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Arch Oboler

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.

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Night of the Auk

By Matthew Rovner

[Note: The television production of Night of the Auk is not available on home video in any format. The UCLA film library kindly let me view a video cassette of the production. However, I was not allowed to take any photos; nonetheless, there are pre-existing photos of the TV production, on the Internet, that are included here. Unfortunately, the quality is somewhat poor. Additionally, there are low fidelity video clips  available at the links below.]

James MacArthur and William Shatner in the TV production of ‘Night of the Auk’

On May 2, 1960, William Shatner took his maiden voyage on a spaceship in a television production of Arch Oboler’s ill fated Broadway play Night of the Auk. Shatner plays Lewis Rohnen, the megalomaniacal leader of mankind’s first expedition to the moon, which at the start of the play, is making its return to Earth. Auk is written entirely in a Walt Whitmanesque poetic form and watching Shatner declaim his lines in blank verse is immensely entertaining, akin to the pleasure of watching him speak Esperanto in Incubus.

William Shatner, as Lewis Rohnen, is the heavy of this five act tragedy. Rohnen is a spoiled billionaire who has privately funded the expedition. In order for Rohnen to receive the prize money for his venture, the expedition must both land on the moon and one of its crew must walk on its surface. However, upon landing on the moon, Rohnen discovers that its surface is radioactive. Undeterred, Rohnen gets one of the crew members drunk and encourages him to walk on its surface. However, before the ill fated crew-member returns, Rohnen’s expedition accidentally blasts off for home. To make matters even worse, Rohnen touches off a nuclear war when, during a radio broadcast to Earth, he claims the moon for the United States. William Shatner turns in a compelling performance as a neurotic egomaniac and even his occasional overacting seems to befit the role of a larger than life schmuck whose actions cause the end of the world as we know it. Shatner is supported by an able cast including Warner Anderson (Oboler’s The Arnelo Affair) as a hardened military General and James MacArthur (Swiss Family Robinson) as a wide-eyed communications expert.

The original stage production of ‘Night of the Auk’

It is unclear how much of a hand Oboler had in the production. But, given the presence of Warner Anderson, and of Oboler favorite Raymond Edward Johnson as the narrator, it appears that he had some involvement.

The piece is directed by the Broadway maestro Nikos Psacharapoulis. Despite the fact that Oboler’s play is cut by nearly a third, Psacharapoulis remains true to Oboler’s vision. Nothing of Oboler’s play feels lost, and its pacing may, in fact, be improved. Psacharapoulis seems to have cut some of Oboler’s more confusing language—his director’s script is filled with question marks. Given the limited set and space, Psacharapoulis does a surprisingly good job of using an active camera, with tracking shots, overhead shots, and few close-ups. The piece is shot entirely on black and white video.

The set is very minimal and somewhat amusing. It looks like a multi-platformed conversation pit, with filing cabinets, levers, a ticker-tape machine, and an airlock in the rear wall. The props are similarly minimal and somewhat comical. For example, the actors use absurdly long binoculars to see Earth from the ship. The majority of the cast wears jumpsuits with pocket protectors, which makes them look like big interstellar nerds. But for some reason, the ship’s scientist, Dr. Bruner wears a button down sweater.

Overall, Night of the Auk is worth watching and is genuinely compelling entertainment despite its limited visual appeal.

More information on the production, plus photos and video clips, can be found at the official James MacArthur website.

Copyright © 2013 Matthew Rovner

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.

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What Ever Happened to Arch Oboler? (Part Two – 3D)

[Part One of Matthew Rovner’s overview of Arch Oboler’s films career ran on Parallax View here. Part Two covers Oboler’s efforts as a pioneer in 3D cinema.]


