(2/6) In a nutshell: Sci-fi radio and 3-D film pioneer Arch Oboler touches the low-point in his career with this ill-advised comedy of a TV set from the future that takes charge over the life of a college professor. Badly adapted from a sci-fi horror satire by Lewis Padgett, the film never finds its tone, the actors struggle with the concept and Oboler continues to use a sledgehammer to pound in his anti-authoritarian message, in case the audience is slow to catch on.
The Twonky (1953). Written & directed by Arch Oboler. Based on a short story by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Starring: Hans Conried, William H. Lynn, Gloria Blondell, Edwin Max, Janet Warren, Evelyn Beresford, Connie Marshall, William Phipps. Produced by Arch Oboler for Arch Oboler Productions. IMDb score: 5.6
If there was one thing that filmmakers were more afraid of in the fifties than UFOs, nuclear war and those damn Commies combined, it was the television set. Hollywood was in open rebellion against TV, with some studios even banning televisions altogether from their movie sets. This is why it is easy to misjudge the prevalence of the goggle box when watching films from the early fifties. Hollywood was so afraid that television would make people watch films at home instead of going to the cinema, that filmmakers collectively stuck their heads in the sand and pretended that TVs did not exist in the lives of their movie characters. When included, the television was often shown as a menace or a nuisance. Writer-director-producer Arch Oboler decided to put the cat on the table and made a satirical comedy featuring a TV set from the future that becomes a tyrant in the house of an unlucky college professor.
First of all, let’s get the plot, what there is of it, out of the way. College professor Kerry West (Hans Conried)’s wife Carolyn (Janet Warren) is going away to visit her sister who is going to have a baby. To keep her husband company, she has bought a TV set for him. But professor West soon discovers that this is not an ordinary TV. Instead, the thing starts helping him in the household, duplicating money for the down payment, lighting his cigarettes, opening his Coke bottles and cleaning his dishes. And the socket isn’t even plugged. It wobbles around on its strange legs and begins to assert mastery over the household, and especially over West himself.
First it’s nuisances. He’s not allowed to drink more than one cup of coffee a day – zap! goes the twonky’s laser beam, destroying the cup. Neither is he allowed to listen to Mozart – zap zap! The twonky wants to listen to marching music. He can’t even get drunk, as the twonky immediately zaps him sober. But the real problems arise when he tries to prepare a lecture on individualism and the great arts, or the importance of artistic freedom. John Stuart Mill’s Freedom and The Life of Abraham Lincoln are quickly zapped out of his hands, and instead the twonky gives him the racy book Romance through the Ages. Even worse, it begins to brainwash him, so that he can’t think his own thoughts, and instead recites the history if sexual promiscuity to his students.
He calls in his eccentric neighbour Coach Trout (William H. Lynn) to help him, and Trout, despite his strange behaviour, tells West that the TV is no TV, but a twonky: ”Something you have, but you don’t know what it is. It’s a mystery”. He suspects that the twonky is a robot from the future, that has been sent through time, and landed in the TV factory, and thus taken on the appearance of a TV. It is not only a twonky, it is mind control of the super state: ”In the world of the future where this Twonky comes from, every house, every family has a Twonky of its own to carry out the dictates of the super state. There is one place in every home to regulate every thought according to the dictates of the super state.” Trout calls in his football team to get rid of the thing, but it just zaps them into zombies, as does it with the police, and paralyses Trout’s legs, so he takes up residence in West’s spare bed. Ah yes, and ”hilarity” ensues, lest I forget to mention. This is, after all, a comedy. And the rest of the film basically deals with the twonky controlling West’s life, and West trying to get rid of it, 90 percent of it filmed in a single house, apart from a short scene with an elderly British lady driver and the final scene in a hospital.
Subtlety wasn’t Arch Oboler’s main vice, which he showed clearly in the preachy 1951 film Five (review). There’s little doubt about his feelings for the television, either. To understand his hatred for this new medium, one must remember that Oboler was a radio legend, who took over the groundbreaking horror show Lights Out in the thirties, and created many episodes that have served as blueprints for later TV shows and films. Radio tableus back inte day looked a lot like what TV tableaus look like today, whith news, current affairs programs, documentaries, debates, and a lot of drama and fiction shows. But with TV, entertainment and drama soon jumped ship to the picture box, and much more of radio’s broadcasting time was taken up by music. This, of course, infuriated radio men like Oboler, who also moved to TV to make his shows, without necessarily having the talents for the visual medium.
