Posted in: Directors, Essays

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.

Born on December 7, 1907, Oboler was the second child of poor Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in rough and tumble Chicago. Although they were poor, Oboler’s family was cultured and educated, their house was filled with books and the sounds of classical music. He grew up listening to arias sung by Amelita Galli-Curci and reading books of fantasy and adventure by Jack London, Frank R. Stockton, and O. Henry.Oboler was also an avid filmgoer and was fascinated with special effects of the subtle variety, those produced with shadows, lighting, and suggestion. Sensing his son’s interest in film, Oboler’s father managed to purchase a home movie camera for him, from Chicago’s own Bell & Howell.The Filmo 70A, introduced in 1923, was B&H’s first home movie camera and cost $180 (at the time, a dollar was worth about ten 2009 dollars and the average salary per week was $25). Oboler fondly recalled that his father was a kind and sensitive man but frustrated because he wanted to be an engineer and had to choose between that career and supporting his family.His father was also ill for much of Oboler’s life and died when he was only forty-four in 1929, the year of the stock-market crash.Many of Oboler’s radio plays and nearly all of his films are populated with anxious characters; in particular, his films focus on complacent or naive protagonists whose lives are shaken by the sudden and inexplicable intrusion of tragedy or an unfathomable and implacable evil.


After co-scripting MGM’s superb anti-Nazi thriller Escape (1940) with Marguerite “Maggie” Roberts, Oboler found himself eager to direct. But it wasn’t MGM that put Oboler in the director’s chair but GM. General Motors, like many corporations, contracted with industrial filmmakers for its promotional and training films. In 1942, when GM switched to war production, its public relations department focused on convincing the public that it was doing its part for the war effort, associating its brand name with patriotism, quelling concerns about its loyalty because of its pre-war dealings with Nazi Germany, and persuading its workers not to strike.Inspired by Hollywood’s glamorous war mobilization, GM hired Oboler to direct a short, thirty minute film adaptation of his award winning radio play “This Precious Freedom.” The plot of both Oboler’s play and the film focused on the plight of an all-American man who returns from a vacation in the woods only to find that his small town has been taken over by Nazi fifth columnists. Oboler hired Claude Rains to star, Robert Surtees to photograph, and frequent collaborator Gordon Jenkins to score the film.To Oboler’s great disappointment and frustration, GM never released the film for reasons that are still unclear; instead, they sold it to MGM.Oboler and Rains managed to buy back the picture and expand it to feature length. The resulting film released in late 1945””after World War II””and re-christened Strange Holiday, is indeed, strange and grew even stranger when it was edited yet again in the 1950s.In this version, the enemy is totalitarianism in general; to convey this new conceit, awkward process shots inconsistently cover up or obscure the explicit anti-Nazi symbolism.Such re-editing made Strange Holiday into a propaganda palimpsest with fascinating remnants of Oboler’s original vision.In one of the film’s more innovative scenes, Oboler used a multi-layered soundtrack of voices and an accompanying visual montage to convey Rains’s subjective state as he begins to realize that he has lost all the civil rights he enjoyed and took for granted as an American citizen.Also interesting is the film’s striking noir look and the fact that the American Nazis behave like heavies from a Bogart picture. Despite its shortcomings, Strange Holiday is an interesting time capsule and intriguing attempt to bring stream-of-conscious radio technique to filmmaking. It was also one of the first films to imagine a totalitarian United States.

After his disappointing experience with This Precious Freedom/Strange Holiday, Oboler continued to write plays for his radio programs including a new series of Lights Out and a propaganda series called To the President. Oboler also wrote the WWII morale booster Gangway For Tomorrow (1943) for RKO and was hired as a screenwriter by Daryl F. Zanuck of Twentieth Century Fox, where he worked on the script for Otto Preminger’s Margin For Error (1943) before he left the studio over a conflict with Zanuck. MGM considered Oboler to write and direct an adaptation of Lassie author Eric Knight’s The Flying Yorkshireman.Oboler had previously adapted the book for radio in a version starring Charles Laughton but Knight was unhappy with the version Oboler adapted for the screen. The project went instead to Frank Capra, one of the directors who, along with John Ford, Oboler admired most. That film was never made, but MGM hired Oboler to direct another film for the studio in 1945.


