Arch Oboler’s Strange Journey

1PhotoArchObolerArch Oboler is often compared with other radio genius of his time, like Orson Welles and Norman Corwin. Unfortunately, Oboler often gets painted with the dry brush. Truly, it is a matter of success drawing praise, but it ignores the real gifts that Oboler brought to radio and later the big and little screens.

Arch Oboler

Corwin had an almost Shakespearean command of language and brought a sense of high theater to his radio projects. In comparison, Arch Oboler was more like the kid at summer camp whom we remember for telling the scariest radio stories around the campfire. Both artists were incredibly effective at delivering their message, Oboler perhaps more so because of his directness and simplicity.

Orson Welles was also a larger than life story teller, especially on radio, but his work lacked the startling and sometimes disturbing originality of Oboler’s. In Hollywood, Citizen Kane enjoyed runaway success in comparison to any of Oboler’s film work, but Oboler may have had greater success at telling his stories, his way, than Welles.

Arch Oboler was first and always a teller of tales. His vision, as well as his relation to authority, may have been difficult for others to understand, but his stories are always fascinating.

Oboler’s parents were poor but cultured Jewish immigrants who settled in Chicago. Arch grew up a voracious reader, and learned to value his own opinions. This led to a precociousness which sometimes got him in trouble.

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There was always classical music and books in the Oboler household. Arch was a huge fan of movies, and his father managed to get an early Bell & Howell Filmo 16mm movie camera for him. He sold his first short story at the age of 10 and wrote pulp fiction throughout his teen years. He possessed the discipline to write, as well as to nearly achieve a Golden Gloves championship. However, the University of Chicago expelled him for his confrontational attitude, and he became a full time fiction writer.

Oboler saw radio as having a great deal of untapped potential as a storytelling medium (he saw it as being “wasted” on radio soap operas). He managed to sell an unsolicited script which was used as part of the inaugural broadcast from NBC’s Radio City in 1933. The show was a success, but Oboler took some heat for making fun of a sponsor.

The young writer received some tasking between 1933 and 1936, but his break came when Rudy Vallee’s program featured  one of his plays. This lead to a 52 week gig writing for Don Ameche on the Chase and Sanborn Hour. This placed him in a good position to be tapped as head writer for Lights Out! when Wyllis Cooper left for the movies.

Lights Out! is Oboler’s best remembered contribution to radio, although apparently not a personal favorite. He did enjoy the artistic freedom afforded by a Tuesday midnight time-slot, but even then he managed to ruffle feathers.  Oboler longed to write stories that showed the dangers of Fascism. He said that when working on Lights Out! He would write two weeks of full horror, and the third try to inject a more serious, thought provoking topic.

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Oboler managed to attract controversy with a 1937 sketch for the Chase and Sanborn Hour, which featured Mae West in a bawdy version of the Garden of Eden. The short play is tame by modern standards, and Oboler maintained that the biggest sin was broadcasting it on Sunday night. NBC banned Mae West from radio over the incident. Oboler, however, found himself in the right place at the right time in 1939 when  NBC was looking for a project to compete with Columbia Workshop on CBS.

Recognizing that he would be in direct competition with Norman Corwin, NBC gave Oboler complete creative control and even put his name on the project, Arch Oboler’s Plays. The show began without a sponsor, and had the misfortune to play on Sunday nights at 7 to 7:30, the same time Jack Benny was on CBS. However, the stars were lining up to work on a show scripted by Oboler, and soon Proctor and Gamble picked up sponsorship, but renamed the show Everyman’s Theater.

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After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Oboler’s anti-Facist sentiments became more appealing to audiences, and he became involved with a number of patriotically themed projects, including Four For the Fifth, Plays for Americans, Everything For The Boys, and several other War Bond related projects.

Oboler’s film career was unsteady from the beginning, but consistently shows the same level of creativity in storytelling that he put into his radio work. His first directorial project was a propaganda short for General Motors, which the auto company choose not to release. The story starred Claude Rains as a man who returns from vacation to find that Nazis have taken over his town, along with the whole US. With GM dragging their feet, Rains and Oboler bought back the picture and expanded it to the full length Strange Holiday.

archobolorlightsoutBewitched was a more “Oboler-esque” project, based on the radio-play “Alter Ego” about a woman with a split personality. The 1951 film Five was post apocalypse tale of a woman tormented by the belief her husband survived radiation poisoning. Five was the first American Film to use magnetic tape sound recording.

