Posted in: Directors, Essays

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.

At first Bwana Devil was self distributed, but when United Artists saw how much money it was making they purchased a fifty percent share and gave it a much wider release. Bwana Devil had cost only $300,000 (about $2 million in 2009 currency) and was sold to UA for $1,700,000 (about $11,500,000 today). Variety projected that Bwana Devil made between $4 and $5 million (around $30 million today). Bwana Devil’s financial success spawned a slew of 3D films from the major studios because the Gunzburgs’ process turned out not to be patentable after all. Milton Gunzburg broke the exclusivity contract with Oboler Productions and let Warner use the process for House of Wax; Oboler in turn sued Gunzburg. Despite the lawsuit, Oboler, who was nearly broke after The Twonky, became a wealthy man with Bwana Devil. But Oboler’s critical reputation suffered because of the film’s low quality. Many of the studio 3D films were no better and often theaters could not handle the synchronization of the two projectors required to show the films. The major studios’ rush into 3D production killed the technology, but taught Hollywood that it was possible to lure audiences back into movie theaters with other technologies such as CinemaScope. Oboler failed to shame television with The Twonky but managed to revitalize the film industry with Bwana Devil.


After Bwana Devil, Oboler had planned to shoot a 3D film version of Raoul C. Faure’s island castaway novel Spear In the Sand with William Phipps. Oboler abandoned this idea because of the technological problems with 3D and the stigma now associated with it. He decided that any successful 3D film process must eliminate eye-strain and use a single lens adaptable to any single motion picture camera. So Oboler took a break from filmmaking, concentrating instead on writing plays with the hope of breaking into Broadway. Oboler landed on “The Great White Way” with The Night of the Auk (1956). The title refers to the Great Auk, a bird that mankind hunted to extinction. Auk takes place aboard a spacecraft returning from mankind’s first landing on the moon. But humanity’s triumph is short-lived because the spaceship’s crew is stranded when nuclear war breaks out on Earth. The cast included Christopher Plummer, Claude Rains, and Dick York; Howard Bay designed the sets, Kermit Bloomgarten produced, and Sidney Lumet directed. Despite the impressive talent behind the production, Auk was a bomb and died after only eight performances. Audiences and critics were mystified by the dialogue, which was written entirely in blank verse. Notwithstanding, French suspense master Claude Chabrol was considered to direct a film version that never got off the ground. Oboler published a book of the play in 1958 and dedicated it to nuclear disarmament activist Norman Cousins and to Oboler’s youngest son Peter, who drowned tragically that year, at the age of five, in an excavation at Oboler’s Frank Lloyd Wright house. A version of Night of the Auk was made in 1960 for public television and starred William Shatner in his first spaceship appearance. Auk was revived for a disastrous off-Broadway run in 1963 and Oboler revamped it in the early ’70s as a radio play.


After the Auk fiasco, Oboler first considered returning to filmmaking with an omnibus horror film adapted from his Lights Out radio plays. Instead, Oboler returned with a different kind of omnibus film, the Canadian made 1+1: Exploring the Kinsey Reports (1961). Oboler had a brief correspondence with Dr. Alfred Kinsey, possibly about Oboler’s own unconventional sex life—a long term polyamorous marriage. But in interviews about the film, Oboler stated that he made 1+1 for the “common man.” 1+1 is only nominally related to the Kinsey Reports and is really a film version of several of Oboler’s radio plays about male and female relationships. The picture is nicely photographed in stark black and white and shot entirely on location in Toronto during winter. Oboler’s cast consisted mostly of Canadian theater actors, including Kate Reid in her feature film debut, as well as veteran actors Leo G. Carroll and June Duprez. Critics were lukewarm about the film; Variety found it “erratic and inconsistent.” Still, 1+1 has many interesting segments, including an amusing animated sequence featuring a polygamist dinosaur. Oboler also returned to the radio stream-of-consciousness technique for the filmed episode of his radio play “Baby.” The episode focuses on the thoughts and memories of a pregnant woman who is contemplating getting an abortion. As she is walking we hear on the soundtrack “baby … baby … baby.” This radio technique worked in Bewitched because the audience accepts that the heroine has aural hallucinations. But in a realistic story, it seems unnecessary and even laughable. 1+1 had a brief release and disappointed audiences who were expecting to be titillated. Finished with exploring the Kinsey Reports, Oboler started exploring Europe looking for an inventor to develop the perfect 3D film system.


The future of motion pictures?
The future of motion pictures?

Oboler found his 3D savior in Robert V. Bernier. Bernier had been a Colonel in the United States Army during World War II and developed three dimensional maps for the military. With Oboler’s finances and encouragement, Bernier developed a startling 3D process, a lens that could be mounted on any film camera and polarize the exposed film onto one negative. They called the process Trioptiscope. Unlike the older 3D technology, Trioptiscope enabled objects to float off the screen past the heads of the audience. Oboler and Bernier dubbed this optical illusion Space-Vision. For the first film in Space-Vision, Oboler returned to the kind of eerie story that made him famous in radio, a science fiction parable about the tyrannies of totalitarianism, mindless consumerism, religion, and complacency: The Bubble (1966). Despite his allegorical tendencies, much of Oboler’s radio and film work hammered its themes into the audience. With The Bubble, Oboler tried to be more abstract. A young couple, played by future Mod Squad star Michael Cole and former Gidget Deborah Walley, are returning from vacation when Walley goes into labor and their pilot (Johnny Desmond) is forced to land their plane. The set-up of this plot recalls Oboler’s first film Strange Holiday. Slowly, the trio find that something is very wrong with the town they’ve landed in. First, all of the inhabitants behave like they are hypnotized, repeating the same phrases over and over again. The town is also a crazy patchwork of incongruous buildings, it looks like a studio back lot. Stranger still, the trio find that they cannot leave the town because it is encased in an invisible force field. To their horror, they discover that every seven days one of the inhabitants is sucked up into the sky without explanation. And there are other odd goings on: All of the townspeople eat from an unseen device in some strange rock outcropping and Desmond straps himself into a chair that causes him to hallucinate and later experience euphoria.

