisibility SFX are also basic, to say the least. Piel just stops the camera, walks out of the frame and starts it again, although we do see some banknotes dissolving in front of our eyes. On the other hand, for the early scenes of the cab racing around Berlin, Piel straps the camera low down to the front of his car. This not only effectively conveys the speed of travel, but also provides a semi-documentary glimpse at the streets of the city before the war.

Piel earned the nickname ‘Dynamite Director’ due to the explosive climaxes of some of his films, and enjoyed a reputation for doing all his own stunts in the action sequences. In reality, Piel’s explosions were real-life demolitions carried out by a friend who would invite him to film them, and, much in the manner of Harry Houdini’s screen career, his most dangerous stunts were carried out by a stand-in, at least in his early pictures. However, it’s definitely Piel himself clinging onto the back of a speeding motor car here, and dangling from a rope trailed by the airship at the finish.

An Invisible Man Goes Through The City:Ein Unsichtbarer Geht Durch die Stadt (1933)

‘I’ll take 2-1 on the Allies.’

1933 was a pivotal year for Piel. It was the year that he joined the National Socialist Party and became a patron member of the SS. This meant that he avoided active service with Hitler’s shock troops, but contributed financially. Curiously enough, Piel directed ‘Der Herr der Welt/Master of the World’ (1934) soon afterwards. This early science-fiction film depicted the efforts of a mad scientist to take over the world with his army of robots. Whether this was his underhanded way of criticising the Nazi regime is unrecorded, and I can find no information regarding any problems he had with the authorities as a result of its production. He did fall foul of the party later on, though, when his adventure ‘Panik’ (1943) was banned for showing that German cities were vulnerable to attacks from the air. After the war, Piel was arrested by the allies and banned from working until 1949. His career never recovered, and he retired from the business in 1960.

A mildly entertaining comedy with a few points to make about the nobility of the working man that you might find a little hard to swallow. Especially as they come from a rich man who gave money to the Nazis.

Men Must Fight (1933)

Men Must Fight (1933)‘War in twenty-four hours, war in five minutes, war in my hat!’

A nurse and an American flyer fall in love on the front lines of the first world war, but he is killed and she is left with their baby. An old suitor marries her but, by 1940, the war drums are rumbling again and the family are caught up in both the political and personal ramifications of the threatened conflict…

Unusual slice of 1930s prophetic Science-Fiction that qualifies for the label simply because the majority of the events depicted are set seven years into the future. And you have to concede that, at least in some ways, it’s a fairly accurate prediction of what was to come. The film opens in the past, on the allied front in France. Frightfully proper British nurse Diana Wynyard has fallen for the charms of pre-stardom Yank aviator Robert Young, and the two have indulged in relations without the benefit of matrimony. ln pre-code Hollywood (i.e. before the censorship crack down that began around 1937), that was ok so long as you didn’t show anything more than a couple getting ready to go out on the morning after.

Men Must Fight (1933)

‘War? But I’ve got a polo match before tiffin!’

So, when Wynyard’s left in the family way after Young cracks up on his first mission, at least we are spared any tiresome moralising about her situation. Still, she does get hitched almost immediately to old flame Edward Seward (Lewis Stone) so that the new baby can have a family name. And what a name it proves to be! Stone rises from the military ranks to be the U.S. Secretary of State; advocating world peace, together with the politically active Wynyard.

By now, ‘their’ son has grown up to be nothing but a young gadabout (Phillip Holmes) who doesn’t take life very seriously but strongly supports his mother’s pacifism. When an assassination (apparently carried out by Bolsheviks) fans the flames of war, public opinion turns strongly in favour of military action. Stone abandons his peaceful principles almost at once (because ‘Men Must Fight’ after all) but Wynyard sticks to her guns, even after her peace rally is attacked by protestors and their family home is threatened by a mob.

This is an interesting film in many ways, although it should be acknowledged that few of them have anything to do with its entertainment value. This is a dry, talky piece with the only real action occurring with some early well-realised flying scenes and the climactic bombing raid on New York, which is sporadically impressive. No, this is a film about ‘issues’ and it makes no bones about it. After losing the love of her life in the Great War, Wynyard is determined not to lose her son in the same way and is just as motivated to ensure that no other mother goes through such a trauma.