Bewitched was based on Oboler’s award winning radio play “Alter Ego,” about a woman with split personalities. “Alter Ego” had been a great success for Oboler and its most celebrated broadcast starred Bette Davis as both the innocent Joan and her wicked inner voice Carmen. The trailer for Bewitched boasted that forty million listeners had heard Oboler’s source play.That kind of built in audience peaked MGM’s interest in purchasing original radio plays to adapt to film; the studio wanted to see how a radio drama might transition to the screen. The dazzlingly photographed Bewitched plays like a lost Val Lewton picture. Both Bewitched and Lewton’s films share a similar pessimistic tone and rely on suggestion and the unseen to scare their audience. And, as in Cat People, the heroine of Bewitched is tormented by an inner darkness brought on by the fear of sex. On the verge of her marriage to a bland good boy, Phyllis Thaxter begins hearing the voice of her alter ego played by the ultimate noir bad girl Audrey Totter. Her voice tells her to “run away” and find a “real man.”The film features a wonderful Lewtonian “night walk” where Thaxter runs through deserted streets pursued by the multi-layered taunting voices of her inner Ms. Hyde. The critical reception of the film was itself of two minds. But even its detractors, including noted critic and writer James Agee, praised Oboler for managing the first persuasive stream-of-consciousness technique in a movie.Later critics noted the similarities between Totter’s voice performance and that of Mercedes McCambridge as the demon in The Exorcist (1973).Oboler and McCambridge were friends and frequent collaborators in radio; in fact, she played the evil voice in a broadcast of Alter Ego used to promote Bewitched.The film has a solid supporting cast featuring Edmund Gwenn and Stephen McNally, and a creepy memorable score by Bronislau Kaper.Oboler followed Bewitched with another adaptation of one of his radio plays, which also focused on the plight of a conflicted and agonized heroine: The Arnelo Affair (1947).

The Arnelo Affair is based on Oboler’s radio play “I’ll Tell My Husband,” which in turn was adapted from a story by feminist writer and journalist Jane Burr.It is a very unusual noir in that the protagonist is an unfulfilled housewife who gets involved with an homme fatale, a charming Chicago nightclub owner and racketeer.The heroine also doubles as the femme fatale because she triggers the act of violence that leads to the racketeer’s downfall. Oboler tells the story using the radio stream-of-consciousness device to reveal the heroine’s thoughts and memories.The Arnelo Affair favors dialogue over action, equates the racketeer’s behavior with Nazism, and some of the dialogue sermonizes about Americans’ post-war responsibilities, qualities that the film shares with John Huston’s Key Largo (1948). Oboler’s noir features lush cinematography by Charles Salerno, Jr. (who also photographed Bewitched), great Chicago locations and a plangent score by George Bassman. The Arnelo Affair also displays interesting performances from John Hodiak as the sympathetic villain, Frances Gifford as the heroine, Eve Arden as Gifford’s independent friend, and Warner Anderson as a sharp police detective. As with Bewitched, the reviews were mixed.The New York Times found it dull and immature but Variety thought the film was exciting and suspenseful. The Arnelo Affair was financially successful, but Oboler’s affair with the studio system was over. He was tired of MGM insisting that he direct only film adaptations of his radio plays. Oboler made all of his remaining pictures as an independent.


After a brief sojourn in Kenya and Uganda, where Oboler traveled to obtain location sound and film for syndicated television producer Frederick W. Ziv, Oboler returned to Hollywood in 1949. Upon his return he edited together a testimonial film for his hosts in Africa, the Roman Catholic Missionary group the White Fathers. The White Fathers (1949), contained color sixteen millimeter footage that was shot in Africa and ran fifteen minutes; it is now missing in action. Oboler also experimented with television, producing, directing, and writing six half hour episodes of his own series for ABC-TV in Los Angeles, Oboler Comedy Theatre.All of these experiences were a dry run for his first independent feature film project.Like many Americans, Oboler worried about nuclear war.By 1950, America was involved in another conflict, The Korean War, the first “hot” conflict between the nuclear superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union.Five years had passed since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, but few films had been made by Hollywood addressing the atomic bomb. Oboler was determined to make the first film about life after a nuclear apocalypse.