Add then to this the traditional outrage over new mediums. Anything new has always been seen as the harbinger of immorality, degradation, social collapse, mind-control and so forth. Some have praised Oboler for the insight he had into the effects of TV, how it would take over the lives of people and become a medium for propaganda and brain-washing. They forget, then, that it wasn’t Oboler who came up with the story, and it originally didn’t concern TV at all, but radio.
The short story The Twonky was written in 1942 under the pseudonym of Lewis Padgett, the often used pen-name of married couple Henry Kuttner and C.L.Moore. Without going into too much detail, Kuttner and Lewis were two writers who met in Lovecraftian circles, and wrote primarily horror, fantasy and science fiction. They wrote a number of novels, including The Dark World (1946), but are best known for their short stories, some of which have been turned into films and TV episodes, and for their contributions to the Cthulhu mythos.
Kuttner wrote The Graveyard Rats on his own in 1936, which was made into the TV movie Trilogy of Terror II (1996). “Lewis Padgett’s” best known story is probably the sci-fi tale Mimsy Were the Borogoves (1943), adapted into the films Tout spliques étaient les Borogoves (1970) and The Last Mimzy (2007). What You Need (1945) was adapted into episodes for both Tales of Tomorrow (review) and The Twilight Zone, The Dark Angel (1946) was also used for the former show. The novella Vintage Season (1946) became the basis for the movie Timescape in 1992. They also wrote a number of scripts for TV shows in the fifties, including a pilot that was never picked up, called Tales of Frankenstein (1958). Their work has been highly praised by authors like Marion Zimmer Bradley, Roger Zelazny, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, and Moore is seen as one of the pioneers of women in science fiction and fantasy. Some of the stories published under pseudonyms were actually written completely by Moore, since Kuttner as a man was paid better than her.
The Twonky is a very good short story, written with a wry, black humour and told very matter-of-factly, which gives the horror a nice satirical punch. It also ends on a rather bleak note, as opposed to the film. It has only three characters, and they all end up either brain-washed or killed by the twonky, whereas in the movie, the twonky doesn’t engage in murder. And whereas the story was a quirky, unsettling satire, Oboler turns his film into all-out slapstick comedy, and adds a whole menagerie of characters and plot elements that are not in the source material, and act only as padding for the run-time. These episodes are completely disparate and have little bearing on the plot as a whole, and act almost as stand-alone episodes in the movie. This gives the film a disjointed and unstructured feel. To sauce things up, he adds a sexy Lady Bill Collector (Gloria Blondell), who is basically the female lead, but doesn’t serve any other purpose than being yet another nuisance for West to deal with. The British Old Lady Motorist (Evelyn Beresford) is probably the best thing in the movie, and actually has some, albeit minor, purpose.
The main problem with the film is that Oboler has taken what was originally a science fiction horror story with some dark humour and tried to turn it into a silly slapstick comedy. This, we might note, he never bothered to tell the actors. Hans Conried, a lauded character actor on radio, TV and films, noted for his voice work for Disney, later said he had no idea who his character was or how he was supposed to play him. Oboler, notoriously difficult to work with, had the idea that he would make a comedy but not tell the actors about it, perhaps thinking that he would get a better result if the actors played it straight. But with a story as silly as this, it was of course difficult to take it seriously. This leads to the fact that none of the actors, save perhaps the two major women mentioned above, know what to do with their characters. Conried looks particularly distressed in his role, sliding from straight horror acting to over the top slapstick throughout the film. That this is really a comedy is established by the fact that Oboler ordered a typical bassoon- and flute-heavy, whimsical slapstick comedy score from composer Jack Brunker Meakin. The score would have been right at home in a Laurel and Hardy film, but is completely out of place against the strange backdrop of The Twonky.