The film does push her pacifist viewpoint quite strongly, and laudable though that is, the lack of a reasoned, contrasting opinion does harm the film somewhat. For a start, we never really find out anything about the political situation, so it’s impossible to judge if the rush to war is justified or not. Instead, we’re just presented with an unthinking, flag-waving mob and Stone’s stiff-shirt statesman, all of whom seem determined to sacrifice anything (and anyone) to maintain their national honour. Also, there’s no discussion of the economic and strategic benefits that the conflict may give to the winners, factors which are almost always the primary motivators behind any armed conflict in the modern world.

Men Must Fight (1933)

‘Oh, Wodger, I know it’s 1940, but must you…’

However, there are some intriguing, if rather dated, gender politics, which are hinted at in the film’s title. The final scenes strongly suggest that women would never sanction such foolishness and would provide more measured and level-headed leadership than their aggressive male counterparts. It’s a fine notion, but naive and ill-informed as events have subsequently proved. The United Kingdom has now had two female Prime Ministers, both of whom exhibited zero empathy for others, and actively sought to target and victimise the disadvantaged and under-privileged in British society.

lnevitably, the film is a little creaky when viewed today. Wynyard is probably the worst offender, her performance far too mannered, especially in scenes of strong emotional conflict. This was perhaps inevitable given her theatrical roots and the fact that it was less than a year since she had made her screen debut in Irving Thalberg’s controversial production of ‘Rasputin, The Mad Monk’ (1932). Similarly, Holmes is ineffective as her son, perhaps because the script initially presents him as an upper-class twit, then as a seriously conflicted ‘angry young man’, and finally as a gung-ho ‘Roger Ramjet’ who cheerfully abandons all his apparent deeply-held beliefs. It would have taken a far better actor (and far better writing) to make that transformation convincing over the brief 75-minute running time.

Somewhat thought-provoking but crucially flawed in the presentation of its central argument. An interesting curiosity from a bygone age.

Air Hawks (1935)

Air Hawks (1935)‘R is for Rabbit whose ears are quite long…’

A small independent aviation outfit takes on a well-established corporate airline in a contest to win a valuable mail contract. Unfortunately, the big boys decide to play dirty and employ the services of a brilliant but unscrupulous scientist whose latest invention is a ray that can knock planes out of the sky…

Plucky war veteran Ralph Bellamy goes toe-to-toe against the world of big business, armed with little more than his ingenuity, a stout heart and a team of his old air force buddies. Running a small airline is a risky venture, but he’s managed to build up quite a successful company, and he’s ready to step up to the next level. Unfortunately, he needs capital and bank manager Wyrley Birch thinks he should sell out to well-established rival Robert Middlemass. But Bellamy refuses and the fight for the valuable contract is on. Then Bellamy’s small fleet start to light up like roman candles on the 4th of July…

In times of the Great Depression, the notion of the little man ‘making good against all odds’ was all the rage in Hollywood. Understandably, it was what the public wanted to see, and tying that to the hot topic of aviation was pretty much a no-brainer. The way this picture differs from others of its kind is in the introduction of the fantastical element of a ‘death ray’. This was already a staple of early movie serials (as was the master villain with the secret identity, which we also get here) but, for the most part, these elements are presented here in a very matter of fact way by director Alfred S Rogell.

Air Hawks (1935)

‘…and this is how we will expose the vampire…’

The one exception to this more ‘grounded’ approach (sorry, I couldn’t resist) is an early scene where crooked casino owner Douglas Dumbrille introduces Middlemass to our renegade genius in his ‘Frankenstein’ lab beneath an abandoned lodge house. Rather brilliantly, he turns out to be played by Universal veteran character actor Edward Van Sloan, who staked Bela Lugosi in ‘Dracula’ (1931) and was one of Karloff’s first victims in the above referenced ‘Frankenstein’ (1931). Unfortunately, this film gives him very little to do.

