Posted in: Contributors, Essays, Guest Contributor, Television

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

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.]

SYMPATHY FOR BWANA DEVIL

bwana-devil
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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