powered by AFI
Widely recognized as the film that sparked Hollywood's intense 3-D production boom of the early-to-mid 1950s, Bwana Devil (1952) is a well-known title to even the most casual classic movie fan, though few may have actually seen it. A thoroughly mediocre offering from independent producer Arch Oboler, Bwana Devil also helped create the popular notion that 3-D was strictly a gimmick used by studios to bolster interest in low-budget, undeserving potboilers. While several first class 3-Dimensional movies emerged in its wake, Bwana Devil has tended to unfairly color the public perception of 3-D since it received a critical drubbing even as it earned a fortune at the box office.
Sid Pink was head of production, advertising, and sales for Arch Oboler Productions in 1952, and in an issue of Filmfax magazine (No. 23, November 1990), he wrote extensively about the genesis of Bwana Devil and the state of Oboler's company at the time. Famed radio producer Oboler had entered independent production with the very low-budget science fiction film Five (1951), which was largely shot at his own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house. This movie was picked up for distribution by Columbia Pictures, so Oboler turned out another science fiction film, a peculiar satire called The Twonky, based on a short story by Henry Kuttner. This film proved to be a tough sell, however, as no major studio was willing to distribute it. With so much capital tied up in a finished but unsold film, "the company was flirting with bankruptcy," according to Pink. He wrote that Oboler "...had just enough money to perhaps create a story idea or script and launch it in an attempt to attract investors, but it would have to be a 'lulu' since Oboler's track record was so poor."
The opportunity that Oboler and Pink sought arrived from The Natural Vision Co., made up of brothers Milton and Dr. Julian Gunzburg. The latter had developed a new method of shooting and projecting stereoscopic images on film. 3-D movies were nothing new, and dated back to the earliest days of cinema, in fact. Gunzburg's use of polarized lenses meant that color could be a component of the experience. The Natural Vision Co. had shopped their idea around to the major studios and found no takers, so they took their demonstration to independent producers. Pink wrote, "We saw a test reel, and I was convinced this was the savior of the movie industry, but more to the point, the savior of Arch Oboler Productions."
Perhaps too broke to seek out new story material to turn into a 3-D feature, Oboler turned to a property that he already had the rights to, a book called The Lions of Gulu, based on the true story of two man-eating lions that caused panic and interrupted work on the Trans-African Railroad at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Oboler had already written a script with low-budget filming in mind (i.e. no location shooting in Africa), so once initial financing was secured, it was a matter of casting and a quick turnaround in production to ensure that their film would be the first 3-D feature to hit the screen. Pink writes that Robert Stack was his first choice to play the lead role and, when contacted, "he was intrigued by the idea of the opportunity to make motion picture history, and so he signed a deal we could afford." In his 1981 autobiography Straight Shooting, Stack wrote that he was very interested in the new technology, although he was wary of the project after seeing the script. "It wasn't the easiest acting job I'd ever had," he wrote; "I can't be held entirely to blame with lines like: 'Those infernal devils. I'm going to sit in the middle of that field tonight, and if those devils want me, they can come and get me!'" Having signed Stack, Oboler was able to secure other name actors, such as Barbara Britton and venerable supporting actor Nigel Bruce.
To film the project Oboler hired Joseph F. Biroc, who Pink called "the only union cameraman familiar with the [3-D] process." The producers also went with Ansco for their film stock and laboratory needs; while Ansco would eventually be more commonplace in the industry, they were untested at the time for feature films. The 20-day long shoot took place largely at the Paramount Ranch in Malibu, California, which substituted for East Africa. During shooting, Ansco was unable to develop matching prints, so the stereoscopic effect could not be evaluated during daily rushes - only after the filming was completed could the filmmakers properly judge their work. As Hal Morgan and Daniel Symmes report in Amazing 3-D, their 1982 survey of 3-D in popular culture, "...the original 3-D cinematography was not bad. Shot in Ansco Color and printed on Du Pont color-print stock, the high-contrast and pastel colors give an unexpected air of authenticity to the outdoor African scenes - surprising because most of them were filmed in the hills above Malibu..."