Oboler was far from afraid to stretch technical limits in his films. While working in Africa, he became fascinated with the man-eating Tsavo Lion story. He used this as the basis for a script, but when he was discussing the project with colleagues, he received encouragement to use the story in a newly developed 3D format. The result was Bwana Devil, Hollywood’s first feature length color 3D film.

Oboler scripted The Twonky (1953), which came from a story in Astounding Science Fiction. The story is of a college professor who discovers that his TV is actually a robot from another world. In 1956, Oboler tried his hand at Broadway with Night of the Auk. The play, which was about a space mission to the moon, closed quickly, but a cut down version appeared on Public Television in 1960 (with William Shatner walking the decks of a spaceship for the first time).

In 1987, Arch Oboler died suddenly from a heart attack while in the hospital. At the age of eighty, he was still dictating stories to his secretary while on his deathbed.

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July 22: 73rd Anniversary of Suspense on the Radio…

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On July 22,  we celebrate the anniversary of one of Old Time Radio’s greatest treasures, Suspense. Soon fans will argue that the anniversary is actually June 17, 1942. That is when the fully developed program launched as a weekly series. However, that night in July of 1940 was the first time the public heard a Suspense radio program, and the premiere caused its own share of ruckus for a program which would go on to last for twenty years as a weekly feature, right to the very end of the Radio age.

The Columbia Broadcasting Service, the “Tiffany Network”, built a reputation for bringing the highest quality programming to the airwaves, no matter the expense. This pursuit of The Best manifested itself in many ways, from the almost cinematic productions of Norman Corwin to the infamous NBC “Talent Raids” when CBS chief William Paley outbid the older network for some of its most profitable acts (and helped to establish CBS as the dominant presence in Post War radio).

Fun With Hitchcock

Alfred_Hitchcock_by_Jack_MitchellCBS was not afraid to take risks on new shows and concepts, but like anyone else playing for high stakes, they did their best to minimize the risks. One way the network developed to try out new shows was to introduce them as a summer replacement series for the radio. Another device was a weekly program called Forecast (Forecast itself filled a Monday night summer slot). Forecast was designed as a preview of new radio programs, presenting two audition shows each week. Other great shows that got their start on  Forecast include Duffy’s Tavern.

English movie director Alfred Hitchcock had already established himself as “the master of Suspense” by 1940. Having established himself as one of England’s greatest movie directors, Hitchcock was brought to America by producer David R. Selznick. His first American film, Rebecca, won best picture, and he was getting ready to repeat that success with Foreign Correspondent. Part of the promotion for both films was to have Hitchcock direct the audition program for Suspense. To sweeten the deal, Edmund Gwenn and Herbert Marshall, both of whom were working on Foreign Correspondent, were included in the package.

Hitchcock chose to dramatize the short story “The Lodger” which he had brought to the silent screen in 1926. It was the story of a London boarding house keeper whose guest may or may not have been the infamous Jack The Ripper. In an effort to keep the audience in “Suspense”, at the end of the broadcast Hitchcock neglected to reveal whether or not the Lodger really was the Ripper. This was a major coup for the show-to-be. If listeners wanted to find the answer, they had to write to the network. The show received hundreds of letter, not all of it favorable. Many were upset over the cliff hanger, but CBS was convinced.

Establishing a Weekly Favorite

SuspenseadHowever, even the Tiffany network could not afford Hitchcock every week, so the project was turned over to William Spier, “the Hitchcock of the airwaves”. Suspense began as a sustained program, but soon sponsor Roma Wines was paying the bills.

A number of factors went into making Suspense an incredible Radio success. The production values were kept very high. Spier and the producers that followed him were able to attract an impressive selection of actors to Suspense, not just radio heavyweights, but big names from the screen, as well.