Instead, it’s a predictable mixture of half-baked thrills and romance. Bellamy divides his screen time between singer Taia Birell (little realising that her boss Dumbrille is tied up with Middlemiss) and dealing with the consequences of the accidents that start to plague his airline. One of these involves flyer Pat Flaherty, whose fate is sealed not so much by Van Sloan’s death ray as the fact that early on we are introduced to his young wife and precocious little daughter. Other events also develop on entirely predictable lines, but it’s an efficient production and delivered at a brisk, even pace. However, some of the plane crashes do look very much like actual accident footage, something that would leave a bad taste in the mouth if included in a film today.

But probably the most remarkable aspect of the film today is the brief appearance of real life aviator Wiley Post, who plays himself and is third-billed. He was certainly no actor, but he was one of the most famous flyers of his day, breaking altitude, endurance and world speed records, as well as being partially responsible for the invention of the first high-altitude pressure suit. His achievements were all the more remarkable as he had no depth perception, having lost an eye in an oilfield accident before he became a pilot. Unfortunately, Post was no aeronautical engineer and his decision to modify his personal ride by adding wings and components from other planes proved a tragic mistake. Whilst on holiday in Alaska with humourist and film star Will Rogers, the two died instantly when Post’s nose-heavy plane crashed on take-off from a small lake. It was less than 2 months after this film debuted in movie houses.

Air Hawks (1935)

‘I said I wanted the extra sprinkles, you idiot…’

Of course, Bellamy went onto a very long career in the movies, but the same cannot be said of the other principals involved. Birell had been brought over from Romania as another ‘new Garbo’ but faded quickly into obscurity, despite a seemingly good command of English and a decent performance here. Director Rogell’s subsequent career included such unforgettable vehicles as ‘Butch Minds The Baby’ (1942), ‘Hats Off To Rhythm’ (1946) and ‘Northwest Stampede’ (1948).

It’s always good to see Van Sloan (even briefly), and this is a solid enough effort. But it offers nothing new and is stubbornly unremarkable.

End of the World/La Fin Du Monde (1931)

La Fin Du Monde (1931)‘Please summon our mother to the asylum.’

Disgusted by the modern world, a famous astronomer retires to an observatory in the frozen wastes. He is forced to reconnect with society when he discovers a comet on a collision course for Earth. The news causes massive panic, and unscrupulous financiers seek to use the situation to their own advantage…

Abel Gance was a highly successful French filmmaker of the 1920s, whose modern reputation rests largely on silent epic ‘Napoleon’ (1927), a film so vast in scope that it required special projection equipment and a custom-made screen to show it. Nowadays, it’s a recognised classic, partly due to the director’s use of close ups and dolly shots; common film grammar now, of course, but almost unknown in the silent era. He even shot some scenes in colour and 3-D, although they were discarded later. Not surprisingly, the special screening arrangements prevented any commercial success on the continent and, on release in America, it was cut down considerably from its original running time of over 5 hours(!) and flopped. Hard. The upshot of all this was that, by the early 1930s, Gance no longer had the creative freedom he had enjoyed in his heyday, and that may go to explain this well-meaning but rather lifeless project.

This tale of the coming apocalypse focuses on the Novalik brothers; Martial (Victor Francen), a Nobel-prize winning stargazer and Jean (played by Gance himself) an aesthete and philosopher. Martial has achieved world renown but Jean prefers to live anonymously in poverty. He rejects the love of pretty blonde society gal Genevieve (Colette Darfeuil) because he knows that he is ‘born to suffer’ on behalf of mankind; something that provokes much staring off into the distance while looking vaguely constipated. Unfortunately, Darfeuil gets into the crosshairs of dastardly arms manufacturer Schomberg (Samson Fainsilber).

This is a curious, and rather dated story. On the plus side, Gance does not skimp on the concluding spectacle, and the mendacious behaviour of the authorities and big business ring all too true. Where the film fails is in the personal stories of its main protagonists. The self-sacrificing Jean is a ridiculously messianic figure; playing Jesus on the cross in a passion play, lying on his sick bed surrounded by white doves, and being stoned in the street when he tries to help a child. The fact that the director chose to cast himself in the role is an interesting choice, to say the least!

