What, and When, was the First Movie Shown on Television?


Imagine yourself anxiously awaiting the broadcast of the very first motion picture ever to be shown on television.  How exciting!  What year would it be and what would you be waiting to see?

According to the book “Film Facts” by Patrick Robertson (formerly called “The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats”), The first full–length feature film shown on television was “Police Patrol” (US 1925).  It was transmitted in six daily episodes by W2XCD Passaic, NJ, from April 6-11, 1931.

More About the TV Station and Movie

W2XCD was an experimental television station set up by the DeForest Radio Corporation (Lee deForest) in 1930. 

The Police Patrol was a silent movie produced by Gotham Productions that ran for 6 reels (approximately 60 minutes).  The movie starred James Kirkwood, Edna Murphy, Edmund Breese, Bradley Barker, and Frank Evans. It was directed by Burton L. King.

Can you imagine waiting a week to watch a movie that was only 10 minutes long? 

Did Many People Have Televisions in 1931?

In 1931 television was still a laboratory experiment in its early stages of development and commercial TV receivers wouldn’t be sold in the U.S. to the general public until 1939. 

However, there were a few hundred hobbyists who could receive the transmissions that were being produced by a small number of experimental television stations in 1931. 

What Kind of Content was Being Broadcast at That Time?

Although there were people like Francis Jenkins who were broadcasting poetry, singing, skits and even plays for three to six hours a day, when NBC took over RCA’s experimental station W2XBS in 1931 the station was only broadcasting test patterns, photographs, and images of objects (like a model of Felix the Cat). 

Televised image of Felix the Cat in 1928.

Unfortunately, the broadcast images were often hard to see clearly. In fact, an announcer would sometimes describe the scene so that the audience would know what they were seeing. 

By 1932 enthusiasm for this new technology was on the decline, and the Great Depression forced many of the first TV entrepreneurs out of business.

What About Earlier Motion Picture Broadcasts?

In 1929 Philo Farnsworth, one of the early TV pioneers, did experiment with transmitting motion pictures in his laboratory. He used an excerpt from the new Mary Pickford/Douglas Fairbanks film “The Taming of the Shrew” because the print had sharp contrasts of black and white. The excerpt showed Mary Pickford combing her hair, and it may have made Mary the first movie actress to be shown on TV. (The source for this information is the book “Tube: The Invention of Television” by David Fisher & Marshall Jon Fisher.)

During the 1930s there were other motion pictures transmitted by experimental television stations in the U.S. 

For instance, we know that W2XBS got into trouble in 1938 when it broadcast “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (1934) and inadvertently played the last reel out of order.

Was it 1929 or 1931?

The original question stated above would seem to be asking for the first movie to be shown on “commercial” television, not in laboratory experiments. 

Although we could find no authoritative reference to the “first” film shown on commercial TV, we do know (thanks to the book “Brought to You in Living Color” by Marc Robinson) that the first commercial TV station was WNBT in New York City, which was licensed on July 1, 1941.  

WNBT interrupted its broadcast of the movie “Millionaire Playboy” on December 7th of that year to tell its small audience of the invasion of Pearl Harbor.

“Millionaire Playboy” was an RKO Radio Pictures film made in 1940 that starred Joe Penner, Linda Hayes, Russ Brown, Fritz Feld, and Tom Kennedy.

More Television Firsts!

In 1947 KTLA in Los Angeles became the first commercial TV station west of the Mississippi. Around that same time, William Boyd purchased the television rights to his Hopalong Cassidy films for $350,000. 

On August 7, 1948, KTLA TV became the first station to broadcast the Hopalong Cassidy films, and the station received a Special Emmy Award in 1949 for these broadcasts. 

The Hopalong Cassidy films were usually edited to fit, with commercials, into a one hour time slot, and Network television began televising these edited Hopalong films on June 24, 1949. 

We believe these Hopalong Cassidy films may have been the first series of films shown on TV.

Hopalong Cassidy and his horse Topper.

In 1955 the NBC Television Network televised the new British movie “The Constant Husband”. This was the first time a feature–length film premiered on TV in the U.S. before reaching theaters.

How did Hollywood React to Television Broadcasts?

The major Hollywood studios continued to be reluctant to release their movies to television because they felt television would take away a large part of their revenue.  However, by the mid–1950s they finally relented. 

At that time the Hollywood studios signed an agreement with the Screen Actors Guild concerning TV residuals (actors would receive TV residuals only for movies made after 1948), and on March 5, 1956, the 1933 film “King Kong” premiered on network television. 

That same year Columbia Pictures, through its TV subsidiary Screen Gems, began releasing its pre–1948 films to TV. 

Then, on November 3, 1956, MGM released “The Wizard of Oz” to the CBS Network for $250,000. This would become the first feature film to be shown in its entirety on network TV (it was not edited to fit into a pre–determined time–slot), and the first to be shown annually on TV. Thus, “The Wizard of Oz” was probably the first really “major” film to be shown on network television.

Final Thoughts

Gosh! That’s quite a long answer to a short question. During times of innovation there are a lot of “firsts”.  

If anyone has any further information that might either confirm or contradict our answer, we would love to hear from you.

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