Hardly a name that film scholars
would mention in the same breath with Orson Welles,
in the heyday of radio drama, Arch Oboler rivaled Welles'
genius for audio dramatics in the opinion of critics.
The eccentric thinker behind the classic Lights Out
series was, in his prime, every inch the innovator that
A Chicago native, Oboler demonstrated
his offbeat flair for broadcast melodrama early on.
Assuming control of Lights Out from its creator,
Oboler wasted little time in transforming the program
into a dramatic wellspring, brimming with groundbreaking
At its best, Lights Out
was a seamless weave of spoken word and ambient sound,
punctuated by ironic dramatic hooks that kept its devoted
legion of listeners breathlessly tuned, week after week.
Even as Welles shocked much of the nation with the unforgettable
War of the Worlds sham, so did Oboler incite
panic with an episode detailing the horror of a giant,
undulating chicken heart. The very fact that something
patently silly could nonetheless be terrifying is a
testament to Oboler's genius for manipulating his medium.
Like Welles, Oboler was eventually
summoned to Hollywood and began churning out feature
scripts for mellers like RKO's Gangway For Tomorrow.
Proving to producers that he knew his way around a screenplay,
Arch was at last given the opportunity to direct. Forgotten
features like Bewitched and The Arnelo Affair
bore his unique dramatic stamp, but Oboler's seeming inability to coax warm performances from his actors
dulled whatever edge his scripts possessed.
Oboler returned to speculative fantasy in the early 1950s producing his most intriguing and, arguably, best-remembered film. Scripted
and directed by Oboler, Five (1951) was the earliest
film treatment concerning post-atomic survivors. Simplistically
detailing the fates of five humans who survive the devastation
of an all-out nuclear war, Five was filmed on the grounds of Oboler's Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home. (Interestingly, another highly-regarded cinema eccentric, celebrated designer/director William Cameron Menzies, also turned to low-budget fantasy films as an expressive outlet, directing Invaders From Mars and The Whip Hand at the start of the decade.)
1950, television's siren-like signal was beginning to
penetrate American domiciles, inviting filmgoers to
stay at home and enjoy their dramatics via cathode ray.
Film producers set about developing big-screen enticements
with which to lure patrons out of their easy chairs
and back into theater seats. Along with Cinema scope
and Cinerama, the best-remembered of these is undoubtedly
And who was tapped to helm filmland's
first 3-D feature? Arch Oboler wrote and directed Bwana
Devil, a 3-D safari saga that starred Robert Stack and
Nigel Bruce. Hardly recalled as a model of high-tech,
high-drama filmmaking, it nonetheless stirred industry
waves to a capsizing crest. The 3-D bandwagon was burgeoned
with quick-buck hopefuls. It looked like the gimmick
was here to stay. House of Wax, Creature From The
Black Lagoon, even Kiss Me Kate was begun
And just as quickly, 3-D died.
No one is quite sure why. The expensive and cumbersome
shooting process. The goofy glasses. Whatever the reason,
it didn't last. And Arch Oboler was on to other things.
For a film that's nearly impossible
to see these days, The Twonky is a cult-film
curio that's undergone more than its share of analysis.
Based on a story by pulp master Henry Kuttner, it stars
ace character actor Hans Conreid in a tale of a television
possessed. Producer Sidney Pink recalls Oboler as eccentrically
excessive and difficult to work with, hinting that Oboler
inadvertently sabotaged his own career.
Oboler drifted into long-forgotten,
ill-defined projects before taking one last crack at
gimmick filmmaking. Written and directed by Arch, The
Bubble (1966) was lensed in a process dubbed Space-Vision.
Echoing his earlier success, it details the reactions
of a few turgid humans who find themselves trapped in
a deserted town that is enveloped by an omnipresent
invisible bubble. The film would have tidily fit into
a Twilight Zone format, but as a feature it just doesn't
play. Talky and unexciting to look at, the only recognizable
name in its cast is beach bunny Deborah Walley who had
made a fleeting mark as Gidget four years earlier.
Deservedly, The Bubble
sparked little interest, and by the decade's end, Oboler
was at work on European film projects that few in the
states would have the opportunity to view.
In a strange way, Arch Oboler's
genius may have proved to be his artistic undoing as
a filmmaker. His best pictures play like filmed radio
dramas, despite the presence of 3-D or Space-Vision.
Though visually uninspired and artificial, his words
are still there to enjoy. The following examples
will hopefully shed some light on the artistic character
of this eccentric innovator:
Gangway For Tomorrow
Oboler, in his first
Hollywood effort, was an odd choice to script this war-time
domestic morale-booster. John Carradine, Margo and Robert
Ryan bolster the cast of munitions workers who reveal
their pasts via flashbacks.
Oboler's one directorial outing with a big-name
cast is a stodgy and unmemorable attempt at intrigue. John Hodiak, George Murphy and serial queen Frances
Gifford perform dutifully in this workmanlike, noirish