‘I say, Cecily’s garden parties are really wizard, what!’

Elsewhere, the other main characters are one note; Francen the dedicated scientist, Fainsilber the dedicated capitalist, but there is one notable exception: Darfeuil’s apparent heroine. Hers is a problematic role. At first, she is dedicated to Gance’s martyr-in-waiting, vowing to wait for him even after he rejects her. Shortly after that, though, she’s flirting with Fainsilber at ritzy parties, much to the joy of her ambitious father (Jean D’Yd).

After one such encounter, he forces himself on her, and her father advocates she marry him to save the family from being disgraced! Not surprisingly, she runs away to join Team Francen and help in their efforts to get the word out about the upcoming Armageddon and prepare a new world for whoever might survive. This decision is reinforced by a vision of Gance on the cross. However, she soon gets bored with all that pesky office work, and runs back to rapist Fainsilber instead! Then she betrays him to Francen as the comet approaches! Women, eh? Just can’t make up their minds!

What also won’t sit too well with a modern audience is the slow pacing and some of the performances, which are ridiculously melodramatic at times. Similarly, some of Gance’s filmmaking techniques, although highly innovative at the time, now appear a little forced and crude. The climactic scenes are also of their time; there’s lots of drinking as the final hours approach but not nearly as much fornication as you would expect. Still, it was 1931, l suppose.

A seriously dated spectacle, with undoubted historical value but offering little in the way of entertainment.

Six Hours To Live (1932)

Six Hours To Live (1932)‘Now, my precious ray! More precious than all the radium in existence!’

A diplomat is murdered after opposing the signing of a trade treaty. A visiting professor brings him back to life with his scientific apparatus, but the effects only last six hours. In that time, he must find his killer and stop the treaty being ratified.

Curious early ‘talkie’ undoubtedly influenced by the success of the juggernaut that was Universal Studio’s ‘Frankenstein’ (1931). Warner Baxter is the Ambassador for Sylvaria, a small country that seems to be at the mercy of the big powers at the international conference table. Luckily, the treaty in question (we never get any specifics) needs a unanimous vote to get through and Baxter won’t sign. His deputy seems perfectly willing to sign it, though, and, by all accounts (apart from Baxters’ of course), agreement will usher in a new wave of prosperity for the entire world. As a result, the large crowd gathered outside the conference centre isn’t too keen on our handsome hero either. No great surprise when he’s mysteriously murdered then.

Then the film takes a step right into left field. Baxter has been staying with the aristocratic von Strum family, and he and their daughter (Miriam Jordan) have fallen in love. Luckily one of the other houseguests is scientist George F Marion who just happens to have his portable resurrection machine handy. He’s only tried it on rabbits before, so is keen to take a chance on bringing Baxter back, courtesy of a few ‘Frankenstein’ gadgets. The operation is a success and Baxter embarks on his six hour odyssey. And this is where the film gets even stranger. After coming back from the dead, Baxter knows everything, so there’s no need to solve his own murder, and strolling in at the last moment to stop the treaty being signed and deal with the killer is not a problem. Instead, we get him crashing his car after a high speed jaunt through the city, and giving money to prostitute lrene Ware and flower girl Marilyn Harris.

Six Hours To Live (1932)

‘You’re a lot better looking than my last boyfriend…’

Pleasingly, both actresses are highly appropriate casting. Ware’s later career saw her dance ‘The Spirit of Poe’ and be the object of Bela Lugosi’s manic obsession in classic Edgar Allan Poe chiller ‘The Raven’ (1935). Even better, Harris had already ensured her place in the horror pantheon. Yes, she was the girl who picked flowers by the lake with Karloff’s Monster in – you guessed it – ‘Frankenstein’ (1931)!

Director William Dieterle was a veteran of silent cinema, beginning in his native Germany. On this evidence, he found the transition to Hollywood and the new ‘talking’ medium a little difficult at first. Many sequences are rather stilted, and the performers overly mannered. Be that as it may, Dieterle soon mastered the form, delivering hits like ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (1935), ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ (1937) and ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ (1941). He also gave us the definitive version of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1939) with Charles Laughton. Here he manages a couple of good camera setups in the resurrection sequence and a later dinner party, which showed ample evidence of his experience and talent.