Pink wrote that production was touch-and-go, because "money had to be raised on a weekly basis, and the beginning of each week presented the same financial problems: how to meet the payroll at the end of the week." Although Oboler had two feature films under his belt, Pink reported that Oboler did not give much direction to his actors and Robert Stack stepped in to take up the slack. In his autobiography, Stack did not indicate that he assisted with directing the other actors, but he did write of the sometimes-chaotic conditions on the set. For a scene in which Masai warriors circle a lion, Stack said that Oboler recruited his players from non-actors in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles; "His warriors went into the wardrobe tent a bunch of zoot-suited, gum chewing pool sharks, and came out looking like Masai - superficially anyway. He told them all to form a circle and get used to waving the spear and shield. While the fellows were getting in the mood, the animal trainer took his young, tame lion and led him to the middle of the ring. I don't know who was more shocked, the Masai warriors or the young lion." Stack wrote that the terrified lion bolted and disappeared for two days. "Our Masai from Watts got the biggest hand I ever heard a cast and crew give a group of actors. The bus was ready to take them back, but they stuck around in costume all day."
For all the care taken with the Natural Vision 3-D photography, director Oboler allows for some very clumsy and inept sequences in Bwana Devil. Stock footage is often glaringly obvious in almost any film, but especially so here since the footage on the rear projection screen is not only low quality but flat as well. Oboler optimistically places actors or tree branches in front of his screen, but this only emphasizes the disparity. The African footage was at least new to Bwana Devil; it was shot some years earlier in 16mm by a friend of Oboler's while they were on safari. In a sequence in which Hayward and his wife search for a little Masai boy kidnapped by lions, they pass by several minutes of stock footage of the African plains (from the 2-D source, of course) which shows them walking "in front of" African elephants and giraffes. So when the first non-stock 3-D shot comes up in the scene and the pair encounters an ostrich, the effect could be nothing but unintentionally comic.
Bwana Devil opened on Thanksgiving weekend 1952 - simultaneously in two Paramount theaters in Los Angeles - and had patrons lined up for every show. By the end of the first week it had brought in more than $95,000 and became the talk of the industry. Based on this success, United Artists picked up Bwana Devil for wider distribution in early 1953. They bought the film outright for $1.75 million and also agreed to distribute Oboler's shelved picture The Twonky, although they gave that film only a few cursory theatrical showings. Original showings of Bwana Devil were preceded by an entertaining six-minute prologue that explained the 3-D process and the proper use of the Polaroid glasses. This short featured actor Lloyd Nolan, model Shirley Tegge (as "Miss 3-D"), and Bob Clampett's popular puppets Beany and Cecil (voiced by Daws Butler and Stan Freberg respectively). Bwana Devil went on to do sensational business across the country, in spite of blistering reviews of the film itself from almost every critic. Expressing a typical view, Time magazine wrote that "The story is strictly one-dimensional," resulting in "...a singularly flat adventure yarn."
As soon as the first reports of the box-office reaction to Bwana Devil trickled out, the studios that had turned down the Gunzburg Natural Vision system were signing up to produce films in the process. Warner Bros. dusted off an old horror property, The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and remade it as House of Wax (1953); it too was a smash at the box office. The Natural Vision system was booked solid, and since the basic principals of stereo photography were not subject to copyright, other studios (such as MGM and Universal) set their engineers to work to develop their own system for shooting films in stereo. While Oboler launched a huge trend in the movie industry and he saw his investment pay off in a big way, he nevertheless gave up film production following Bwana Devil. He did not direct another theatrical feature until the 1960s, but he would go on to make one more film in 3-D: The Bubble (1966), a low-budget science-fiction effort that flopped at the box-office.
Producer: Arch Oboler
Associate Producer: Sidney W. Pink
Director: Arch Oboler
Screenplay: Arch Oboler
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc; William D. Snyder (uncredited)
3-D technician: O. S. Bryhn
Music: Gordon Jenkins
Film Editing: John Hoffman
Cast: Robert Stack (Bob Hayward), Barbara Britton (Alice Hayward), Nigel Bruce (Dr. Angus McLean), Ramsay Hill (Major Parkhurst), Paul McVey (Commissioner), Hope Miller (Portuguese girl), John Dodsworth (Sir William Drayton), Patrick O'Moore (Ballinger),Patrick Aherne (Latham), Bhogwan Singh (Indian Headman), Bhupesh Guha (The Dancer), Bal Seirgakar (Indian Hunter), Kalu K. Sonkur (Karpari), Miles Clark (Mukosi)
By John M. Miller