Despite all of these intriguing ideas, Oboler’s execution of them was problematic. At times, The Bubble plays like an existential art film, at other times it is gimmicky and cheesy: a tray of beer floats off the screen for no reason other than to show off the 3D process. The film does have some memorably creepy moments, including a scene where Cole obsessively hears the voice of his wife telling him to kill their baby. But The Bubble is mostly overlong and talky and it put preview audiences to sleep. The critics were as puzzled by the film as they were impressed by its 3D effects, which are particularly striking in a scene where Cole digs a tunnel under the force field. Oboler tried cutting the picture down and releasing it again in 1972, to little avail. Eventually, it was cut down from 112 minutes to 94 minutes and re-released in 1976 under the misleading title The Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth. In that version, the film made back its money. It was ultimately released to DVD in 1999 in the 94 minute cut but with the original title, The Bubble.

Oboler could not interest the major studios in Space-Vision, but Louis K. Sher, an independent distributor of sexploitation films, was interested. Sher wanted to use the process for the first 3D soft-core pornographic film, The Stewardesses (1969). Oboler was no prude, but chafed at the idea of having Space-Vision associated with mere sex films. Sher used a different 3D process for The Stewardesses but was still interested in Space-Vision. His daughter, Bonnie, was an aspiring singer and actress, and Sher offered to produce Oboler’s next film in Space-Vision with the condition that Oboler cast Bonnie as the lead. Oboler agreed. The film, Domo Arigato (1972), is a melancholy romantic travelogue about a GI (Jason Ledger) on leave who falls in love with a young American woman touring Japan.

Domo Arigato
Domo Arigato

Domo Arigato is an improvement on The Bubble, but Oboler’s dialogue shows that he was out of step with the vernacular of the early ’70s. It’s as if Oboler studied Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for tips on how to write hip dialogue. Even the title of the film calls to mind the 1957 romance Sayonara, which Oboler pays homage to by including a scene at the Futami Husband and Wife rock, one of the many beautiful locations he used in the film. He may also have had the recent blockbuster Love Story in mind when he wrote Sher’s character to be a diabetic losing her sight. Oboler’s film is about the beauty of sight, which is an interesting theme for a man so closely identified with radio. Adding to the film’s plaintive tone is a poignant scene of random tragedy inspired by the death of Oboler’s son Peter: Jason Ledger’s character tries to rescue a young Japanese girl who has fallen into a pit; however, when he pulls her up he discovers that her neck has been broken in the fall. Recalling both Five and The Night of the Auk, the film’s final scene takes place at the Hiroshima memorial. The performances of the leads are amateurish yet sometimes sincere and effective. Domo Arigato’s cinematographer, Donald Peterman, went on to a distinguished career and his debut film looks breathtaking. Sadly for Oboler, Domo Arigato was never officially released, although it did get a belated screening and a tepid review from Variety in 1990, three years after Oboler’s death. Space-Vision was used for only one more film, the Andy Warhol-produced and Paul Morrisey-directed Flesh For Frankenstein (1973). With the financial failures of The Bubble and Domo Arigato, Oboler’s hopes for Space-Vision faded and, needing money, he sold his interest in the process to Capitol Records. Oboler never made another film.

By the mid-seventies the diminutive Oboler jokingly described himself as a tired old gnome, but he never stopped writing plays, television treatments, radio dramas, or films. He still dreamed of producing and directing what he described as the ultimate 3D film, The Borgia Emerald. The film was never made but Oboler never stopped believing that 3D films were the future of cinema. In 1987, he died suddenly at age eighty of a heart attack while recovering from a stroke in a hospital. He was dictating stories to his secretary even on his death bed.

Today, Hollywood is finally embracing Oboler’s dream as the major studios gear up for more 3D production. Major Hollywood players such as James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Pixar Studios, and Jeffrey Katzenberg have 3D films in the works. 3D filmmaking even has an intellectual champion and fan in the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of Awakenings. Some fear that 3D will destroy what remains of cinema’s artistic integrity, but the same thing was said about Cinemascope and even sound. The triumph of 3D is a posthumous vindication of Oboler’s belief in stereoscopic filmmaking. But it is not just Oboler’s 3D filmmaking and pioneering sound design that makes him still relevant, but also his themes. We are still haunted by fears of nuclear war (Five), hypnotized by television (The Twonky), conflicted about sexuality and abortion (1+1), and tyrannized by our own willingness to trade liberty for the illusion of security (The Bubble).

© 2009 Matthew Rovner