Posted by Richard Harland Smith on December 14, 2013
Remembered today as a radio pioneer, and as the creator of the creepy anthology series LIGHTS OUT! (an influence on Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY), Arch Oboler turned his hand in 1944 to the medium of motion pictures. His second go as a writer-director was BEWITCHED, a trim little B film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in July of 1945. The Warner Brothers Archive has included this forgotten gem in their collection, which makes this as good an occasion as any to reassess the film and to discuss it as a link in the chain of pictures (horror and non) that focus on a female protagonist whose sensitivities put her in harm’s way. First, some history. Oboler had conceived of the piece as a vehicle for Bette Davis, who headlined a production of the tale in October 1938, for the inaugural episode of Texaco Star Theatre. Then titled “Alter-Ego,” the story featured Davis as a young woman dealing, on the cusp of her engagement to a perfectly acceptable young man, with the manifestation of voices in her head — specifically one Carmen, a malignant bitch who goads her towards a tragic downward spiral. Oboler mounted the production again for the airwaves in 1939 for ARCH OBLER’S PLAYS, having retitled the play “Another World” and cast stage actress Betty Garde in the dual role of high-strung Joan and the needling Carmen. Between shooting BEWITCHED in November and December of 1944 and its summer release the following year, Oboler would revive the radio play in April 1945 for ARCH OBOLER’S YOUR RADIO HALL OF FAME, with Ann Shepard playing Joan and Mercedes McCambridge as Carmen — prescient casting if you remember (who could forget?) that McCambridge later provided the voice (or a significant portion thereof) of the demon Pazuzu in THE EXORCIST (1973).
BEWITCHED (a terrible title, misapplied) follows the “Alter-Ego”/”Another World” template pretty closely, charting the descent into madness of Joan Ellis (Phyllis Thaxter), a “pretty, alert… thoroughly normal” young woman who is nonetheless considered “nervous, high-strung.” On the occasion of her engagement to four-square Bob Arnold (Harry H. Daniels, Jr.), Joan is driven to a fainting spell by the aural manifestation of “Karen,” an inner voice (supplied by a necessarily unseen Audrey Totter), who announces her intention of gaining control of Joan’s body. What makes Karen different from your average demon on the make is that she is not an external entity invading the beleaguered protagonist but some part of her native being attempting to gain sovereignty, to bust out, to dominate, and to shed Joan like so much dead skin. Coddled and patted by her well-meaning loved ones, Joan goes on the run, making a deal with her alter ego to move on and live under an assumed name to ensure Karen’s silence. Joan relocates to New York City, where she takes a job in a hotel lobby under the name of Joan Smith. All is well… until Joan falls in love with handsome lawyer Eric Russell (Stephen McNally, still billed under his birth name, Horace McNally) and Karen returns… with a vengeance.
BEWITCHED is a creepy little film but not, I suspect, for the reasons that Arch Oboler intended. Its vintage places it between such noir and horror efforts as STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR (1940) — with which it shares some stylistic and expressionistic similarities — and CAT PEOPLE (1942) and the later run of Hollywood films dealing with diseases of the mind, such as SPELLBOUND (released in October of 1945), THE SNAKE PIT (1948), A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), LIZZIE (1957), THE THREE FACES OF EVE (1958), and SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959). Where it slots even more compellingly is among a host of horror films that focus on a female protagonist whose sensitivity, whose essential receptivity, has reached life-threatening acuteness, a category that also includes THE WOMAN WHO RETURNED (1945), PSYCHO (1960), CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) and REPULSION (1965), among others. Reflecting the dark side of post-World War II prosperity/modernity/conformity, the early titles in this subset of films betray a gnawing discontent within American society, particularly among the so-called fairer sex; Joan, like Lorna Webster (Nancy Kelly) in THE WOMAN WHO CAME BACK and Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) in PSYCHO, turn away from conventional male-female relationships and attempt to achieve the American Dream solo (Marion thinks she is stealing the money for her lover Sam in PSYCHO but I think we know better than she does; the fact that her escape plan is open-ended scares her into turning back) before they are punished for doing so. CARNIVAL OF SOULS‘ Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss) suffers a similar fate for attempting to be independent and antonymous while the eponymous aversion to human contact experienced by Carol Ledoux (Catherine Deneuve) in REPULSION puts a phobic spin on “alone time.”
As in the radio play, the heroine of BEWITCHED winds up on death row for murder and here is where the film deviates from the source material. Edmund Gwenn turns up as a psychologist who performs something like a death row exorcism (now that would have been a title!), attempting to drive the malevolent Karen from the pure corporeality of Joan. I won’t say how this goes — you really should seek out this tidy little psychothriller on your own — but prefer instead to use my remaining time talking about Oboler’s depiction of the divided female mind. It’s all a bit neat — pretty and alert Joan Ellis would be on the fast track to happiness were it not for her horny alter ego, who wants to shed propriety and responsibility and cut loose. But who’s to say that Karen isn’t more Joan than Joan? The implication here is that Karen is like a sexually transmitted disease that must be burnt out at the root in order to enable Joan to become a proper wife and mother. Karen even speaks in the dishrag patois of the working class (“All you have to do is go away — why don’t’cha?”) and is coded as dirty, shameful, as hectoring as a hardon. (Karen’s ceaseless rap to Joan — “Just go away alone… just go away alone… just go away alone…” may remind you of Boris Karloff’s posthumous pledge “Never get rid of me… never get rid of me… never get rid of me…” from THE BODY SNATCHER, released that same year) In the radio play, Carmen/Karen takes it a step further, calling Joan “you white one” and referring derogatorily to her “white body,” as if Carmen/Karen is a conduit to ethnic carnality, whose specter once was, it should be pointed out, as fearful as the whispered profanities of Lucifer himself. (As an aside, I couldn’t help but wonder, watching this, if BEWITCHED were in any way an influence on Ed Wood’s GLEN OR GLENDA?) Certainly, Karen is etched by Oboler as evil — just look at her face! — but you’d have to be made of rock not to wonder what the real message is here.
At 65 minutes, BEWITCHED is well worth the investment of time. Shot economically, on studio sets, and as canned as Underwood Deviled Ham, the film is nonetheless stylishly executed and exciting in its wrongness, while remaining fully committed to the notion that “you never know what’s going on inside” — which strikes me as 1945-speak for “bitches be crazy.” Purportedly based on true events culled from The Journal of Abnormal Psychology, BEWITCHED offers a beguiling and not infrequently maddening snapshot of its time, but still winds up being far more thought-provoking than 99% of horror product concocted during these allegedly more enlightened times.
To order BEWITCHED from The Warner Archives Collection, click here.
To preview a snipped of BEWITCHED, click here.
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