[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.]
SYMPATHY FOR 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. Gunzburgâ€™s brother, Milton was a Hollywood screenwriter and the brothers owned the pending patent rights to Bakerâ€™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 Gunzburgsâ€™ 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 Obolerâ€™s production company was supposed to have exclusive rights to “Natural Vision” for the first and second films, while the Gunzburgsâ€™ 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 Hollywoodâ€™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 Stackâ€™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 Pinkâ€™s relationship, which deteriorated from there. When I spoke with Pink in 2000, he referred to Oboler as “that miserable bastard.” However, Pinkâ€™s contribution to promoting the film was substantial. It was Pink who came up with Bwana Devilâ€™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 Obolerâ€™s movie, from the script to its low budget shortcomings to Birocâ€™s cinematography.