Thursday, 16 September 2021

1930s TV: The Crooked Circle


In case you haven't come across this film, pause to put on your evening dress and ring for some cocktails, because this is some real TV history. The Crooked Circle was the first film ever broadcast on commercial TV, in 1933.

The Station was the Don Lee Broadcasting System in Los Angeles on their channel called W6XAO. It was broadcast from the aeriel on Mount Lee (named after Don Lee) behind the Hollywood(land) sign. Incidentally I have just learned the mount is haunted by the ghost of an actress called Peg Entwistle, who killed herself in 1932 by jumping from the H of the sign. Apparently a woman in out of date clothing has been frequently seen wandering, distressed, around there, accompanied by a smell of gardenias.

In an attempt to get myself to stick to the subject I always begin by writing the title, and as today, still tend to wander off into related side tracks. However I must just allow myself another diversion onto one of my preoccupations, because I have just realised that this is the only broadcast I have written about here which would have been released on the unstable cellulose nitrate film. Since I learned that it is estimated that as much as 70% or more of film before the late forties has been lost because of use of this medium, I am always struck by how the surviving films only survive because of being selected for transfer to safety film.

With the best will in the world, you may wonder why this film was selected for preservation:

Chances are the reason The Crooked Circle became the first film to be broadcast on television was because Don Lee could get it for cheap, and possibly because its stagey presentation wouldn’t tax the tiny screen of a circa 1933 television set. On March 10, 1933, the half dozen or so owners of a television set in Los Angeles could tune in to watch The Crooked Circle‘s hour of old dark house hijinks which include a violin playing ghost, a mysterious Hindu, hooded criminals, hidden doors, secret passages, skeletons, and Zasu Pitts meekly whining “Something always happens to somebody” while James Gleason tries to out New York the most New York cop who ever New Yorked. All in all, despite the film’s low status, they could have done worse. If you have an affinity for the trappings of old, dark house movies — both their strengths and their weaknesses — then The Crooked Circle is an entertaining hour. Source

You could almost say that there are too many clich├ęs in this film, but their use makes it feel like a formula for all the film types mentioned above, which is strangely comforting.  We're not talking a Hitchcock here, and since we are talking about a film which explicitly set out to be a comedy parody, it is rather naughty to expect this film to be an epic.

Another historical thing here is that Zasu Pitts's hand wringing and wailing was largely forged in a long career in silent films. She was the model for Olive Oyl in Popeye, and I think the fact Olive Oyl was based on a real actress is fairly mind-blowing in itself.

If you want to watch The Crooked Circle it is all over the internet for free.

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