“. . . originally written for Bette Davis”: Arch Oboler’s “Alter Ego”

Get ready for a few bumpy nights. As anyone watching Turner Classic Movies UK is aware by now, Bette Davis is currently “on tour.” The expired thespian is even scheduled to make appearances at our local Arts Centre here in Wales, albeit not to account for her assault on Welsh culture in The Corn Is Green. Apparently, the announcement of a retrospective of her films, reels now making the rounds in Britain, did not strike promoters as being sensational enough to herald the coming-to-town of one of filmdom’s most celebrated melodramatic actresses. Even with our eyes shut and her trademark peepers out of the picture, Davis still wowed them on the radio, inspiring the medium’s foremost melodramatist, Arch Oboler, to write plays for her. One such collaboration, “An American Is Born,” I have already discussed here. An even greater tour-de-force was “Alter Ego,” a psychological thriller inspired, no less, by a study published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology.

“Alter Ego” was first produced by the Texaco Star Theater (5 October 1938), with Davis in the role of a young woman compelled by an inner voice to kill her lover. Retitled “Another World,” the psychodrama was subsequently presented on Arch Oboler’s Plays (28 July 1939), with radio actress Betty Garde in the lead. On this day, 22 April, in 1945, “Alter Ego” was once again soundstaged under its original title, this time around in a Your Radio Hall of Fame production (preserved here by Jerry Haendiges on Same Time, Same Station). The play was introduced by its grandiloquent author, whose ego was big enough for two. He pointed out that “Alter Ego” was “originally written for Bette Davis”; but since the Radio Hall of Fame paid “tribute to radio,” the play was cast for the occasion with “two of radio’s outstanding actresses”: Ann Shepard and Mercedes McCambridge (pictured above and previously commemorated here).

It is “definitely a play indigenous to the radio form,” Oboler commented on the published script. “In no other medium could the ‘two mind systems’ existing in the same body be portrayed as effectively.” That did not stop him from adapting “Alter Ego” for the movies, as was dutifully pointed out by Your Radio Hall of Fame host Clifton Fadiman (last mentioned here. The Oboler-directed Bewitched (1945), then in theaters, starred Phyllis Thaxter in the role of the tormented Joan and Audrey Totter lending her voice but not appearing onscreen as Joan’s alter ego, Carmen.

“Alter Ego” is a sensational play that, according to one contemporary critic, has all the subtlety of a sparring match. Before the duel can commence, Oboler sets the scene: a cell in a state penitentiary, where Joan is awaiting her execution. Having no one to talk to about the inner voices that haunt her, Joan addresses her dead mother, promising to tell her “everything that happened.”

Joan’s ordeal started with the “boy next door,” Bob. Soon after her father announced their engagement, Joan (Shepard) is tormented by a voice (McCambridge) commanding her to leave her husband-to-be and to stop fighting her impulses: “Give it up to me—your body, your mind. You must, you will. I won’t go back in the dark. I’ll live, I’ll live!”

Joan is at a loss to communicate even to Bob the strange urgings that she herself does not comprehend. When Bob refuses to let go of Joan, Carmen forces her to stab him to death with a pair of scissors by dictating the movements of the body she longs to possess. Joan is tried for murder. About to be acquitted, she confesses to the crime of which she believes herself to be innocent. Knowing no other way out, she determines to conquer the voice within by giving up the body they both inhabited. Joan faces the gallows. After the trap is sprung, a soft-voiced Joan triumphs from the beyond: “You were wrong, Carmen—evil one—you were wrong. . . . Now there is peace.”

Apparently, Oboler deems the morose Joan—or any woman taking to an inner twin or a mother in the imagined hereafter than to confide in a man to whom she is supposed to give her hotly contested body—altogether past cure, if indeed the desire to escape a sanctioned union is in need of one. Advocating suicide rather than therapy, the master of pop-psychology schlock shuts Joan up so as to keep her from speaking the mind she is argued to have been out of. I’m surprised Ms. Davis did not take those scissors and cut . . . the script to pieces. Then again, unlike the actresses who followed her, she did get to take on a dual role, duel with Joan, and rise to the challenge of upstaging herself.

2 Replies to ““. . . originally written for Bette Davis”: Arch Oboler’s “Alter Ego””

  1. A small thing, probably interesting only to a fellow word/pronunciation freak: Growing up, the only time I heard \”Mercedes\” pronounced, it was MERsuhdeez, referring to Ms. McCambridge. Later, referring to cars, it became MerSAYdeez-Benz, apparently named for somebody\’s daughter. How do Germans say it? And what of \”Daimler?\” Has my memory failed as I seem to recall hearing it as DAME-ler until they merged with Chrysler and it became DIME-ler ??Clifton in Michigan, USA

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  2. Thanks for stopping by, Clifton. Yes, the announcer\’s pronunciation of McCambridge\’s first name does draw attention to itself. In German, it\’s \”Mair-TSEH-dess.\” DIME-ler is, er, right on the money.You can practically date radio programs by the way Los Angeles is pronounced, can\’t you?

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