Archive for Arch Oboler

Bwana Bubble

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2009 by dcairns


So — like a lot of people who’ve read some basic film history, I knew that the first 3D feature was BWANA DEVIL, promoted with the tagline “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” There were things I did NOT know, however  —

1) I didn’t know that BWANA DEVIL is based on the same astonishing true-life case as THE GHOST AND THE DARKNESS: an unheard-of incident of two man-eating lions who hunted together, finishing off scores of hapless humans and delaying construction of the first trans-African railway.

2) I didn’t know that the film was made by Arch Oboler, genius of scary radio with a background in low-budget noir, and that he carried on pushing 3D into the 70s, long after the rest of the world had given up on it.

domoarigatposterOboler just wouldn’t give up on “Space-vision.”

I had occasion to mention Oboler this summer when I met Bruce MacDonald, director of the stupendous PONTYPOOL, which deals with the power of radio. He mentioned Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast. I mentioned Oboler’s Chicken Heart broadcast, in which a giant, ever-expanding chicken heart eats the world, and discovered that MacDonald was familiar with the Bill Cosby routine based on the show, but not the show itself.

It still strikes me as weird that Oboler would come from radio, which uses only the dimension of imagination, sparked by sound, and yet the ordinary two-dimensions of cinema were not enough for him.

Here’s a classic slice of Oboler — listen with the lights out!

Oboler’s cult output also includes the slick psycho-noir BEWITCHED, which I wrote of here, post-atomic survival drama FIVE, and THE TWONKY, a bizarro comic fantasy about an alien visitor who takes the form of a TV set. As a drunken sports coach says, “I used to have a Twonky when I was a kid. A Twonky is something that you don’t know what it is…”


The big problems with BWANA DEVIL are that (1) it doesn’t really benefit from 3D much at all, and Oboler’s flat, washing-line compositions are a waste of the medium. The lion leaps over the camera every time it appears, but there’s not enough suspense to make us afraid of the thing. Paul Schrader’s CAT PEOPLE gets one thing right — the very tactile  and three-dimensional big cats in the movie feel really alive and present, in a way Oboler’s cut-out creations never get a chance to. What’s needed is some Val Lewton atmospherics, giving the lions the aura of the supernatural the African and Indian characters ascribe to them. The real motheaten beasts in this movie, and the CGI creations in the more modern version (another form of 3D — computer-generated 3D cartoons) are neither real enough nor phantasmagorical enough.


(2) The wonder of the story depends on the audience carrying it its head the fact that this is TRUE and UNIQUE, two qualities from outside the frame of the movie. We have to remind ourselves, in the midst of important action “Seems implausible, but apparently it really happened,” and “I don’t know much about lions, but apparently they never normally do this.” It’s a story that works brilliantly in the history books and when William Goldman tells it in prose. And the movie begins with a title, “This is a story that was told to me in Africa,” hinting at the excitement he must have felt when encountering this great yarn around the campfire.

Robert Stack tries hard in a role not so much underwritten as unwritten, and Nigel Bruce, the beloved Dr Watson from the Basil Rathbone Holmes films, makes a good fist of his Scottish accent — he ought to, despite being born in Mexico (!) he was a descendant of Robert the Bruce.


“Take these damn Space-Vision glasses! Take them, I say!”

Much better is THE BUBBLE, Oboler’s penultimate Spacevision production, which draws on some of the pulp mystery and numinous terror of his best radio work. A group of 1D characters is trapped in a 3D town which seems to be surrounded by a giant perspex dome. The town is as incomplete and inconsistent as a movie set reconstruction of Patrick McGoohan’s Village, left half-finished, and its populated by humans reduced to robotic repetition, who “feed” by some kind of gross osmotic process conducted in a queer biomechanical temple. Is there no escape?


The groovy yet unexplained brainwashing sequence.

Oboler’s direction is much friskier here, with carnivalesque effects created by camera movement and odd angles, but the aesthetic is still one of sticking stuff in the viewer’s eye. Why was Oboler obsessed with 3D if that’s all he could see to do with it? Unfortunately, his compelling premise fizzles out, and a lack of consistency in the characters’ behaviour robs it of a lot of its potential. The crux of these Twilight Zone scenarios is that they only work if played out to their natural conclusions, with the crazy idea followed through step by step with impeccable logic.

But the hackneyed effects are still enjoyable, the underwritten character are played by fresh, unskilled but somehow believable actors, and the idea is a nice, creepy one. If Oboler had only come up with a neat, PLANET OF THE APES-style zinger ending, the movie would probably have found its place as a minor cult object.


Buy Arch Oboler from Amazon —


The Bubble

Lights Out Everybody

A 3D Couplet

Posted in FILM with tags , , on September 22, 2009 by dcairns


Robert Stack /

Has a monkey on his back.

(Of course, being as this is from Arch Oboler’s BWANA DEVIL, the first 3D feature, he could at any instant find himself with a lion in his lap also.)


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 13, 2008 by dcairns


Arch Oboler seems to have been an American radio demi-god, but having missed out on this cultural golden age, and having failed to take advantage of most of the good stuff available online, my experience of his work is going to come from films, at least initially. Oboler, as writer-producer-director, authored several movies, and was notable as a pioneer of 3-D (“A lion in your lap!”). It says something that he came from a medium devoid of any images at all (except the all-important ones in your head) and then felt he had to have images WITH DEPTH.

