Arch Oboler’s ‘Bewitched’ and its Alter Egos
Matthew Rovner follows up his career overview of radio pioneer and film director Arch Oboler, published in 2009 on Parallax View, with this study of his 1945 film Bewitched.
By Matthew Rovner
Arch Oboler’s intriguing noir, Bewitched (1945), is a dark thriller about a woman with multiple personality disorder, now termed dissociative identity disorder (DID). Oboler adapted his film from one of his most popular and critically acclaimed radio dramas, “Alter Ego,” which was in turn inspired by the true story of Christine Beauchamp, one of the first persons diagnosed with DID. Briefly, Bewitched details the plight of mild-mannered Joan Ellis (Phyllis Thaxter) as she is besieged by the voice of her evil alternate personality, Karen (the voice of Audrey Totter), and driven to murder. This article examines how Oboler adapted both the Beauchamp case and his own radio play “Alter Ego” into Bewitched.
Christine Beauchamp was treated by American neurologist Morton Prince, who wrote about her in his book The Dissociation of a Personality: A Biographical Study In Abnormal Psychology. The following passage from Dr. Prince’s book may have inspired Oboler’s imagination:
Miss Beauchamp is an example in actual life of the imaginative creation of [Robert Louis] Stevenson, only, I am happy to say, the allegorical representation of the evil side of human nature finds no counterpart in her makeup. The splitting of personality is along intellectual and temperamental, not along ethical lines of cleavage… Each personality is incapable of doing evil to others.
By contrast, in both Oboler’s radio play and film, Joan Ellis’s alternate personality is capable of evil, specifically murder.
Oboler’s “Alter Ego” is a considerably darker work than Bewitched. In “Alter Ego,” Joan Ellis willingly goes to the gallows in order to kill off her evil personality (named Carmen in the radio adaptation). In Bewitched, Joan is cured by kindly psychiatrist Dr. Bergson (Edmund Gwenn). In what critics considered one of the film’s more contrived scenes, Dr. Bergson cures Joan through hypnosis, separating out her evil personality and shaming it into oblivion. In this scene, Oboler shows us a visual representation of this separation [through the use of multiple exposures, we see the good Joan and the evil Karen emerge from Joan’s hypnotized body]. In real life, Dr. Morton Prince cured Christine Beauchamp through hypnosis by reconciling her disparate personalities with her original personality. Oboler’s idea is not as hokey as it may appear.
Not only did Oboler adapt the story of “Alter Ego” for Bewitched, he adapted his radio techniques to the screen. Sometimes this meant that Oboler found visual analogues to his radio technique; at other times, Oboler directly used radio technique to tell his story. In the afterword to the published play of “Alter Ego,” Oboler wrote that his play was “definitely… indigenous to the radio form. In no other medium could the “two mind systems” existing in the same body be portrayed as effectively.” Oboler proved himself wrong; he very effectively portrayed Joan’s “two mind systems” in Bewitched with his stream-of-consciousness radio technique, which allows us to hear the inner voices of his characters. Even its detractors, including noted critic and writer James Agee, praised Oboler for mastering the first persuasive stream-of-consciousness technique in a movie.
Oboler’s use of this technique is most apparent in a stunning sequence where Joan runs through deserted streets pursued by the evil voice of Karen. As we see the look of fear on her face and hear Karen’s insistent voice, Oboler layers the soundtrack to the point where Karen’s distinct taunts begin overlapping. In his radio plays, Oboler used a chorus of actors at different microphones declaiming such overlapping taunts to express the cacophony of thoughts in the mind of a disturbed person. By the end of this sequence in Bewitched, Joan takes refuge in a music hall. She listens to the lyrics of “My Old Kentucky Home” and takes comfort as the lyrics call out “weep no more my lady.” Her comfort, however, is short lived. As the song continues, Karen’s voice taunts Joan with the refrain “crazy, crazy, crazy.” This refrain is repeated and underscores different taunts such as, “did you think you could run away” and “why don’t you let me take over now.” At one point, three of Karen’s taunts overlap and drown out the music.
Both radio drama and film use the leitmotif to introduce characters. In “Alter Ego” Joan’s evil personality is introduced by a “strain, low and weird.” In Bewitched, Joan’s evil personality is introduced the same way, but Oboler also makes the screen darker when the evil voice appears, adding a visual dimension to the audio cue.
Another technique that radio and film drama share is the montage. “Alter Ego” contains a sound montage to give the impression of Joan traveling on different trains to escape her evil personality. Oboler describes the sound montage in visual terms in his radio script:
…fade in the sound of train moving along behind following speech of Joan—rather, a number of trains, coming in and out, giving the impression, as she tells the story, of great movement—a sort of photo-montage in sound of the girl’s attempt to escape, using train after train, from the horror of the other woman.
In Bewitched, he creates the montage with a hybrid of radio and film technique: the sound of trains; music; the evil voice, repeating like a chugging train “just go away alone”; scenery from the window of a train; and sign posts and maps to show Joan’s progress towards reaching New York City.
A more complicated montage in both “Alter Ego” and Bewitched gives the audience an impression of a court room trial. In “Alter Ego,” Oboler communicates this with overlapping dialogue:
|Testimony . . . evidence . . .prosecution . . .defense . . .
(Tempo building) People
talking — talking — talking;
talking, till I–(Screams).
Stop! (Effects out sharply. . . )
|Guilty! . . .I object! . . .Gentlemen! . . .Insane! . . .
Not insane! . . .
Insane! . . .
Not insane! . . .
In Bewitched, Oboler creates this impression visually and aurally, by making use of Orson Welles’s lightening mix. The lightening mix is used to link complex montage sequences via a series of related sounds or phrases, which offer a continuous soundtrack. For instance, there is a quick cut of the Judge saying “the charge is…,” finished by a quick cut of the prosecution saying “murder.” Visually superimposed over the sequence is Joan’s anguished face. In Bewitched, the superimposition of Joan’s face substitutes for her words in “Alter Ego.” Like Welles, Oboler used this technique, in both radio and film, to compress time and create an impressionistic sense of the action.
Oboler’s Bewitched is an interesting and rare example of a film that makes extensive use of radio drama technique to tell its story.
Bewitched is now available on DVD through the Warner Archive.
More stills, posters, and ad graphics from the film are at the Parallax Annex here.
More on Bewitched in these articles: