What Ever Happened to the Laughs in ‘Oboler Comedy Theatre’?

By Matthew Rovner

[Note: The UCLA kindly let me view the entire available copies of Oboler Comedy Theatre; however, I was not allowed to take pictures of any of the episodes. Therefore, this article will not have pictures from the program. I could not view one episode called Dog’s Eye View, because the kinescope negative was never developed. Additionally, it is unclear whether the final episode of the series, Mrs. Kinsley’s Report was ever filmed.]

Arch Oboler in the studio for ‘Lights Out’

There is nothing wrong with Oboler Comedy Theatre (1949), except that it is rarely funny and is almost unwatchable. Oboler basically films some of his comic radio plays without any eye towards adapting them to a visual medium, directing with a visual style so static that he makes Herschel Gordon Lewis look like Max Ophüls. Without competent visual collaborators, Oboler is lost at sea. The only reason to watch these shows is to see Oboler’s radio troupe make rare appearances in a visual medium.

Oboler did not direct a film between 1947 and 1951; his last film for a studio was the MGM-produced The Arnelo Affair (1947). In interviews, Oboler stated that he was tired of directing filmed adaptations of his radio plays, yet the majority of the episodes of Oboler Comedy Theatre are adapted from his own radio plays. In 1948, Oboler toured Africa for eight months to gather sound for the Frederick W. Ziv radio company, recordings that later aired on NBC’s documentary radio program Monitor. Oboler was also finding it increasingly difficult to work with collaborators. He penned only three radio shows for The James and Pamela Mason Show (1949) before leaving the program. By the time he made Oboler Comedy Theatre, which was independently produced and aired over ABC, Oboler was an independent artist.

At first, Oboler was excited about the new medium of television, yet despite several attempts over a fifteen year period, Oboler never found the success that he sought in TV. Oboler’s failure may have prompted him to make the anti-television satire The Twonky (1953). The Twonky is much more interesting than Oboler Comedy Theatre; however, for the most part, the film demonstrates Oboler’s inability to handle comedy.

In his two films for MGM—Bewitched (1945) and The Arnelo Affair—Oboler brought his trademark stream-of-consciousness style to moviemaking. These films are stunningly photographed by Charles Salerno, and Bewitched, especially, has some impressive camera work; particularly, a crane shot, which starts at a window and tracks all the way down to an alley. Oboler did not use the stream-of-consciousness style in his comic radio plays, and that style is also absent from Oboler Comedy Theatre.

Even in radio, Oboler’s was rarely adept at comedy. His fortes were suspense, fantasy, and horror. From the get-go, these TV plays fail to elicit laughs. Oboler introduces the episodes by dubbing an attractive woman with his voice. He explains this odd choice in the following way: “even as the world needs laughter, what it needs more is pretty faces.” The four episodes that I discuss in this article are Ostrich in Bed; Love, Love, Love; Triple Feature; and Mr. Dydee.

Hans Conried

The program’s premier episode is an adaptation of Oboler’s radio play Ostrich in Bed. The radio version, which starred Ronald Colman and Joan Bennett, was never funny. It is somewhat more amusing on TV, thanks in part to the presence of Hans Conried, who makes his television debut in the episode. In Ostrich, a young married couple inexplicably finds an ostrich in their bed and endeavors to hide it from the husband’s (Olan Soule) visiting advertising client, Mr. Redham (Conried). Conried plays Mr. Redham as a pompous windbag with an unidentifiable bizarre accent. He is quite funny as he gets progressively drunker at dinner on his own product, an elixir of dubious merit, manufactured by his grandmother.

Because Oboler was working on a tight budget, he ran into some serious limitations with the show’s special effects. For instance, when the Ostrich is shown in bed, it is a silly, wobbly, mock-up. In other scenes, where Oboler shows the ostrich walking in the house, the ostrich and the actors were obviously shot separately, and the actors interact—none too convincingly—with the footage of the ostrich.

There are some decent gags in the episode, such as a police officer seen reading the Kinsey Report underneath his police report and an SPCA worker shown feeding a turtle from the wrong end. With Ostrich in Bed, it is possible that Oboler meant to emulate the screwball comedy of Bringing Up Baby, but Oboler’s comedy too often falls short of its mark.

Oboler’s adaptation of his radio play Love, Love, Love follows. Oboler eventually expanded the play into the interesting film 1+1: Exploring the Kinsey Reports. The TV version of Love, Love, Love is a portmanteau episode framed by a lecture on love that leads to a series of short episodes detailing the daydreams of those in the lecture’s audience.

