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An Infectiously Optimistic Tale of One Inventor's Dream for the Future
The early years of film are, for me, yet still a vast untapped resource of entertainment. I've seen a dozen or so of Chaplin's silent films, I've seen a couple of the classic Universal monster movies, and I've watched some of the classics (e.g. CASABLANCA), but the majority of those first few decades of film entertainment are almost completely unknown to me. So it's always a nice surprise when I get the opportunity to watch one I've never heard of and find it to be a fun, if ultimately forgettable, little romp. Such is the case with TRAPPED BY TELEVISION from 1936. It's a heart-warming, optimistic story in the world of science where Fred Dennis (Lyle Talbot) is an inventor who has nearly perfected a new form of television broadcast. He is putting the finishing touches on a system that will sent sound and images wirelessly across distances from the camera directly to the receiver unit. He almost hits a snag when a debt collection agency sends out an agent to collect on money owed for some of Dennis's equipment. But it just so happens that Rocky (Nat Pendleton), the collection agent, loves the idea of science; as he's overly fond of reminding people, it's his hobby. So instead of busting Dennis's kneecaps and taking the machinery back, the two of them become quick friends and partners, taking the invention to struggling investor Bobby Blake (Mary Astor) for financial aid. Bobby, seemingly more interested in Dennis than his television invention, agrees to help him shop it around and uses her connections to shop it to the Paragon Broadcasting Company, where its board members are contemplating entering the world of broadcast television. But another shady group of men have their eye on Paragon's investment funds and have no problem busting cathode ray tubes or faces to keep their plan in motion.
After watching TRAPPED BY TELEVISION, my first impression was just how happy a film it was. It's just so unapologetically optimistic and its characters are so lovable that you want them to succeed. The four main characters Dennis, Rocky, Bobby, and Mae (Bobby's personal assistant and best friend, played by Joyce Compton) are in this together with everything to lose. Dennis is obviously in dire times if he's got debt collectors sending hired muscle to wring the money out of him. Bobby and Mae are on the verge of poverty with her investment company going broke after a series of poor decisions (that automatic potato-peeler just didn't take off as she'd expected). Rocky's really the only one here with nothing to lose except his new best friend and his chance to be a scientist by proxy. They're all on the way to the poorhouse but they've got the spunk to keep going in search of their next big accomplishment. I loved all of them, especially the simple-minded Rocky. His enthusiasm for science and Dennis's project is contagious and I couldn't help but chuckle with the running gag of his interactions with Dennis's flustered landlady. When she discovers Rocky works for a debt-collector, she asks him to muscle the overdue rent out of Dennis while he's at it; he puts her fears to rest with a wink and a wag of his finger, over and over again, and it works every time. A little gesture of "don't you worry none, I've got this " It's minor and it's stupid but I loved it.
The struggle of perfecting the invention and getting the chance to present it to Paragon would've been enough of a plot to carry the movie because, like I said, the characters are enjoyable enough. But we've still got the added dilemma of some men hoping to manipulate Paragon into paying for their radio services. There's something about missing radio technicians and one of the Paragon board members in on the scheme. Anyway, it gives the film a little bit of a gangster vibe and some drama for the final act. Maybe unnecessary but it didn't hurt anything. The main problem with a quick-and- easy bit of fun like TRAPPED BY TELEVISION is that it's not all that memorable. There's nothing spectacular that's really going to set it apart from the droves of early films that were fun but tended to fade from memory pretty easily. It's got a quaintness to it from the fact that it comes from a period where television was still a technical marvel. The idea of wireless broadcast television was science fiction at the time and came in the form of an enormously bulky unit with dials and antennae but, of course, I can download and watch it from a phone that fits in my pants' pocket. The adorably outdated ideas, the fantastic cast, the upbeat vibes, and the painless hour or so runtime make TRAPPED BY TELEVISION an easy recommendation from me if you happen to stumble across it. It should be enough to elicit a few grins.
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