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O–Q Entries
Simon Oakland
Arch Oboler
Charles Ogle
Willis O'Brien
George Pal
Gregory Peck
Cassandra Peterson
Walter Pidgeon
Jack P. Pierce
Vincent Price
Anthony Quinn
 
OBOLER, ARCH
(1909–1987). American writer, director, and producer.

SCIENCE FICTION, FANTASY, AND HORROR FILM CREDITS
Wrote and directed: Bewitched (1945); The Strange Holiday [The Day after Tomorrow] (1946).

Wrote, directed, and produced: Five (1951); The Twonky (1953); The Bubble [The Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth] (1967).

Produced: Lights Out (tv series) (1949-52).

 
According to one fashionable school of scholarship, the science fiction films of the 1950s are best viewed as fantasticated newspaper headlines in which writers, directors, and actors expressed their concerns about contemporary political and social issues. The fact that this approach often defies common sense, and does violence to the films being examined, appears to go unnoticed. Instead of their repeated assaults on classics like Invaders from Mars, This Island Earth, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, these critics would be better advised to scrutinize the films of Arch Oboler. Here, their methodologies will work perfectly well, for Oboler was manifestly a man who was focused on the problems of postwar American society and determined to employ science fiction film as a medium to convey his strongly felt opinions on those subjects. Unfortunately, this also helps to explain why his films so quickly seemed dated and fell into oblivion.

Oboler's first and truest love was radio, surely the form of popular entertainment best suited to provide instant feedback on current events, and an apprenticeship of churning out innumerable (and now, it appears, virtually untraceable) scripts for radio dramas brought one peculiar advantage: he came to film writing with absolutely no sense of the genre's typical patterns and conventions. As a result, whatever their flaws and virtues, every Oboler film is one of a kind; one can justifiably apply many derogatory adjectives to his work, but "predictable" is not one of them. Yet his radio background also made Oboler overly reliant on words rather than images to drive home his points, a tendency that he gradually but imperfectly outgrew.

Oboler's probing exegeses of modern civilization began with Bewitched, one of the many films (Spellbound, The Snake Pit, etc.) that reflect the postwar American discovery of mental illness. Yet a film that depicts the problem of split personality in terms of a woman's "good self" being periodically taken over by her "evil self" could hardly be taken seriously, even at the time. The Strange Holiday offers an hysterical, even hallucinogenic defense of imperilled democracy in its tale of a man who returns from a trip to discover that America has suddenly been transformed into a totalitarian dictatorship. In sharp contrast, Oboler's most famous film, Five, is preternaturally subdued in presenting the extended conversations of the only five people who survive a global nuclear holocaust; while more sophisticated than Fredric GADETTE's This Is Not a Test, Five analogously has an eerie, evocative power that stems more from its creator's inability to grapple with the enormity of the imagined situation than from his artistry in portraying it. Another sharp contrast is next provided by The Twonky, Oboler's far-from-subtle comedic analysis of the evil effects of television on American society. (Despite his experience in producing the television series Lights Out, Oboler developed a visceral dislike for the medium when he saw that it was destroying radio drama.) In this film, Oboler sought for the first time to emphasize his argument in visual terms by displaying a malevolent television set that invades a man's home, marches around his house, and shoots destructive rays at opponents; yet as even a summary suggests, the story's concept and presentation are much too silly to be persuasive.

If The Twonky could not ridicule television out of existence, Oboler dreamed that 3-D films might challenge their growing dominance, leading to his production of the first 3-D film, the routine African adventure Bwana Devil (1953). Although 3-D films quickly went out of fashion, Oboler remained interested in the technique and eventually made another 3-D film, The Bubble, which qualifies as the one genuine puzzle in the Oboler filmography. The political and social ideas that inspired and infuse the four films already discussed are so diagrammatically obvious that any critic with a brain on autopilot could easily churn out pages of scholarly analysis learnedly restating what Oboler has already plastered across the screen; yet it is difficult indeed to say precisely what The Bubble is all about. Apparently, alien invaders create a force field around a small town, placing it in suspended animation and turning its residents into zombies of sorts. Such a story might serve as a parable about anything ranging from the dangers of conformity to the stultifying restraints of the Hollywood film industry, but none of the characters are given any speeches to communicate such a message, and the absence of an ending suggests that Oboler himself didn't quite know how to interpret what was going on. Perhaps Oboler finally decided to turn his back on his background in radio and make a motion picture in the truest sense of the world—a series of striking, three-dimensional visuals unaccompanied by verbal explanations—only to flounder artistically when he left himself without anything to say.

Other filmmakers may be fruitfully enigmatic, then, but Arch Oboler needed to send a message in order to stimulate his creative talents, such as they were. Yet if all you are doing is sending a message, people will soon stop listening to you, even if your message arrives with some quirky, original trappings. The best and most enduring science fiction films of the 1950s, despite critical posterings to the contrary, thankfully had broader goals in mind.

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