He’s also noteworthy for having a Beatles song written about him — Oboler Di, Oboler Da. But then, many Beatles songs commemorate great filmmakers: Straub/Huillet Fields Forever, I Am the Walsh, I Wanna Be Your Mann, Penny Lang, Polythene Pabst, Savoy Truffaut, Some Other Guy-Blaché, The Fuller on the (George Roy) Hill, The Long and Winding Roeg, and of course the concept album Sandrich Perry’s Losey Herz Kluge Brahm.

Having finally sorted myself out with a Napier University staff card, I am at last free to plunder their library, which contains many interesting off-air recordings snatched from the jaws of time. BEWITCHED looked interesting, although I didn’t know what it was, and it shared a tape with CARDINAL RICHELIEU, which I also didn’t know what it was. Turned out to be Roland V. Lee directing the Iron Duke himself, George Arliss. Save that one for another day.

BEWITCHED is a 1945 psycho-noir — unrelated to the cutesy TV series or its ghastly movie spin-off — starring Phyllis Thaxter, who had hitherto escaped under my radar but is now firmly on it. She’s in things I’ve seen, like NO MAN OF HER OWN, but what chance did she have in that, with a few minutes screen time dominated by Barbara Stanwyck? Here, in only her second movie, she’s terrific in what amounts to a dual part. Because Joan Ellis has TWO MINDS IN THE SAME BODY!!!


This is essentially a Hollywood psycho-babble loony film, slotting neatly into the same genre as Curtis Bernhardt’s Joan Crawford vehicle POSSESSED, which I appreciated here. And isn’t it interesting that these somewhat campy melodramas, under the guise of educating us about psychiatric illness, use terms associated with sorcery and magic and religion in their titles? I bet there are more like that.

Oboler’s film, like Bernhardt’s, is emotive and seductive and evocative of psychological disturbance so long as it’s showing it in action, and then amusingly cheesy when it tries to explain it. Here we get amiably rubbish psychiatrist Edmund Gwenn as Dr (Henri?) Bergson, dispensing nonsense but nevertheless saving the day with a delightfully preposterous conclusion.

Oboler’s great! He begins with thrilling music (from the inventive Bronislau Kaper, whose stuff always stands out from the Hollywood norm) over a big clock, and we learn from Doc Bergson’s V.O. that a strange case is baffling him — but then an independant V.O. takes over, for this is going to be like a narrative relay race, with different storytelling approaches picked up and then discarded whenever Oboler gets the urge.

The God-V.O. dumps us into Phyllis’ past history, and we learn of her love affair with gruesome teen Hank Daniels, whom she will later gratify us by murdering. This stuff is all told with a degree of subjectivity, as we have access to Phyllis’s thoughts, and thus to the voice in her head. Evil Phyllis wants Good Phyllis to ditch this “boy” and get a “man”. Evil Phyllis is clearly horny.

Fleeing to New York via speedy montage (so much more comfortable than train), Phyllis falls into the hunky arms of attorney Stephen McNally (a real-life former attorney, which is a pretty nifty casting coup, especially for wartime — everybody in this movie is presumably 4F, but McNally is an A1 leading man), but this brings on another attack of the Evil Phyllis: when McNally takes Phyll in his arms, Evil Phyllis takes over and cops the kiss. So frustrating when that happens.

This part of the film is the smartest, since Phyllis’ problem seems not so much schizoid as schizophrenic: the nasty, critical voice in her head feels like a suppressed part of her own being, the part with sexual desires she can’t admit to. In fact, voice-in-the-head syndrome (as I’m now calling it, in defiance of all medical procedure) doesn’t necessarily signify schizophrenia or any kind of mental illness, although it can be annoying. Actress Zoe Wannamaker (daughter of actor-director Sam) has managed a very successful stage and screen career despite the irksome disembodied commentary running through her brain like ticker-tape: see here for more info if you have this problem.

Then there’s William Blake and Dickens and Freud and Ghandi, and all those hardcore Christians who think they’re having conversations with God, but whom I submit are actually conversing with discrete portions of the main-brain. Often the voices may convey thoughts censored by the overmind. Worth listening to, but not necessarily worth acting on. Most psychiatrists say that what the voices are on about is of no importance, the main thing is to smush them with drugs, but I tend to think there’s a significant difference between a voice saying “You suck,” (self-critical voices are something we all have, to a greater or lesser degree) and one saying “Kill your boyfriend.” If you acknowledge the voices as stemming from your own mind, you learn something about yourself you may not like, but which you can now tackle.

Phyllis gets this slightly wrong by stabbing her small-town boyfriend to death when he comes to take her back home, and now refuses to help lawyer-lover McNally help her mount a defense. Her reasoning is that if Good Phyllis goes to the chair, Evil Phyllis will perish also. The beast must die… etc.

Re-enter gentle Gwenn, who hypnotises Phyllis in front of the Governor (“Hocus-pocus!” he splutters) and separates out Good and Evil Phyllis into transparent astral projections. Say, this guy’s GOOD. Evil Phyllis looks a bit like Lil in FIRE WALK WITH ME, only without the Cindy Sherman trappings.


“Lil had a sour face.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Her face… it had a sour expression on it.”


Gwenn announces to the skeptical Gov that “the execution will take place as scheduled,” and sentences the phantasmal Phyllis to death. If only Multiple Personality Disorder were that easy. One problem being that experts don’t even agree if it exists — it seems to have been diagnosed almost exclusively in the United States, which is certainly suggestive of… something or other.

Based on this cracking film, which throws out interesting compositional or narrational or sound ideas in paractically every scene, I’m uber-intrigued to see Oboler’s other work — and hear it too. Next up from the library will be FIVE, his post-atomic survival yarn, and I’ve downloaded THE TWONKY, which had me whooping with glee within twenty seconds: more on that later.