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 Welles was.

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 audio innovations.

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.)

By 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 3-D.

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 in 3-D.

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 (1943)
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.

Acting: B+
Atmosphere: C+
Fun: C-

The Arnelo Affair (1947)
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 murder melodrama.

Acting: B-
Atmosphere: C
Fun: D+

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