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"A Sci-Fi Experience That Will Blow Your Mind!" (If You Can Figure It Out): Arch Oboler's Restored 3D Classic The Bubble

June 10, 2015

This piece was originally written for the American Cinematheque, and they graciously gave me permission to re-print it here, in a slightly edited form.


This past January, the Aero Theatre hosted the West Coast re-premiere of Arch Oboler's 1966 3D Sci-Fi classic The Bubble. This Thursday, June 11, the Aero will be hosting a free screening of the film at 9:30pm as part of the American Cinematheque's "The Golden Age of 3D" series. For more information on the screening and the series, please visit their website.


Director Arch Oboler is generally credited with starting the short-lived 3D era of the 1950s with his 1952 film Bwana Devil, the first feature length movie shot in 3D. Though The Bubble was produced over a decade after the first wave of 3D films, the movie holds a special distinction in the 3D world: it was the first 3D feature to be photographed and exhibited on a single strip of 35mm in a process called Space Vision. The images were stacked in a standard 4 perf frame, which left very slim chance for the synchronization errors that helped kill 3D the first time around.


3D historian Bob Furmanek, who supervised the restoration of the film, gave some insight into the history of the project and the restoration work performed on The Bubble before the film rolled. The story goes something like this: When the 3D Film Archive acquired the film rights and tracked down the original 35mm negative, they found it basically baking in an outdoor storage unit in California. The cans were rusty and moisture had crept inside, leaving the film in poor condition and severely faded. Luckily, with the care and expertise of those who worked on the restoration, the film was cleaned, scanned, examined frame by frame and any minor alignment and fading issues were fixed. A fascinating, in-depth account of 3D, the film's history, and the restoration process can be found on the 3D Film Archive's website here.

A weird British poster for the film boasts "THRILLS for all the FAMILY!" yet children under 14 should ask their parents first. Also, "The science fiction sensation of the 80s?" Even if this is a poster from the 80s, that's definitely incorrect.

The Movie

The Bubble is a hard movie to summarize, because you really need to see it to make (whatever) sense you can of it. The film begins in the middle of a brilliantly shot 3D plane ride - with wings jutting out deep into the audience - without any explanation at all. Onboard are a couple, Mark (Michael Cole) and Catherine (Deborah Walley), rescued by pilot Tony (Johnny Desmond). She's about to go into early labor, and somehow Tony saved them while hiking... somewhere. Stormy weather delays their descent, but suddenly, lights appear to allow the plane to land; however, the runway Tony thought he saw was actually just a bunch of street lamps. If that wasn't weird enough, a lone taxi sits on the deserted road. When the trio tries to get in, the driver utters "where to?" over and over in a dazed state.


Eventually, they arrive in the nearest town, and Catherine gives birth in the hospital. In trying to find a phone to call their parents, Mark encounters more strange occurrences, including a nonresponsive doctor and completely deserted streets, save for an open saloon where Tony's the only customer. All of a sudden, a tray filled with drinks floats up and around the room, freaking the men out.


Something's not right here.


When Mark steps outside the next day, he finds a very different world: one crowded with people slowly shuffling about...but wait a minute. There's no interaction or emotion. Everyone seems to be operating on a loop, mindlessly repeating their 'task' over and over. Mark quips that it looks like a film set took over: a lone tilt-o-whirl sits in the middle of town, a subway station leads to nowhere, and random statues adorn the streets. 

This town obviously does not look normal - more like a bunch of leftover props from film sets thrown together. Don't get me started on the people...

Though Mark hides the strange occurrences from Catherine at first, she eventually discovers that something is off. When she's strong enough to leave the hospital, the couple take their newborn and hop in a car in hopes of finding their way home. Tony jumps in for the ride, bringing along a zombie-like showgirl who performed at the saloon.


Eventually the group comes across an invisible wall separating this world from the real one. Attempts to circumvent the wall fail, and when Tony and his silent sidekick try to ram the car through it, the vehicle explodes and takes the flaming silent lady up into the atmosphere. That's enough to freak out Catherine, and consequently, the couple embarks on a nomadic existence in this weird, unknown world, finally settling in an abandoned house near the border where they hope to dig down far enough to find their way out.


While Catherine tends to the baby, Mark wanders the town. He eventually comes to realize that some force, which occasionally casts a flash of gray over the permanently sunny sky and randomly beams someone up into the terrible unknown, holds control over the people. And what powers these 'people?' Some peculiar 'chair' inside a mini, fuzzy looking 'temple,' where townsfolk go once a day to receive their 'nourishment.' 

I did not know what to call this - a hollow rock? Whatever it is, Tony (Johnny Desmond) and Mark (Michael Cole) investigate.

