Bewitched (1945) -**
[Cue that “uplifting” music they always play at the end of the episode on “South Park”] You know, I really learned something today. I learned that Arch Oboler was a fucking weirdo even as early as 1945, when he first made the jump from dramatic radio to the movies. When I first heard that the Bwana Devil guy had gone on to make a movie about a goddamned talking television set monster, I said to myself, “Jesus Christ! That’s really fucked up! I wonder what old Archie’s been smoking since the early 50’s.” But now I realize that The Twonky couldn’t really be all that much stranger than Bewitched, which is easily the goofiest, most whacked-out movie about multiple personality disorder that I’ve ever seen. [End “South Park” music.]
In an unnamed small town in Iowa (“Cornball Junction” should do well enough as a moniker for our purposes), there lives a young woman named Joan Ellis (Phyllis Thaxter). It’s the night of the party celebrating the announcement of her engagement to longtime boyfriend Bob Arnold (Henry H. Daniels Jr.), but Joan doesn’t seem to be sharing in the fun. While her parents (Addison Richards, from The Mad Ghoul and The Mummy’s Curse, and Kathleen Lockhart— mother of June) entertain the guests, she’s out on the back balcony with a worried, sulky look on her face. Eventually, Bob comes out to join her, and we get some indication of what’s weighing on the little lady’s mind. Joan asks Bob if he hears anything, to which he replies with some “romantic” platitudes that would do Ed Wood proud. That’s not quite what Joan was talking about, though; Joan wants to know if Bob can hear the voice. Ye gods, girl! Way to scare a man who’s just proposed marriage to you!!!! I mean, shit— the last time we saw anybody ask if someone they knew could hear “the voice,” it turned out that person was in communication with a world-conquering carrot from the planet Venus! Joan’s situation may not be quite that drastic, but it’s still plenty bad enough. The voice she’s referring to belongs to Karen, the other personality with which she’s been sharing a brain all her life. Multiple personality disorder was still a new and controversial diagnosis in the 40’s, though, so Joan has spent her whole life figuring she was being haunted by some outside force. Well Karen’s been getting stronger of late, as it happens, and she’s also been getting increasingly itchy to take that body she never gets to use for a spin.
In fact, Karen has become so insistent and so powerful that she has begun to unbalance Joan’s personality, and the two women spend much of the night after the party breaks up struggling fiercely for control of their body. Eventually, after sneaking out of the house and running off down the street (it must be about one in the morning at this point), Joan strikes a bargain with Karen, whose biggest beef seems to be that she doesn’t like the boring-ass way that her, uh, roommate has arranged their life. If Joan will agree to skip town and never see either her family or the dismal Bob Arnold again, Karen will just sit back and enjoy the ride from now on and renounce her efforts to seize control of Joan’s body. It’s an awfully high price to pay, but at this stage of the game, Joan is willing to do just about anything to shut Karen up, and she leaves Cornball Junction the next day on the train for New York City, with only a terse note planted on the dining room table by way of explanation.
Of course, the first thing a person needs when they get to New York is a job— after all, we’re talking about probably the most expensive city in all of North America. And it is on her very first day of work at Herkheimer’s Cigars that Joan meets somebody whose presence in her life is going to upend her agreement with her unruly alter ego and land her in a tremendous amount of trouble. The person in question is a young attorney named Eric Russell (The Black Castle’s Horace McNally), who stops in to buy a pipe cleaner only a few minutes into Joan’s shift. Russell is instantly smitten with the girl behind the counter, and he proceeds to spend the next couple of weeks pestering her daily for a date. Now if you or I did this, we’d have a restraining order filed against us in no time, but back in the mid-40’s, women apparently found this sort of behavior charming, and Joan eventually relents and takes him up on the offer of a cruise down the Hudson river next Saturday night. It isn’t because Joan feels no attraction to Eric that she put up such resistance, but rather that she is determined to remain faithful to Bob back in Cornball Junction, even if she’s never going to set foot in that little town again. The trouble is that Karen is even more attracted to the lawyer than Joan is, and that Karen is determined to make Joan accept him as her new lover. Indeed on the cruise itself, Karen wrests control away from Joan when she sees that her rival personality isn’t going to respond to Eric’s advances, and suddenly puts him in a lip lock that illustrates perfectly the origin of the term “tonsil hockey.” Joan regains mastery of her body quickly, but the damage is already done. The only way out of the situation now is to give Eric the cold shoulder on the cab ride home and refuse to speak to him when he comes into the shop the next day.
