December 7: Happy Birthday Arch Oboler

It is interesting that Pearl Harbor Day is also Arch Oboler‘s birthday. Interesting, but probably not significant. Arch would be105 years old in 2014, so it is interesting to wonder how he must have spent his 32nd birthday.

Ronald Colman‘s daughter said that Oboler was an “eccentric Hitler hating truth stretching flashy writer” who “wrote and directed in dirty dungarees, no socks, thong sandals, and a hat with a grease stained band”.  TIME called him a “horn-rimmed half-pint scrivener”. Oboler was no stranger to confrontation. Though assuredly as horrified as the rest of the nation at the audacity of the Japanese: Arch was probably thrilled at the thought of taking part in the scrap.

Oboler was the precocious child of poor, but cultured Jewish immigrants in Chicago. Young Arch was a voracious reader and had been taught to appreciate fine music. He sold his first short story at the age of ten (a story about an amorous dinosaur) and he continued to write through his teen years. Possibly hoping to shake the image of being a nerdy kid, Arch was also an accomplished boxer, in contention for a Golden Gloves championship. The writing was a better course to follow after getting expelled from the University of Chicago, even though it was his confrontational manner that earned him the boot.

Arch saw terrific potential in radio as a storytelling medium, even if it was being “wasted” on radio Soap Operas. In 1933, he wrote his first radio play, which NBC thought was impressive enough to include in the dedication program for the new Radio City headquarters. The show was a success, but the writer took some flack about lampooning the slogan of American Tobacco. At the time, the feelings of sponsors were considered sacred by the network, and it was far from the last time Oboler would ruffle feathers, corporate and otherwise.

For the next few years Oboler was kept busy with “Potboilers”, but in 1936, he wrote a short play for the Rudy Vallee Program which won him a 52 week stint writing bits for Don Ameche on the Chase and Sanborn Hour. Of course, it was doomed to end poorly; Oboler wrote a small play with Mae West in the Garden of Eden which did not go over well with the sponsors.

By this time,  Oboler had taken over Wyllis Cooper’s Lights Out!, and was beginning to make it his own show. When he first drew the assignment for Lights Out!, it was with less than enthusiasm. Midnight on Tuesday was hardly a glorious time slot, but he soon realized that he was hidden from sponsors and censors, so there was a chance to experiment with story and content. Not the mention an opportunity to circumvent NBC’s neutrality policy and smuggle in the occasional anti-Fascist message.

Arch-Oboler-Norma-Shearer-radioIn 1939, Oboler used his own money to record his script “The Ugliest Man In The Universe” and presented it to the Network. Fortuitously, NBC was desperate to come up with something similar to CBS’s Columbia Workshop.

Oboler was given a green light for the new project, and until a sponsor was found, it even carried his name. Arch Oboler’s Plays was stuck opposite Jack Benny on Sunday nights, but still managed to attract some impressive talent, including Bette Davis, James Cagney, Ronald Colman and Edmond O’Brien. When Proctor and Gamble came on board, the show became Everyman’s Theater for 1940-41. Arch soon tired of having to disrupt his show to put a commercial in the middle, and quit.

After Pearl Harbor, the anti-Fascist shows that Oboler used to receive flack for were suddenly in demand. He took no fee for writing Plays For Americans, but the program was eventually shut down for Oboler being too inflammatory. Oboler continued with other propaganda efforts, including Everything For The Boys, a collaboration with Ronald Colman. Unfortunately, the actor and the writer never got along.

Oboler was ready to make the jump to scripting and directing movies, but it seems uncertain whether the movies were really ready for Oboler. His movie career is most notable for his experimentation with the earliest 3D films.

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.

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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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Arch Oboler: “The Dark” — Man turning inside out radio sound effects

It we consider radio drama as an art form, three great names stand out as masters; Orson Welles, Norman Corwin, and Arch Oboler. Of the three, Oboler could almost be counted as a forgotten or over-looked genius.

Oboler was the child of impoverished Latvian Jews in Chicago; his childhood was poor but highly cultured, surrounded with books and classical music. He had a tough time at university were his confrontational personality led to expulsion. He turned to writing pulp fiction to pay the bills.

Oboler entered radio, a medium that he felt was being wasted on soap operas, because he thought radio plays had terrific potential to tell stories with ideas. His gain experience and recognition writing short plays for Rudy Vallee and Don Ameche with The Chase and Sanborn Hour.

In 1936 Oboler was offered the reins of Wylis Cooper’s Lights Out radio show. At first he was unenthusiastic about being stuck with a horror radio show that played at midnight on Tuesdays (“not my idea of a writing Shangri-La”) but soon realized that the lack of sponsorship and full artistic control gave him a chance to experiment with content and style. Although NBC had a policy of strict neutrality in the pre-War years, Oboler still managed to smuggle in some anti-Facist messages.

Oboler was considered a minimalist who never used a sound effect or piece of music when a spoken word could create a better image in the listener’s mind. When he did use a sound effect, you can be sure that the image would be built in such a way heighten the effect of an often simple effect.

Some of the best are featured in the episode “Drop Dead”. Oboler explains that he has accepted a challenge to frighten his audience, even though he knows that his audience is not “easily horrified”. This episode features retelling of some of Oboler’s most famous radio horror plays.

One of the most creepy is “The Dark” were a greasy black fog escapes its confinement with a power to turn human bodies inside out. This is one of those stories that is best told on radio where the story teller has the best opportunity to manipulate the images in the listeners mind.

The set up dialog is very well done, but the payoff is the actual sound of a person being turned inside-out. The story begins at 8 minutes and 10 seconds into the broadcast. Between 11 minutes and 11 minutes, 30 seconds we discover a body that has been turned inside-out, and from 14:30 to 14:45 we actually hear the sickening sounds as flesh is brutalized as a body is turned inside-out. We here this frightening sound twice more in the story.  Enjoy this spine tingling excerpt:

How could the producer create the effect of a body abused in such a way without reaching down an actor’s throat and yanking? Here’s the spoiler: the brilliant sound effects man wore a surgeon’s rubber glove, and noisily removed it with his hand near the microphone!

This unforgettable recording is available in the new Arch Oboler old time radio collection and Drop Dead Recordings.