Baxter was a regular leading man in the 1930’s, starring in big hits including ’42nd Street’ (1932) and ‘The Prisoner of Shark Island’ (1936) for director John Ford. Elsewhere in the cast we have John Boles playing Jordan’s old suitor, playing essentially exactly the same ‘third wheel’ here as he was to Colin Clive and Valerie Hobson’s Henry and Elizabeth in – yes! – ‘Frankenstein’ (1931).

Another interesting point is the nature of the international talks that inform the action. Originally, these were going to be about disarmament but this was changed to something far less specific as the studio did not want the public to get the impression that politicians were more interested in graft than the peace process (perish the thought!)

A strange little subject that never remotely convinces but is an interesting product of a time before the heavy hand of the 1930s censorship code came down on Hollywood studios.

The House of Secrets (1936)

House of Secrets (1936)‘Hey, Jumpy! We found the other half of that crippled gam.’

An American adventurer in London inherits a title from a distant English relation. He visits his new home but is driven off by its mysterious occupants, who seem to have the protection of the British Government and the Chief Commissioner of Scotland Yard…

Fairly feeble ‘Old Dark House’ type mystery, which features Leslie Fenton as our Yank on this side of the pond, who becomes increasingly frustrated in his efforts to penetrate the mysteries of ‘The Hawk’s Nest’ despite being the legal owner of the crumbling pile. The fact that ‘the gang’ in possession of his ancestral home includes blonde Muriel Evans, who he’d saved from the inappropriate attentions of a fellow passenger on the boat over from Calais, only increases his determination to get to the bottom of things. Luckily, his best friend (Sidney Blackmer) is an American detective in pursuit of a murder suspect and offers to help.

This is a fairly typical, low-budget independent production of its era, with the requisite bouts of unconvincing fisticuffs, a sinister butler, a hidden treasure and some (very) vague touches of science fiction. Proceedings are relentlessly talky in between the brief ‘action’ scenes, and the inclusion of a trio of Chicago gangsters is hopelessly contrived. In fact, it’s just a stew of underdeveloped story elements, none of which are strong enough to carry a film on their own, even one just over an hour long. Crucially, the film builds up no head of steam on its way to its underwhelming climax and neither the romantic or comedic aspects are nearly strong enough to prop it up.

This was a production of Chesterfield Films, and directed by Roland D Reed, a man who went onto form his own company and give us TV’s ‘Rocky Jones, Space Ranger’ two decades later. Unfortunately, his camera is almost completely static here; even in dialogue scenes, and this does not assist a script that is seriously dull and performances that are professional, but unremarkable. The cast included two actors who went onto become veterans of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce ‘Sherlock Holmes’ series; Holmes Herbert (as the Home Secretary) and Olaf Hytten (in a typical unbilled bit).

House of Secrets (1936)

‘Sssh! If we keep quiet, the director might actually move the camera…’

Fenton was born in England, but emigrated to the U.S. as a young child. His career began in silent pictures and, by the time talkies arrived, he’d worked his way up to supporting roles opposite James Cagney in ‘The Public Enemy’ (1931) and Spencer Tracy in ‘Boys Town’ (1937). Returning to the old country to assist the war effort, he became a British Commando and was seriously wounded on a mission on the French coast in 1942. After the war, he returned to Hollywood, moving behind the camera to direct over 20 pictures, most notably ‘Saigon’ (1948) with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, and ‘The Streets of Laredo’ (1949) which starred a young William Holden.

Evans pitched her trade in the b-movie arena, mostly Westerns, and this included an appearance starring with John Wayne in ‘King of the Pecos’ (1936), three years before John Ford made him a star in ‘Stagecoach’ (1939). Blackmer became a familiar face in supporting roles on both the big and small screens over half a century, but is most recognisable now as the coven leader in Roman Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ (1968).

A dreary, unremarkable programmer that’s probably best forgotten.