It’s rather convenient for Joan, then, that she finds Bob waiting for her in her apartment when she gets back home. Nevermind how he tracked her down, Joan’s old boyfriend is determined to take her back to Iowa with him, and given Karen’s reneging on her end of their bargain, Joan is perfectly happy to cooperate. Karen won’t have it though; she wants to stay in New York and be with Eric Russell. When Bob returns to the apartment after squaring up Joan’s accounts with the landlady, Karen reasserts herself over Joan’s body and stabs Bob to death with what looks like a fancy letter opener. Russell’s services in court avail Joan nothing, for she is so overcome with guilt over what Karen made her do that she refuses to testify in her own defense, and even goes so far as to confess to Bob’s murder when the foreman of the jury delivers a verdict of “not guilty.”
Naturally all the fuss has drawn Joan’s family to the city, and with them they have brought Dr. Bergson (Edmund Gwenn, from Them! and The Walking Dead), the family physician. Mom, Dad, and Eric were all hoping that Bergson would find Joan insane, but what examination the doctor is able to conduct convinces him that Joan is in complete possession of her faculties, and thus responsible for her crime in the eyes of the law. This is possible because Joan has been keeping Karen’s existence— as exculpating a piece of evidence as you could ask for— a secret from both her lawyer and the doctor. Joan, having decided at last that she will never be rid of her tormenting alternate personality as long as she lives, now wants nothing more than to die, and to take Karen with her when she goes. But one day while the condemned woman is talking to Eric in her cell, she lets slip that “she’ll die too” when the executioner throws the switch on Joan’s electric chair. Russell gets back in touch with Bergson, and the doctor correctly assesses the meaning of his patient’s cryptic pronouncement. Now all they need to do is to get a stay of execution from the governor (The Monster and the Girl’s Minor Watson), and convince him that Joan was quite literally not herself when she killed Bob Arnold. Then Bergson can use his talents as a hypnotist and psychiatrist to eliminate the personality of Karen altogether, in effect carrying out the execution of the guilty party just as the law demands.
The most noticeable difference between Bewitched and the average multiple personality movie is its genre-blending approach to the material. Bewitched is part possession film, part courtroom drama, and is liable to switch from one mode to the other without warning. It is also notable for some truly bizarre experimentation on Arch Oboler’s part, which often does incredibly strange things to the movie’s sense of time. The entire trial of Joan, up until Russell gives his closing argument, is passed over in a flurry of short takes superimposed over the woman’s face as she realizes what Karen has just done— at first, the viewer is likely to think she’s just imagining what might happen if she doesn’t think of a clever way to dispose of Bob’s body. Then an extraordinary amount of time is devoted to watching Joan sit, motionless, in her holding cell while the unseen jury carries on its twelve-hour deliberations. Frankly, this whole section of the film seems to have been put together backwards. The dialogue is another remarkable adventure in amateurism, nowhere more so than in the painfully corny (and painfully numerous) scenes in which either Eric or Bob haplessly romances Joan. I have no intention of watching this turkey again just for the sake of jotting down an especially embarrassing exchange or two, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, but damn… do you think Oboler (who also wrote the screenplay) has ever bothered to listen and take note of how real people really talk? All in all, Bewitched enters its creator for serious consideration as a top-echelon madman of the movies, right along with Ed Wood, Al Adamson, and Larry Buchanan.