For the actors, Suspense gained a reputation for being a fun project to appear on. The anthology format meant that there would be a variety of different characters to play and develop. Rarely were they the sort of characters that the actors were used to playing. It is very interesting to hear comics like Jack Benny playing a Martian laborer or a clueless bank robber, or Jim and Marian Jones (Fibber McGee and Molly) as kidnap victims. Listeners have their ear ready for a quip or joke, but it never comes. Instead, the anticipation draws the listener even deeper into the story.

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Even more than the production and the actors, the stories were the big attraction of Suspense. Pretty much anything was fair game, as long as it would keep the audience in Suspense. One of the earliest successes was an adaptation of Lucille Fletcher’s “Sorry, Wrong Number”, Agnes Moorehead plays a woman who panics when she overhears part of the murder plot but cannot convince anyone of what she heard. “Sorry,
Wrong Number” would be repeated seven times over the 20 year run of Suspense. Fletcher also penned “The Hitch Hiker”, which featured Orson Welles as a man stalked by a mysterious stranger across country.

Endings, Remembrance, and Rebirth

suspense5The coming of television took a toll on Suspense, but not as big as it would appear. Budgets were slashed, both sponsors and producers left for the small screen, but the stories were still presented every week, keeping audiences in Suspense. Eventually, CBS gave up on dramatic radio completely on September 30, 1962. The last two programs broadcast were Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense.

Suspense was simply too good of a show to die with the Golden Age of Radio. The existing episodes are a cornerstone of any OTR collection.

70th Anniversary of “Sorry, Wrong Number”

On May 25, 2013, we celebrate the 70th anniversary of one of Old Time Radio’s truly magnificent treasures. One that evening in 1943, CBS’s “Outstanding Theater of Thrills”, radio’s Suspense!, presented for the first time the chilling tale “Sorry, Wrong Number”.

Lucille Fletcher, one of the female mystery writers who dominated the genre, wrote the radio play. In contrast to other types of fiction, there was relatively little “gender-gap” for mystery writers. In part, this was due to Agatha Christie’s work popularizing the genre, but the editor’s need to gather compelling stories whereever they could be found was also a factor. Ms. Fletcher also penned “The Hitch Hiker” script that was hugely successful for Orson Welles in 1941. Welles would later opine that “The Hitch Hiker” and “Sorry, Wrong Number” were the best suspense plays ever written for Radio.

“Sorry, Wrong Number” was as simple as it was effective. The program as originally written as almost a one woman show and radio veteran Agnes Moorehead handled it masterfully. The story opens as she is trying to reach her late-working husband, but finds that his office telephone is constantly busy. Seeking aid from the operator, she overhears two men plotting a cold-blooded murder. As the program progresses, the woman (and the audience) come to realize that she is the intended victim of the crime.

There were two performances of the episode on the evening of May 25, 1943; first for the East Coast and then for the West. One of the supporting actors missed a cue near the end of the East Coast broadcast, which resulted in some confusion among listeners as to the actual outcome of the story. Producer William Spier aired a clarification at the beginning of the following week’s episode, “Banquo’s Chair”, and also announced that the story would be repeated on the coming weeks due to the outstanding audience response. Suspense would present “Sorry, Wrong Number” seven times, each time starring Ms. Moorehead. Each time she assumed the role, Moorehead used her original, dog-earred script.

Producers hired Ms. Fletcher to expand the story for the 1948 film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck received a nomination for the Best Actress Oscar for the role, but many fans of noir fiction feel that the expanded plot of the movie loses the taut simplicity and sheer terror of the original radio version. Ms. Stanwyck appeared on the Jack Benny Program plugging the film and supporting Jack’s parody. She also reprised her movie role for the Jan 9, 1950, Lux Radio Theater presentation.

Enjoy the “West Coast” version of “Sorry Wrong Number” starring Agnes Moorehead in radio’s Suspense!:

http://www.otrcat.net/otr6/Suspense-430525-043-SorryWrongNumber–OTRCAT.com.mp3

Atomic Consequences of “The Conqueror”: Howard Hughes Big Budget Film Flop



Howard Hugh’s film, The Conquerer (1956) was a big budget flop and nearby nuclear testing was blamed for 91 or 220 of the film cast suffering from cancer in subsequent years.

