I’m a big Arch Oboler fan. If you’ve been hanging around my blog for any length of time, you probably know this pretty well. Besides his prolific radio career, Oboler occasionally dipped his assertive big toe into screenwriting and directing, such as in the 1945 thriller, Bewitched. Put it this way: You know how we’ve all been told to never run with scissors? It’s definitely true, especially if one has an alter ego named Karen. And no, she doesn’t want to speak to the manager. She thinks she is the manager (Apologies to all the decent Karens in the world–you didn’t deserve this meme. I am so sorry).
Bewitched was based off of Oboler’s radio play, “Alter Ego,” which is rumored to have starred Bette Davis, but the details have been lost to history. At the time, in whatever form the story took, it was enough to convince MGM to let Oboler write, direct, and basically produce it for the screen, albeit with some big constraints.
The movie opens with Dr. Bergson (Edmund Gwenn) explaining a case to his secretary. He emphasizes his patient’s absolute normality. She’s young. She’s pretty. She’s engaged. There’s nothing about her that would indicate that anything is wrong.
From there, Bewitched is told in flashback. We’re taken to Joan Ellis’ (Phyllis Thaxter) and Bob Arnold’s (Henry H. Daniels, Jr.) engagement party. The two of them are out on the patio looking at the moon and Bob is beaming all over the place. Joan, on the other hand, seems happy but preoccupied. She doesn’t want to join the party just yet but stay outside.
Joan’s parents, John (Addison Richards) and Ann (Kathleen Lockhart) are worried. They’re holed up in John’s study with Dr. Wilton (Francis Pierlot), the family physician, discussing how strangely Joan has been acting lately.
Bob ducks in the house for a minute, leaving Joan standing on the patio. Suddenly she hears a menacing voice in her head, (played by Audrey Totter), insisting she’s been around all the time and wants to finally live. And she’s going to do it whether Joan likes it or not. Joan passes out. Dr. Wilton is at a loss.
Bob takes Joan to the zoo the next day for a picnic and tries to keep everything as light as possible. It almost works; a little girl comes up to them asking to be shown the hippos, so the three of them head off to the cages. While the three of them watch a tiger, Bob makes an offhand remark about not knowing what’s going on inside, and Joan hears the menacing voice again, causing her to gasp.
That night, Joan sneaks out of her house and walks up and down the street, the voice torturing her. While she listens to a soprano mournfully singing, “My Old Kentucky Home,” the voice tells her that if she goes away somewhere by herself the voice will leave her alone.
Joan hops a train to New York, where she gets a job at a cigarette counter, trying her best to keep a low profile. Her coworker, Glenda (Gladys Blake) is chatty and nice, taking her under her wing, and Joan’s voice seems quiet.
Then she meets Eric (Stephen McNally), an attorney who works across the street. He’s very attentive, bringing Joan flowers and asking her out. She finally says yes, and the two of them have a date on board the Long Island Ferry. The captain invites them up to the bridge, where he tells a funny story about being shipwrecked and wanting a cold beer.
Joan’s voice made her run, but she can’t hide. She knows she’s in control and she’s not going to let Joan forget it. Even if it means forcing Joan to grab a pair of scissors and do something she never thought she’d be capable of doing. She doesn’t care if Joan is the fall guy, either. However, like most Karens, there may be comeuppance in her future. Among other chickens coming home to roost, Joan’s parents hire Dr. Bergson to help them.
I could give spoilers, but I’m not gonna. Gotta give Mr. O his due. It’s completely worth it, because Bewitched a fun one.
Since I’ve listened to Oboler’s plays for about twelve years now, here’s what I was expecting. I was expecting it to have the usual Oboler story cues, such as the wind out of nowhere when something creepy is imminent. On the radio, this was very effective, because Oboler didn’t like to have a lot of music during his plays, and wind created atmosphere.
In a film, where the actors’ faces, not to mention the scene, are all visible, random gusts of wind are a little odd, especially if the scene doesn’t react to it. When Joan and Eric are talking to the captain on the Long Island Ferry, there’s a gust of wind right before Joan turns evil. This wouldn’t be weird at all except that nobody’s hair moves, so the sense of foreboding doesn’t quite resonate in the same way.
Another common Oboler motif is the internal dialogue, and in this case, the internal battle. Throughout the film Joan is at war with herself and with Karen, and Karen’s voice doesn’t sound quite realistic. Oboler was famous for these kinds of interplays, such as in his Lights Out episode, “The Dream,” where a woman is deathly afraid to go to sleep and we hear her tortured self running through the same nightmare every night. When it comes to Bewitched, the device wasn’t used nearly enough in my opinion, which is a shame because split personality naturally lends itself to an internal battle structure.
Like many Oboler stories, especially of the World War Two period, the internal battle in Bewitched is a metaphor. Evil is not celebrated, but something to be stamped out. Joan’s internal battle is choosing whether or not she’s going to let evil win. In typical Oboler fashion, the story appeals to the listener’s higher nature, encouraging them to choose good over evil.
One thing that was definitely missing, and this is something I really didn’t expect, was how realistic the dialogue was. Oboler wasn’t always able to transition his writing style from the weighty, visual language that was necessary for radio, and this is probably why he didn’t really take off in the same way when trying to write for other mediums (Night of the Auk is a great example). The only time he seemed to fall into his usual style was when the characters describe actions that take place off screen, such as at the party when Joan’s parents and Dr. Bergson are discussing their concerns about Joan’s mental health. The rest of the time, the dialogue is very direct and simple.
There was a reason for Oboler to employ his usual bag of tricks when it came to Bewitched–it was a B-picture with a microscopic budget. Ergo, Oboler decided to camouflage the lack of money with a bit of radio-inspired magic, and the result worked like a charm. His one major expense was getting Bronislau Kaper to write the music, because he wanted the score to punctuate Joan’s internal and external torment.
The film clocks in at an economical sixty-five minutes. Oboler didn’t waste a single second. Now, one could argue that the story needed to open up a little bit to make it more horrific and explore Joan’s Karen side a bit more. It would have absolutely upped the suspense and given the ending more punch. The film is also unrealistic in terms of how Joan is treated, but it was the 1940s and psychology was handled differently back then. Anyway, the story is tight as a drum and still gets the point across, so for what it is, Bewitched is a great movie that deserves a watch. Or two. Or three. 🙂
As always, thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you again tomorrow…
Bewitched is available on DVD from Amazon.