Lou Merrill

The first episode of the stories, “Moving Pictures Love,” is an unfunny takeoff on Casablanca, noteworthy mainly for the presence of actor Leo Penn (Sean Penn’s father). To give you an idea of the caliber of comedy in this program, the film director in this episode is named “Hitchhen” instead of Hitchcock. In “The Idle Man,” a serviceman attempts to pick up a French woman in Paris, with only eleven minutes left on his leave pass. Predictably, when she realizes what he is up to, the woman slaps him. That’s all folks. In “Anesthesia,” comedian Benny Rubin attempts to sing a comic song about anesthesia. In “Busy Man,” Oboler stalwart Lou Merrill (The Lady From Shanghai) plays a gruff businessman whose phone line gets crossed with that of a sexy woman. Merrill’s character softens as he chats her up, but he chases her away when his business line is reconnected, and he inadvertently asks the woman for a shipment of corrugated boxes. It is extremely odd that the woman is not merely confused, but deeply offended by Merrill’s request. In “Husband and Wife,” Hans Conried plays Mr. Gaylord, a vain actor who is in constant competition with his wife, an actress. And in the final episode, which is unnamed, the lecturer’s old landlady tries to seduce him. The lecturer is an old man himself and probably a virgin. The comedy is supposed to arise from his shyness and discomfort, but it doesn’t work.

Triple Feature consists of three stories: “Lo, the Poor Indian, ” “The Laughing Man,” and “Mr. Pip,” all adaptations of Oboler radio plays. “Lo, the Poor Indian” concerns an actor (Peter Leeds) trying to pass himself off, unsuccessfully, as Native American. The episode is filled with offensive stereotypes of American Indians, which is surprising given Oboler’s liberal leanings and subsequent interest in preserving Native American rituals and chants on sound recordings.

The Laughing Man” consists of a single shot of Lou Merrill as a citizen of the year 21949, explaining in a long monologue that the violence of the Twentieth Century must have been a hoax. On radio, Oboler’s sermonizing monologue works as a piece of drama and provocation; on television, however, the monologue is static and monotonous. We keep hoping that Oboler will show us something visually interesting, or cut away from the monologue to other footage.

Lastly, “Mr. Pip” is the story of an old man (Griff Barnett) who is estranged from his family. At a river he meets a strange boy who is fishing and it turns that he is the old man’s grandson. This play, like the others, also suffers from a static presentation.

Ed Max

Last and least of the four episodes under discussion is “Mr. Dydee,” a lame attempt to emulate Damon Runyon. It is so inept it must be seen to be believed. This is the only episode not introduced by a woman, but instead by Ed Max, who explains that he “ain’t Arch Oboler.” Given the dearth of laughs, it sounds like an alibi. Ed Max plays J. Leroy Finchley, an imbecilic small time bookie who inherits a diaper service, and Sandra Gould (Gladys Kravitz on TV’s Bewitched) plays his long suffering girlfriend. Considering babies to be “little jerks” and not understanding the difference between diapers and napkins, Finchley is completely unqualified to run his business, “The Dapper Dydee Service for Babies of Distinction.” Believing that the best way to corner the market is to sell diapers to people who don’t even have babies yet, Finchley goes from door to door using a baby as advertising bait, then loses the baby and cannot remember where he put it. Since he is only able to remember things that have to do with horse racing, he is finally able to locate the baby by associating it, in his mind, with a jockey riding a horse.

There are a number of groan-inducing jokes in the episode. For instance, at one point Finchley reports that The Dapper Dydee service is “in the dumps” and that “the diaper business has not yet reached the point of saturation.” Oboler’s pacing is far too slow for comedy. Most of the scenes are two-shot set ups and Oboler fails to use reaction shots, a crucial editing device for comedy. Oboler directs the piece almost as if the actors are standing around a microphone. Finally, the treatment of its baby actor is somewhat disturbing. When the baby cries, Ed Max repeatedly tells him to shut up and there is a very uncomfortable moment when Max has difficulty getting the baby out of a stroller.

I was quite disappointed when the announcer, at the end of “Mr. Dydee,” tells the audience that next week, Oboler will write a suspense play. Apparently, no such play was ever aired. I would like to have seen a visual adaptation of one of Oboler’s classic horror plays. Oboler’s radio thrillers, propaganda, and stream-of-consciousness style are the most interesting examples of his writing. Given the visual complexity of these radio plays, it is possible that television adaptations would have been cost prohibitive for him. I love Oboler’s work, but this is quite possibly the worst thing he has ever done.

Copyright 2013 Matthew Rovner