An artifact of the Atomic Age, the 1956 big budget film, The Conqueror could be considered just another costly Hollywood mistake.

One thing that can be said for legendary tycoon Howard Hughes: when he made a mistake, it tended to be an incredibly costly mistake. The film had a $6,000,000 budget, and a domestic gross of just $4,500,000; an almost textbook definition of a failed movie. Hughes felt bad enough about the mistakes on the film that he bought every existing print of the film for $12 million and kept it from view until 1974.

The Conqueror was a lousy film. It appears on several lists the “Worst Films of All Time.” It is a story based on the life of the Mongol warrior Temujin, whom history remembers as Ghengis Khan. Marlon Brando was the intended lead when the script was written. It eventually wound up in the hands of radio and movie star Dick Powell.

After ending his association with NBC Radio’s Richard Diamond, Private Detective, Powell began directing films. John Wayne was near the end of a three film contract with Hughes’ RKO Studios, and came to Powell’s office to review scripts. At some point, Powell left the office for a few minutes, and the Duke began perusing The Conqueror. He expressed enthusiasm for the project when Powell returned to the office. Powell would later comment “Who am I to turn down John Wayne?”

Along with All American John Wayne cast as the Mongol leader, Susan Hayward came on board as a red-headed Tartar princess and the picture’s love interest. Very creditable supporting roles went to Pedro Armendariz and radio and film star Agnes Moorehead.

Work on the film progressed with a degree of enthusiasm that should accompany a blockbuster. Principle outdoor photography took place near St. George, Utah, during the summer of 1954. John Wayne went on a crash diet for his role. The local community was wildly enthusiastic at having a big budget film crew in their midst. The film used many locals as extras, including Native North Americans as horseback warriors. Hughes bankrolled the shipment of sixty tons of sand and soil from the area to Hollywood for use in retakes.

The movie premiered on Feb 26, 1956 and flopped.

And then the principles began dying.

The St. George area was within 135 miles of the Nevada Test Range. Although no test detonations occurred during production of the film, 11 atomic explosions took place the previous year, including two exceptionally “dirty” above ground tests with high degrees of fall out. The dunes around St. George were natural collecting areas for wind-borne material, including fallout. The dunes were also the preferred location for many of the movies very dusty action scenes.

Actress Agnes Moorehead was one of the first to express concern about rumors over “radioactive germs” near the filming sites. Shortly after Agnes Moorehead’s final role in Radio Mystery Theater, Moorehead died of uterine cancer in 1972. Director Dick Powell died of cancerous lymphoma in 1963. Pedro Armendariz received diagnosis of cancer of the kidney in 1960, and committed suicide when his condition became terminal in 1963. Susan Hayward passed away in 1975 from pneumonia related to complications due to brain cancer.

When John Wayne heard about Armendariz’ suicide, he commented “I don’t blame Pete. I’d have done the same thing.” Wayne’s doctors diagnosed lung-cancer in 1964, which the Duke battled nobly. His entire left lung and four ribs had to be removed, and he was declared cancer free. He would continue to work, including a physically demanding role in the 1969 Cold War classic The Green Berets. John Wayne’s final film was the eerily prescient; The Shootist centered on an aging gunfighter suffering the ravages of cancer. Wayne died of stomach cancer in 1979.

There were, of course, many other factors behind these cancer deaths than spending the summer of 1954 near the Nevada Test Range. Agnes Moorehead was a heavy smoker. Unfiltered cigarettes were as much a part of John Wayne’s screen persona as his Colt Peacemaker. However, of The Conqueror’s production company of 220 people, 91 contracted some form cancer by 1981 (Statistically, a group that size should see around 30 cases of cancer.) This number does not include the high incidence of cancer among the families of the stars who spent that summer in St. George. The residents of that area of Utah have an inexplicably high rate of cancer, as well.

The Conqueror was the last film with which Howard Hughes involved himself. The movie’s high cost was one of the final factors in the demise of RKO Studios. Along with another Cold War fable, Ice Station Zebra, it was one of the films that Howard Hughes watched repeatedly during the isolated madness of his final years.


More more interesting reading, see also: Atomic Radio