A lion in your lap: Bwana Devil

While in Kenya, Oboler became fascinated with The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (1907), written by adventurer and Zionist J.H. Patterson. The story was based on a real incident in which two lions hunted and killed, in tandem, builders of the Uganda Railway in Tsavo, Kenya. Hooked on this story, Oboler determined to make a film version called The Lions of Gulu. He explained this idea to his cameraman in Africa, William D. Snyder. Synder had worked in Hollywood on the 3D MGM shorts called Audioscopiks. He suggested to Oboler that he make The Lions of Gulu entirely in 3D. Oboler was intrigued and finally seized the opportunity when The Twonky‘s cinematographer Joe Biroc, introduced him to Friend Baker who had invented an improved system for 3D filmmaking. He invented the process for eminent ophthalmologist Dr. Julian Gunzburg, who was experimenting with polarized images to cure “lazy eye.” Dr. Gunzburg’s brother, Milton was a Hollywood screenwriter and the brothers owned the pending patent rights to Baker’s invention. Biroc shot the test footage for this 3D system. At the time, the major film studios were suffering major financial losses because audiences were migrating to television. Nonetheless, the studios turned down Baker and the Gunzburgs’ 3D system because executives had no faith that 3D would lure audiences back to the movies. After these rejections, the Gunzburgs approached Oboler with their demonstration reel and he liked what he saw: “Natural Vision.” Later in life, Oboler and his producer, Sidney Pink, accounted differently for how the deal was struck, but the upshot is that Oboler’s production company was supposed to have exclusive rights to “Natural Vision” for the first and second films, while the Gunzburgs’ Natural Vision company would tie up the market for the Polaroid glasses that were needed to view the 3D. The sheer novelty of the process attracted some name acting talent.

Newly freed from his contract with Universal, Robert Stack was enthusiastic about starring in Hollywood’s first color 3D feature film. Nigel Bruce, who suffered from alcoholism, begged to be in the film and did the entire picture sober. Sadly, it was his last film. Bwana Devil was shot at the Paramount ranch standing in for Kenya, although the rear projection shots were from footage taken by Snyder in Africa. Standing in as Masai warriors were extras from Watts, Los Angeles. For the soundtrack, Oboler used a combination of traditional music from the Acholi of Northern Uganda and a score by his Strange Holiday composer Gordon Jenkins. Robert Stack’s mother provided much of the financing for the film, but Pink ran into problems with another major financer who had a questionable reputation. This problem created a major rift in Oboler and Pink’s relationship, which deteriorated from there. When I spoke with Pink in 2000, he referred to Oboler as “that miserable bastard.” However, Pink’s contribution to promoting the film was substantial. It was Pink who came up with Bwana Devil’s legendary tag-line: “A Lion In Your Lap, a Lover In Your Arms.” Audiences flocked to the film to experience 3D, which, when projected properly, was impressive. They were undeterred by the critics, who savaged almost every aspect of Oboler’s movie, from the script to its low budget shortcomings to Biroc’s cinematography.

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“Gumshoe,” “Five,” “Our Man in Havana” and Martini Movies – DVDs for the Week 2/3/09

What exactly is a “Martini Movie”? Sony hasn’t really explained the meaning behind the moniker it’s used to brand a collection of otherwise unrelated films from the Columbia Pictures catalogue. But based on the promotional featurettes the Sony has whipped up for each of the now ten DVDs released that imprint, a “Martini Movie” is a cinematic cocktail made up of varying measures of hard-boiled attitude, sardonic self-awareness, nostalgic naiveté and campy exaggeration. And, according the cocktail recipes printed on each disc, these are movies best seen under alcoholic lubrication.

Whether or not that’s an accurate overview of the first wave released in October 2008, which included the sub-Gilda noir exotica Affair in Trinidad with Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth, the racketeer drama The Garment Jungle with Lee J. Cobb and Sidney Lumet’s witty 1971 heist film The Anderson Tapes, it’s a downright disingenuous appellation for at least some of the films released under that brand on DVD this week. The five films in this eccentric collection are the hipster youth generation satire Getting Straight with Elliot Gould; the Jeff Goldblum psychics-on-the-run comedy Vibes (notable as the feature debut of Cindi “She-Bop” Lauper); Stephen Frears’ first film Gumshoe with Albert Finney; and the first-ever home video releases of Arch Oboler’s 1951 end-of-the-world drama Five and Carol Reed’s 1959 spy satire Our Man in Havana. It’s this latter trio of titles, minor classics debuting with little fanfare in bare-bones editions, that I hope to draw a little attention to.