After days of furious digging in their abandoned house, Mark eventually hits real ground underneath the borders of the bubble. He needs help to get out, though, but it seems like his aid is also requested: the doctor pleads with Mark to assist the townspeople, who are starving after Mark destroyed their food source a few days earlier - yes, the bizarre chair thing. In a last ditch effort, Mark rallies the inhabitants, gathered aimlessly around the town center, to his cause. After Mark's speech, rain miraculously starts pouring down. Did that just fix everything? Who knows, but this just might be the way out for Catherine and Mark!


The Q&A

After the screening, producer Michael Schlesinger took the stage to moderate a Q&A with Furmanek, star Michael Cole, and editor and music supervisor Igo Kantor.


Before the Q&A began, Furmanek offered up some clarification for the odd gaps of continuity we experienced during the movie. Put simply, the film we saw wasn't the originally released 112 minute road show version that Oboler took around the country. Though the reviews back then were generally positive, the one piece of criticism Oboler received was that the picture ran too long. Taking this to heart, sometime in late 1968 Oboler cut 21 minutes from the film. The deleted scenes do not appear to have survived.


The Bubble was star Michael Cole's first movie. He landed the role through a woman he knew at the Actor's Studio who was impressed with his work and recommended him to Oboler. Cole had heard that Oboler was a true visionary, and after being around the director for only a few minutes, he could sense that himself. In particular, Cole admired how much Oboler cared about space and what was really out there; Cole recalled that the director even kept a meteor in his pocket! "Anyone who walks around with a meteor in his pocket is kind of an interesting guy," Cole remarked. 

On set with director Arch Oboler (in white), Desmond, perhaps the uncredited woman who played the showgirl, Cole, and Deborah Walley.

Cole quickly realized the film was, at its heart, a marriage between art and technology. The more he immersed himself in the experience, the more it became a "way of life" for him. In fact, once he got locked in the character, it was hard for him to get out; some nights he had trouble sleeping, and only after hearing some noise from the bar next door did he realize that he wasn't actually in the bubble!


Igo Kantor worked as the editor and music supervisor on The Bubble, his first 3D picture. Luckily, Oboler informed him that he would be working with a brand new one strip 3D system, so for Kantor, the editing process was actually the same as cutting any other film and relatively smooth. In fact, the only time he ran into a problem with Oboler was when the director insisted that he put everything he shot on the screen, which is where the concern about length came into play.


For a story with many (intentional) questions, it's not a shock that Oboler, who penned the script in the early 1960s, had trouble finding studios interested in devloping and distributing the film. He finally raised money - the budget was a measly $500,000 - through Capitol Records, because he had worked with them before and was friends with President Alan Livingston. Of course, for Oboler, the studios turning the project down was a blessing in disguise: shooting it independently gave him the control he wanted over the picture.

"The most unusual adventure story..." is right!

With little explanation as to the inspiration behind Oboler's script, could it be that events such as the Cold War influenced the story or the way the actors portrayed their characters? Cole said it wasn’t on his mind at all, but he knows some of that political sentiment existed in a few of his lines. Kantor chimed in to say that Oboler certainly had political thoughts and ideas, and everything he did had a double meaning. Oboler also truly believed in extraterrestrials and other worlds; in fact, he told Kantor that he had always wanted to do an Orson Welles story, ala The War of the Worlds, without showing any of the creatures. Clearly, those ideas and inspiration influenced him in writing and directing The Bubble.


As for the bubble itself, the audience never knows exactly what evil is responsible, but did the actors? According to Cole, Oboler deliberately kept them in the dark, because it's a lot scarier to leave the assumptions up to the audience's mind; after all, what could be conjured up there was probably way more terrifying than anything that could have been shown on screen! Though Oboler teased audiences with shadows here and there to indicate something bad was happening, if he were to reveal anything, it would have simply turned into a monster movie, which was the exact opposite of what he wanted.


Well, contrary to the below poster, a monster movie it certainly is not. I'd say Oboler did a pretty good job creeping people out with what he had at hand!

Would you guess this is the same movie? I promise you it looks nothing like it, but it is! A few years after The Bubble's initial release, Oboler sold the film to the group behind 1969's 3D X-rated film The Stewardesses. They changed the film's title and marketing materials, which severely misrepresented the movie and adversely affected box office. (Spoiler alert: there are no UFOs in the movie).

Want to solve the mystery of The Bubble yourself?

I doubt you can, but if you're curious, the restored version of The Bubble  - in SPACE VISION 3D - was released last November on Blu-Ray by Kino Classics. The cover art in itself (specifically, those creepy furry hands) is worth the purchase if only to display around your house. Seriously, once a guest lays their eyes on that, they'll definitely want to watch the movie!

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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