Archive for Bwana Devil

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

Herr Future Director

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

Here’s Andre De Toth, in De Toth on De Toth, on the famous paddle-ball scene from HOUSE OF WAX ~

Andre De Toth: That shot gave me the only problem with the herd of second-guessers. They all wanted more of it; I didn’t.

Bernie Foy knew to get off the stage before the applause dies. Jack Warner saw BWANA DEVIL and the lion jumped out of the screen and unloaded in his lap and he left the show with a blinding headache. JL and Brynie understood what I was trying to avoid. Those overstated effects killed 3D. How many times can a lion crap in the poor suckers’ laps before they rebel?

Anthony Slide: But you were very good at integrating these gimmicks into the film. I’m thinking of, for example, the can-can dancers.

ADT: The properly used power of a third-dimensional film can make the audience believe they are not viewers, but are part of the scene. It was natural that they saw and felt the same derrieres of the can-can girls on their noses as the night-club customers. But not for too long. There is a big difference in concept between a ‘3D movie’ and a ‘third-dimensional film.’


It’s too bad none of the other one-eyed directors — which is not a ‘handicap’ — made third-dimensional movies. John Ford, Fritz Lang, Raoul Walsh. They understood film, the power of lenses; they were perfectionists, demanding the best. For them, too, it would’ve been a challenge to overcome a ‘disability’ which is actually a blessing in disguise, shooting flat or 3D.

There is only one image in the camera — it’s on the negative behind the lens at the moment of exposure, and that’s the image of one eye. The director, and not a sketch artist, has to see that image before the camera is set. Remember, Herr Future Director, there is only one right angle. And be big and don’t care who comes up with it, as long as you, the director, feel it’s right. Say thanks, loud, and do it.

Help Shadowplay by buying from Amazon via our links. UK:

House Of Wax [DVD] [1953]

De Toth on De Toth: Putting the Drama in Front of the Camera (Directors on Directors)


De Toth on De Toth: Putting the Drama in Front of the Camera (Directors on Directors)

TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Horror (House of Wax 1953 / The Haunting 1963 / Freaks / Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 1941)

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.)