Arch Oboler on the set of Five
Arch Oboler on the set of Five

Five (1951) was inspired by Oboler’s radio play “The Word” and possibly Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944).In “The Word,” a newlywed couple find themselves the only people in New York City after the population mysteriously vanishes.In Five, the world’s population has vanished as well, this time due to nuclear disaster; as in Lifeboat, a small band of multi-racial and multi-gendered survivors of a war disaster are menaced by a follower of Nazi ideology. Recalling Bewitched and The Arnelo Affair, Five‘s protagonist is a tormented woman, obsessed with the idea that her missing husband has survived radiation poisoning. She is the first character the audience sees during a lengthy opening sequence with no dialogue, just sound and music, as her character staggers through the wrecked countryside. Unlike in his previous films, Oboler did not use the stream-of-consciousness technique, but he continued to innovate: Five was the first American film to use magnetic tape for improved sound recording.

Oboler had very little money for the project and hired a cast of relative unknowns to star in the film: actress and dancer Susan Dougles-Rubes; William Phipps, an actor with Charles Laughton’s theater group; Charles Lampkin a jazz musician and Julliard graduate; and James Anderson, who later played Bob Ewell in To Kill a Mockingbird.He also worked with an unknown crew of filmmaking students from USC, including cinematographer Louis Clyde Stoumen, who later became an award winning photographer, Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker and UCLA film professor.Oboler shot most of the film in and around his Frank Lloyd Wright home in the hills of Malibu. Oboler’s film initially bombed when it opened in Chicago, but with the promoting help of exploitation filmmaker Sidney Pink, Five reached number forty-nine of Variety’s annual top fifty list of money making films for 1951.Not only was the film financially successful but it caught the eye of the Nouvelle Vague directors and showed them that they too could make feature films with limited means.François Truffaut wrote an admiring review of the film in Cahiers du Cinema; he praised its sincerity and noted that Five looked as if it had actually been made after a nuclear war. Oboler’s film does have neo-realist qualities and the stark black and white photography combined with the isolated bickering characters gives the film a Bergmanesque feel.Five prefigured other post apocalyptic films such as The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959) and On the Beach (1959). When Five debuted, television was beginning to eradicate the audience for both radio and films.Nonetheless, Oboler used the new medium to promote Five, making it the first American film to televise its premiere.Television originally excited Oboler but by the early ’50s he grew disappointed with its content and troubled by the medium itself.Five made Oboler a hot director in Hollywood but he turned down offers, preferring to independently direct a science-fiction satire aimed at television.

Hans Conried versus the Twonky
Hans Conried versus the Twonky

The Twonky (1953) was adapted from the eponymous short story by influential science-fiction writer Henry Kuttner.In Kuttner’s story, which appeared in 1942, an alien or robot from the future becomes stuck inside a radio.Twonkies are agents of a totalitarian super-state designed to keep populations in line by making them complacent and happy.Oboler reworked Kuttner’s story into an overt satire and placed the Twonky inside of an Admiral Television set.In his only role as a leading man, Oboler cast Hans Conried, a gifted comic actor who was part of his radio stock company.The Twonky turns Conried’s life upside-down, allowing him to read only trashy romance novels and listen to marching band music, it zaps into docility anyone who threatens its existence. Overall, The Twonky is an awkward mix of screwball comedy and satire that doesn’t quite come off.The Twonky itself looks distractingly ridiculous, an obvious marionette with spindly wooden legs. For much of the film Hans Conried looks confused and uncertain.At times, these shortcomings work in the film’s favor but often detract from Oboler’s interesting ideas. Yet The Twonky does have its moments and is sometimes a charming dramatization of the famous axiom by media critic Marshal McLuhan, “the medium is the message.”The film has its admirers including Bubba Ho-Tep director Don Coscarelli, who recently published an appreciation on the Ain’t It Cool News website.The Twonky was sold to United Artists and barely released; it debuted after Oboler’s next film, the legendary Bwana Devil (1952).

[Part Two, which covers Oboler’s pioneering work in 3D cinema, will run later this week can be found here]

© 2009 Matthew Rovner