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In Kenya in 1898, the British are busy building the first railroad through Africa with a group of East Indian laborers, led by British major Parkhurst, when the project is suddenly halted after the workers, fueled by rumors of two man-eating lions nearby, refuse to continue. Parkhurst's engineer, Robert Hayward, who has made a habit of failing, joined the expedition through the influence of his father-in-law, railroad financier Conway, and wants as little responsibility as possible. However, when Parkhurst dies of a scorpion bite, Rob is forced to assume leadership. Along with his best friend, Scottish doctor Angus "Doc" Maclean, Rob tries to assuage the workers' fears by hunting the lions, but returns from his safari empty-handed and discovers that the cook has been mauled by the lions. All night, Rob watches over the body in the hope that the lions will return, but when one finally does, the other lion attacks his assistant. Rob and Doc bury the body in secret to stave off mass panic. The commissioner, who has heard about the lion problem, visits and orders the workers to construct a trap. That night, the commissioner triumphantly shoots a trapped animal, but soon realizes that it is only a hyena. Minutes later, the lions kill another worker. The commissioner insists the lions must be tracked through the jungle, and, after Rob refuses to leave his team, takes off alone. As the workers grow more frightened, Rob, who is now desperate to make this project his one success, obsesses over the lions. He stays up all night waiting for them, but as the sun rises, a native races over to inform him that the commissioner has been killed by the lions. The workers then pack up and begin to march out of the camp. Rob tries to stop them but cannot, until a lion atacks their leader, who, before dying, asks Rob to take care of his people. Rob and Doc then visit the local Masai tribesmen, who are renowned for their lion-hunting abilities. The Africans surround one lion with spears but it breaks loose and kills some of their warriors. The Indians watch mournfully as the tribe buries its dead. Meanwhile, the government in London has learned about the lion problem and, fearing the loss of money and prestige, sends three world-class hunters to help. While waiting, Rob builds a fire around the camp, but the lions continue to kill and, tragically, a malaria attack breaks out. Finally, hunter Sir William Drake arrives with two friends and, shockingly, Rob's wife Alice. The newlyweds have not seen each other for eight months, and Rob is loathe to admit to his wife that he is failing here, just as he did in London. Alice, however, proclaims her continued love for him, and they fall into each other's arms. In their passion they fail to notice that outside, the lions are attacking Doc, the three hunters and Rob's servant. The next morning, they discover each man's body. Although Alice begs Rob to leave with her, he refuses, so she insists on staying with him. Over the next days, she takes on the care of Rob's servant's orphaned child Mukosi. Soon, the Masai visit to inform Rob that they now believe him to be a devil, because the lions have attacked their chief. Rob orders them to leave and spends the night patrolling the camp despondently. When Alice's charge wanders into the jungle the next day, they both search for him. They finally find Mukosi's body near a lion, and Alice becomes crazed but calms down after Rob shoots the animal. They then notice the other lion nearby, and Rob hides Alice behind a rock before screaming at the lion to attack him. When he tries to shoot the animal, his gun jams, but at the last moment, he fixes the gun and shoots it. Then, seeing that the beast is still alive, Rob calls it a devil and clubs it to death with his rifle. With his mission finally a success, Rob embraces Alice.
Kalu K. Sonkur
Miles Clark Jr.
O. S. Bryhn
M. L. Gunzburg
Major Ramsay Hill
Lothrop B. Worth
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
Robert Stack, 1919-2003
Stack was born in Los Angeles on January 13, 1919 to a well-to-do family but his parents divorced when he was a year old. At age three, he moved with his mother to Paris, where she studied singing. They returned to Los Angeles when he was seven, by then French was his native language and was not taught English until he started schooling.
Naturally athletic, Stack was still in high school when he became a national skeet-shooting champion and top-flight polo player. He soon was giving lessons on shooting to such top Hollywood luminaries as Clark Gable and Carol Lombard, and found himself on the polo field with some notable movie moguls like Darryl Zanuck and Walter Wanger.
Stack enrolled in the University of Southern California, where he took some drama courses, and was on the Polo team, but it wasn't long before some influential people in the film industry took notice of his classic good looks, and lithe physique. Soon, his Hollywood connections got him on a film set at Paramount, a screen test, and eventually, his first lead in a picture, opposite Deanna Durbin in First Love (1939). Although he was only 20, Stack's natural delivery and boyish charm made him a natural for the screen.
His range grew with some meatier parts in the next few years, especially noteworthy were his roles as the young Nazi sympathizer in Frank Borzage's chilling The Mortal Storm (1940), with James Stewart, and as the Polish flier who woos a married Carole Lombard in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942).
After serving as a gunnery officer in the Navy during World War II, Stack returned to the screen, and found a few interesting roles over the next ten years: giving Elizabeth Taylor her first screen kiss in Robert Thorp's A Date With Judy (1948); the leading role as an American bullfighter in Budd Boetticher's The Bullfighter and the Lady (1951); and as a pilot in William Wellman's The High and the Mighty (1954), starring John Wayne. However, Stack saved his best dramatic performances for Douglas Sirk in two knockout films: as a self-destructive alcoholic in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind (1956), for which he received an Academy Award nomination for supporting actor; and sympathetically portraying a fallen World War I pilot ace who is forced to do barnstorming stunts for mere survival in Tarnished Angels (1958).
Despite proving his capabilities as a solid actor in these roles, front rank stardom oddly eluded Stack at this point. That all changed when Stack gave television a try. The result was the enormously popular series, The Untouchables (1959-63). This exciting crime show about the real-life Prohibition-era crime-fighter Eliot Ness and his G-men taking on the Chicago underworld was successful in its day for several reasons: its catchy theme music, florid violence (which caused quite a sensation in its day), taut narration by Walter Winchell, and of course, Stack's trademark staccato delivery and strong presence. It all proved so popular that the series ran for four years, earned an Emmy for Stack in 1960, and made him a household name.
Stack would return to television in the late '60s, with the The Name of the Game (1968-71), and a string of made-for-television movies throughout the '70s. His career perked up again when Steven Spielberg cast him in his big budget comedy 1941 (1979) as General Joe Stillwell. The film surprised many viewers as few realized Stack was willing to spoof his granite-faced stoicism, but it won him over many new fans, and his dead-pan intensity would be used to perfect comic effect the following year as Captain Rex Kramer (who can forget the sight of him beating up Hare Krishnas at the airport?) in David and Jerry Zucker's wonderful spoof of disaster flicks, Airplane! (1980).
Stack's activity would be sporadic throughout the remainder of his career, but he returned to television, as the host of enormously popular Unsolved Mysteries (1987-2002), and played himself in Lawrence Kasden's comedy-drama Mumford (1999). He is survived by his wife of 47 years, Rosemarie Bowe Stack, a former actress, and two children, Elizabeth and Charles, both of Los Angeles.
by Michael T. Toole
Robert Stack, 1919-2003
As Gladstone said, "stat-us quo, stat-us quo."- Dr. McLean
Now I'm in a conspiracy against *him*.- Bob
Civilization, that's a noble word, but not enough to keep me rotting here.- Bob
I've seen more game in the streets of Glasgow.- Dr. McLean
I don't need any help, I'll get that scurvy lion myself.- Bob
There's a good guest... brings his own cook and his own bedroom!- Dr. McLean
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.