“I want to write The Maltese Falcon, record ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and play Las Vegas.” So proclaims Eddie Ginley (Albert Finney), a small-time bingo caller and wannabe stand-up comic, to his therapist in the opening scene of Gumshoe (1971). But he’ll settle for running an ad in the local paper offering his services as a private detective (no divorce cases), his present to himself for his 31st birthday. When he gets a call from a client, he just assumes his buddies are playing along for a laugh, but the package he gets from The Fat Man includes ₤1,000, a picture of a girl and a gun. Eddie’s no P-I and he knows it, but when his brother gets him canned from his only paying gig, there’s nothing stopping him from following the trail to the end of the line.

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What Ever Happened to Arch Oboler? (Part One)

[Arch Oboler’s Five makes its home video debut on Tuesday, February 3. To mark the occasion, Oboler expert Matthew Rovner has contributed a brief history his film career. Part One covers his earliest films. ]

Arch Oboler came to Hollywood out of the radio tube, but he never showed the visual flair of Orson Welles. His name still reverberates from the Lights Out radio series I heard in my childhood. Hence, he is included if only as a reminder of the vanished mystique of radio in the motion picture industry.
– Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema

Arch Oboler creates Lights Out
Arch Oboler creates “Lights Out”

As a filmmaker he was certainly no Orson Welles, but Oboler deserves better than oblivion.In the 1940s, Oboler was one of the highest paid writers in the world and the most successful radio playwright in America. Radio, prior to the advent of television, was the most powerful and influential mass communication medium on the planet. Oboler stood shoulder to shoulder with the two other giants of American radio, Norman Corwin and Orson Welles. Welles’s biographer, Simon Callow, has even noted that “…Welles’s radio work possessed none of the riddling originality of Arch Oboler.” Oboler was to radio what Rod Serling became to television; Serling’s ironic and socially conscious “weird tales” for The Twilight Zone and The Night Gallery were influenced by Oboler’s plays for the radio program Lights Out. As Andrew Sarris suggests, Lights Out is the radio series for which Oboler is best remembered.

But Oboler was more than a mere fright master; he was also a writer with a political conscience and a relentless desire to elevate radio writing to an art form. His books of published radio plays have introductions from eminent writers such as Irving Stone and Thomas Mann. Oboler was NBC’s “boy genius” and their answer to rival network CBS’s formidable roster of talented writers including Corwin, Welles, and Pulitzer prize winner Archibald MacLeish. NBC, America’s most powerful network gave Oboler his very own radio series with complete creative control and his name in the title: Arch Oboler’s Plays. It was an almost unheard of honor. On radio, Oboler was a tireless and original innovator.He wrote most of his plays from the first person perspective, concentrating on the thoughts, memories and imaginings of his protagonists.Particularly memorable is his adaptation of Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun with James Cagney as Joe Bonham, a World War I casualty without eyes, ears, tongue, or limbs. Oboler was also a minimalist who never used a sound effect or piece of music when the spoken word could better create an image in the mind of his listeners. Nonetheless, the sound effects that he did use are remembered for their audaciousness and creativity such as the eerie vibration of bed springs, which Joe Bonham learns to recognize as the movement of people entering and exiting his hospital room.

The Twonky
The Twonky

What Oboler brought to film from radio was an innovative use of multi-layered sound tracks and his trademark stream-of-consciousness technique.He also brought to film his pioneering and independent spirit, which influenced the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague. That same maverick passion nearly bankrupted him when he became obsessed with creating the perfect 3D film system. Oboler made only nine feature films, but each of them is a cult classic due to both his eccentric vision and even his limitations as a filmmaker: Bewitched (1945), Strange Holiday (1945), The Arnelo Affair (1947), Five (1951), Bwana Devil (1952), The Twonky (1953), 1+1 (1961), The Bubble (1966), and Domo Arigato (1972). At times, he has been compared most unfairly to Ed Wood Jr.; however, in style and theme””if not artistic consistency””he was a mix of Sam Fuller, Stanley Kramer, and Val Lewton. Oboler’s life and work are full of the unexpected, including this surprise: even before he was making radio he was making movies.

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