Arch Oboler was a key innovator of radio drama, as well as someone with a big personality and the ego to match. Starting his career with a spec script called The Futuristics and getting into trouble with his first show where he made fun of sponsor American Tobacco, this set the tone for Oboler’s writing career. But after three years of working on scripts he probably hated, Oboler’s script for Rich Kid was picked up by Rudy Vallée which led to a great job writing scripts for Don Ameche on The Chase and Sanborn Hour.
After Wyllis Cooper left the show Lights Out to work in Hollywood (he wrote Son of Frankenstein), the show was given to Oboler. Already a series known for its violence, the new writer upset listeners with his very first episode which ended with a young girl being buried alive and not rescued. Playing at midnight with no sponsor, Lights Out was still under the watchful eye of censors, yet Cooper worked in anti-fascist messages and created episodes like “Chicken Heart,” in which a chicken heart grows so large it destroys the planet. More controversy would follow when he wrote an Adam and Eve script for Ameche and Mae West where West was an Eve that wanted to lose her virginity and voluntarily leave the Garden of Eden. Between that story airing on The Chase and Sanborn Hour on a Sunday and West later trading suggestive back and forth bon mots with Edgar Bergen’s dummy Charlie McCarthy — she said, “Come on home with me, honey. I’ll let you play in my wood pile.” — West was barred from radio until 1950.
Meanwhile, Ameche, Bergen and Oboler got away with it. In fact, Oboler soon started his own NBC radio show Arch Oboler’s Plays. West, who once said “I believe in censorship. I made a fortune out of it,” went on to great success on stage, in Vegas and in the movies. She invested her money in real estate so well that she could pretty much do anything she wanted after this. For example, when one of her boyfriends, boxer William Jones, was denied entry to her Ravenswood apartment building because of a ban on African-Americans, West bought the whole building and changed the rules.
But I digress.
Oboler’s show went up against Jack Benny, but he was also able to adapt stories like Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. The show ended up being successful and got Proctor and Gamble as a sponsor, coming back as Everyman’s Theatre. Oboloer hated that the sponsors had an ad in the middle of his show and was out of radio for a year before coming back for the World War II propaganda show Plays For Americans. He lost that show when he made a speech at the Radio Institute at Ohio State. Oboler believed that his show should instill hatred of the enemy in the listener, which some took as he was just as bad as the enemy.
After bringing back Lights Out and creating several other propaganda radio shows, there was only one place left for Oboler. Like Orson Welles before him, he went to Hollywood. Some of his better films include Strange Holiday and Bewtitched, as well as the 3D films he innovated like Bwana Devil and The Bubble. He also created the TV series Oboler’s Comedy Theatre, had plays made of his work, published several books and was still writing radio dramas for Mutual Radio Theater as late as 1980. His writing inspired — obviously — Rod Serling as well as Don Coscarelli, who has spoken of how much the Oboler movie The Twonky frightened him as a kid.
I told you all that to tell you about Five, a movie that stands out on the Mill Creek Thrillers from the Vault set because while everything else is comedic or harmless, Five is absolutely brutal.
The only survivors of a nuclear bomb are the Five: Roseanne Rogers (Susan Douglas Rubeš), Michael (William Phipps), Oliver P. Barnstaple (Earl Lee), Charles (Charles Lampkin) and Eric (James Anderson). Roseanne is pregnant, which is the only thing that stops Michael from assaulting her. Oliver is an old man who quickly dies after meeting the group. And Eric is a racist who can’t work with Charles, a black man.
Eric is the reason why so much goes wrong: he destroys the crops of the group, murders Charles and sneaks off Roseanne and her newly born son after she wonders if she can ever find her missing husband. By the end of the film, Eric has shown signs of radiation poisoning and runs off to die, while Roseanne makes the long walk back to Michael with her child dying on the way. All they can do is tend to the soil and make it one more day together.
One of the first movies to show what the atomic bomb would do, Five pulls no punches, killing people with no concern of age or race.
Speaking of race, having an African-American lead was a big idea in 1951. Obolor saw Lampkin read the James Weldon Johnson poem “The Creation” on a local Los Angeles TV show and it’s the speech that the actor reads in Five. It was possible the first time many in the U.S., Latin America and Europe would have heard African-American poetry.
Even the setting of Five is unique. It was shot in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Cliff House on the Eaglefeather ranch that Oboloer owned. It was not without tragedy in real life, as on April 7, 1958, Oboler’s six-year-old son Peter drowned in rainwater. During the 2018 Woolsey Fire, the Cliff House burned to the ground.
Made for just $75,000 — Oboler used recent graduates from the University of Southern California film school and unknown actors — this was sold to Columbia for a profit. This would not be the last end of the world movie; in fact, Planet of the Apes ends on the same beach where Eric washes ashore. It is, however, one of the most somber ones.
Mill Creek’s Thrillers from the Vault set also includes The Black Room, The Man They Could Not Hang, Before I Hang, The Devil Commands, The Man With Nine Lives, The Boogie Man Will Get You and The Return of the Vampire. There’s also a commentary track from Tom Waver and Larry Blamire and a documentary, Madness and Mayhem: Horror in the 30s and 40s. You can get it from Deep Discount.