One of the oddest science fiction films of the 1950s, but still not very good. Arch Oboler made his career as an innovator in radio; his sparse filmography as director consists almost entirely of imaginative if awkward off-Hollywood efforts (Strange Holiday, Bewitched, Five), often wedding social content to the fantastical in Rod Serlingish manner (though he also kicked off the 3D craze with Bwana Devil). Like a few other films from early in the ‘50s sf boom (The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Thing From Another World), The Twonky looks to material from the s-f magazines (the studio hacks would soon learn they could just make this stuff up without the aid of professional sf writers), adapting a story by the respected team of Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore (who wrote as ‘Lewis Padgett’) about a mysterious gadget from the future that turns up in the present.
The ‘twonky’ takes the shape of an Admiral television set which Carolyn West (Janet Warren) buys for her tweedy college professor husband Cary (Hans Conreid) to keep him company as she visits her pregnant sister. The set walks on puppety Muffin the Mule legs and emits an optical zapping effect which lights cigarettes and pipes, does the dishes, replicates five-dollar bills and shaves the master, but also defends itself by temporarily crippling a would-be attacker (a drunken loser football coach played by Billy Lynn) and altering the brain patterns of those who defy it (they solemnly intone ‘I have no complaints’). Oboler’s script is quite daring and subtle, implying the kind of oppressive future which manufactures this shapeshifting robot, a tyrannical labour-saving device which dashes books about freedom from the professor’s hand, forces him to listen to brass bands rather than Mozart, and distracts him from serious subjects so that he composes a lecture based on a pornographic popular history book Passion Through the Ages (a quietly progressive aspect is that Oboler depicts a contemporary mixed race college classroom without making a fuss about it). The twonky also assumes there’s a government department (the Bureau of Entertainment) which sends prostitutes out to citizens’ homes and gets Cary in trouble with the vice squad by telephoning for girls to be sent over. You’d assume that the film was at least partially motivated by suspicion, mistrust and envy felt by a master of established media at the outset of the television age – but, though the twonky has strangling antennae, its shape is almost irrelevant to the plot (nothing ever appears on its screen, which is a missed opportunity) and aside from mild jabs at the banality of TV programming (wrestling, a win-a-ham quiz show) which could equally apply to radio or Hollywood there’s nothing of the satiric bite found in early films about TV like Meet Mr Lucifer, A Face in the Crowd or Champagne for Caesar.
If it were scripted and directed by different people, you’d guess this was written as a more nightmarish, frightening picture but reconceived on set as a goofy comedy – it could have played like such unforgettable ‘living object’ Twilight Zones as ‘The Fever’ (the slot machine) or ‘Living Doll’, but actually comes off like Rod Serling’s occasional, horribly leaden attempts at light-hearted sit-com fantasy. Everything is too desperate for real humour, with a ghastly music score by Jack Meakin trying to force laughs that don’t come, and a hysterically overpitched lead performance from the obviously freakish Conreid (matched by the no-name supporting cast) in a role which would seem to demand someone normal driven to distraction (like either of the Darrins on Bewitched). It would be childish were it not for a seam of grim sauciness that doesn’t really work but is unusual for Hollywood in 1953: a slinky seductress (Gloria Blondell) barges her way into the West home intent on embarrassing Cary (she turns out to be a bill-collector) and a gag has the twonky seem to disintegrate her (we see a floating brassiere and other clothes) but actually stripping her naked to send her running down the street (reported, but not seen) as Carolyn comes home. The climax, in which Cary tries to get rid of the nuisance by abandoning it on the freeway, almost forgets the twonky to concentrate on Evelyn Beresford as an eccentric ancient British motorist who insists on driving on the wrong side of the road.
Kim — You’re right on every count, and yet I find The Twonky bizarrely hypnotic. It does just about everything wrong, and yet it’s stuck with me since I saw it on TV as a child. I bought a bootleg DVD a couple of years ago and even though I flinched at every leaden gag and fey Hans Conreid reaction shot, I saw exactly why it got under my skin: All the details are wrong, but there’s an underlying anxiety that’s dead right.
Plus the Twonky and his little legs rule…
I’ve always wanted to see this film, since I read about it in the Aurum SF Encyclopedia about 20 years ago. Is it available on DVD now then?
To the best of my knowledge, it’s never been available commercially, but I kept an eye on ebay and bought a bootleg when it turned up — ironically, it turned out I was bidding for it against someone I used to work with — a sci-fi fan who grew up in Russia in the late 1980s/early ’90s and taught himself English so he could hack American horror movie sites and learn all there was to know about Jason Voorhees and Freddy Kruger.
He got the only DVD available at the time and I bought a VHS that I transferred to DVD at home.
For all the film’s flaws, I don’t regret a penny of what I paid (which really wasn’t all that much) and delight in showing it to the uninitiated.
Hey it’s the FlickChick! I used to love your TVG column! This comment feels like a minor reprise of it!
Likewise, became besotted with Twonky via Aurum encyclopedia – but to date have never seen it. Am sure critique is spot on, would still spring for an Oboler box set (with Lights Out radio plays on CD), since all his films are unique, in spite of flaws. The design of the Twonky, that still, above, that was in the Aurum guide, have that quintessential fifties strangeness and beauty we crave. Yes, it’s an irony that radio could accused of the same malign influence as TV or cinema – as you say, the TV aspect is played down so maybe it was more ‘hey, wouldn’t it be cool to have an alien fascist as a TV with Bambi legs? You, know sweetly insidious in it’s conquest’. Punishingly unfunny comedy is also a source of enjoyment for some of us self-styled outre cineastes. ‘True anti-aesthetics’, we crow. No doubt we are wayward children of the cult movies crowd. Having watched many lovable but lead-footed fifties SF, one really appreciates how polished and succinct the best of Twilight Zone and, especially, Outer Limits are, Possible irony – Oboler would have been better served by TV anthologies of this ilk than his overstretched films? Discuss.