powered by AFI
The film's working title was Lions of Gulu. Bwana Devil begins with a written statement reading: "This is a true story told to me in Africa," and then continues with a brief voice-over narration. Although the opening title card reads: "Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil in Natural Vision 3-Dimension," the viewed print was in standard format. Oboler's credit reads: "Produced, written and directed by Arch Oboler." Another onscreen credit states that the film was "Photographed and recorded in the Belgian Congo, Kenya, Uganda and California." Although an onscreen credit reads, "Based on the novel The Lions of Gulu," no further information on that novel has been found. The New York Times and Variety reviews erroneously listed Nigel Bruce's character name as "Dr. Angus Ross."
Oboler, who gained fame as a radio writer, traveled to Africa in the 1940s and there heard the true tale of two man-eating lions whose activities suspended the building of the British East Africa railway at the turn of the century. According to contemporary reports, approximately 130 people were killed by the lions. [Another film based on the story of the man-eating lions was the 1996 Paramount release The Ghost and the Darkness, which was directed by Stephen Hopkins and starred Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.] While in Africa, Oboler shot footage of animals, backgrounds and native culture, and then, years later, combined it with new footage shot in the Natural Vision 3-D format. Modern sources note that some of the additional footage was shot in the San Fernando Valley and the Paramount Ranch in Malibu, CA. According to Box Office, in December 1952, the footage was shot on an Ansco Color negative but developed on an Eastman positive print, resulting in color that the New York Times review called "very poor." As noted in the December 1952 Box Office article, George J. Schaefer owned the Natural Vision Corp. and licensed the process to Oboler.
Bwana Devil was the first feature to use the 3-D process. Sources conflict as to who was responsible for the development of the Natural Vision 3-D format. Some press materials credit Milton Gunzburg and Friend Baker with creating the process, while others list Baker and the film's technician, O. S. Bryhn. A 1952 Time article names Gunzburg and his brother Julian as the developers.
Associate producer Sid Pink described the 3-D process in a November 1990 FilmFax article, stating that two cameras, placed next to each other at a distance emulating the eyeline positioning, are used to shoot each scene. Each lens provides a separate two-dimensional image, but in theaters, the two prints are run simultaneously from two separate projectors, with the two images superimposed on the screen. Then, the audience views the superimposed picture through Polaroid glasses, whose lenses separate the images again.
Although 3-D-like processes had been around in various incarnations for several decades, Natural Vision, the culmination of intensive research, marked a great improvement in the process. Bwana Devil was praised for being relatively inexpensive to shoot and easy to project. Reviewers, however, still criticized the 3-D process as problematic, and the Hollywood Reporter reviewer referred to it as "a novelty...which has a long way to go." The New York Times review complained that actors appeared to fade out of the foreground in some scenes, and that depth of field fluctuated. Critics also found fault with the Polaroid glasses, which are described in press materials as "refreshing and restful to the eyes." The Daily Variety review, however, noted that they were uncomfortable and annoying and forced viewers to re-focus their vision periodically, while the Hollywood Reporter review pointed out the necessity of "keeping one's head rigidly straight, as the slightest relaxation to one side distorts vision."
When originally screened, the film was preceded by a black-and-white, 3-D short film that explained the process. That short featured actor Lloyd Nolan, actress Shirley Tegge and hand puppets Beany and Cecil. Hollywood Citizen-News reported in November 1952 that Bwana Devil was originally screened without a PCA seal, because the Breen Office refused to accept a scene in which Robert Stack and Barbara Britton lean forward to kiss each other and, due to the 3-D effect, seem to leap off the screen into a romantic embrace. In December 1952, Hollywood Citizen-News stated that the kissing scene was cut from the film in order to obtain PCA approval. The print viewed, however, did contain the kiss. Although Los Angeles Times reported in April 1952 that Howard Duff was set to act in Bwana Devil, he did not appear in the final film.
According to information found in the file on the film in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, Bwana Devil was originally produced and released by Gulu Pictures Co. in 1952, then re-released by United Artists in 1953. United Artists bought the film for $1.75 million in 1953, then delayed bookings in fifty theaters because, according to a February 1953 Variety article, they could not procure enough 3-D glasses.
Bwana Devil incurred a host of legal problems after it was released. In 1952, independent producer Edward Alperson attempted to buy the film for $2 million, but, according to a January 1953 Variety article, that deal fell through, after which United Artists purchased it outright. Soon after, Alperson and Milton Bren's company, Brenco Pictures, sued Oboler and others, as reported in a January 1953 Daily Variety article, for a minimum of $3.5 million for breach of contract. Hollywood Citizen-News wrote in May 1954 that because Alperson had not obtained a written contract, the suit was settled in Oboler's favor. Brenco Pictures, which had earlier bought a share of the profits of any Gulu Pictures production, again sued Oboler in 1955 after he sold all interest in Gulu. As reported in a January 1953 Hollywood Reporter news item, Brenco claimed that Oboler thereby dissolved the partnership and prevented Brenco from making any profits. When, according to a May 1956 Los Angeles Times news item, the court ruled against Oboler, the producer then sued Brenco for over $2 million in damages. The disposition of that suit has not been determined.