Furthermore, one important point here is that Kuttner’s and Moore’s story was written in 1942, and the twonky was a stereo system (although the protagonist calls it a radio, but it also plays records – West plays Jean Sibelius’ The Swan of Tuonela at one point, which makes the heart of this Finnish reviewer swell). In 1942, when the story was written, the radio (or indeed the record player) were not new, dangerous technology. The only thing that’s new about it is that it has a little more knobs and buttons than the old radio. In the story, the twonky simply represents technology as a whole, or perhaps even more importantly, the way household appliances take up an increasing part of our lives. The twonky is simply a gremlin. When Oboler copies the same plot and tries to apply it specifically on the television, he fails to take into consideration actual television. It is symptomatic that the TV doesn’t do anything with its images, for most of the film the TV screen is completely blank. The story could just as well concern a dish-washer or an oven. This is simply bad writing.
Filming started in 1951, after Oboler had finished his pioneering post-apocalyptic epic Five (review). He managed to persuade a rich manufacturer, Buddy Nast, to invest most of the film’s budget of around 300 000 dollars, and filming commenced in a mansion Oboler rented. Apart from confusing the actors who didn’t know whether they were supposed to be doing horror or slapstick, he had fallings-out with most of the crew, as he refused to take advise and instead told the seasoned veterans how to do their jobs, despite having fairly little experience with filmmaking. So low was the mood among the crew, that Conried at one point sought out Buddy Nast and confessed to him that he thought the film was going to bomb and the financier would never get his money back. Nast took in in good spirits, and according to Hans Conried’s biography, he replied: ”Don’t worry, Hans, I need a tax write-off for this year anyway”.
The tensions on set were so bad that the crew rebelled on several occasions, when Oboler was experimenting with impossible camera angles and developing new ways to record sound. So confident was this radio man in his abilities as a filmmaker, that he didn’t even hire an art director, and initially didn’t have a special effects designer, but tried to do all of this himself. Robert Bonnig was eventually credited for special effects. Bonnig had no previous film credits, and went on to do effects for four other little-known films. The effects are not too bad, although most of them are pretty simple wire tricks, and animated laser beams added in post-production. The twonky itself is adorable as it dollops around on its hilarious legs that don’t even seem to touch the ground, as the prop is dragged along on a platform. The box-shape and the way the little thing waddles around gives it a peculiar R2-D2-like cuteness, and it’s very hard to take it as a serious threat.
Arch Oboler was a true radio pioneer, best known for taking over Lights Out in the thirties, and combining his inventive and gruesome horror stories with liberal anti-communist and anti-fascist segments. He made his first movie in 1945, a futuristic take on how easily fascists could infiltrate and take over USA. His fourth film, Five, was an anti-fascist moral tale with religious overtones set in a post-apocalyptic, radioactive near future. The Twonky was certainly a departure from style in that sense, on the other hand most of his best radio scripts were imbued with a macabre humour. The problem was that Oboler never really learned to understand the medium of film, and his scripts often tended to be radio with pictures. This is true for The Twonky. Even the special effects can be listened to, rather than watched, and everthing is explained in dialogue.
In 1952 Oboler released Bwana Devil, a tale of a man-eating lion, inspired by real events, that has gone down in history as the first 3-D movie. The new innovation made the film a minor hit, which was lucky for Oboler. After he had completed the filming of The Twonky, no distributor wanted to pick it up. This may partly have been because of the antipathy towards promoting TV, but probably just as much because they thought the film was terrible. However, Oboler was able to do a deal with United Artists for Bwana Devil, that included The Twonky as a second feature. According to legend it was only shown in three theatres after it was shut down. Critics were merciless. Variety famously wrote a four-word review: ”Briefly, it’s unbelievably bad.” Hollywood Reporter acknowledged the ”cute” idea behind the premise, but ”the basic premise is so smothered by a flood of dull dialogue that it becomes completely lost. Arch Oboler produced, directed and scripted, scoring a clean miss on all three counts.” Oboler made a handful more films, including The Bubble, about a couple trapped in a city inhabited by strange humanoids, under a giant glass dome.
Most of the cast was made up of people who were primarily radio or voice actors. Hans Conried was a very talented character actor, who had been part of Oboler stock company in the thirties and forties. Conried said one of the reasons he didn’t walk off the film was that he was indebted to Oboler for starting him off in his career. He appeared (or was heard) in over 200 films or TV-series, and is perhaps best known for providing the voice for Captain Hook in Peter Pan (1953) and Thorin Oakenshield in The Hobbit (1977). William H. Lynn, playing the coach, was a veteran stage and radio actor with a minimal TV and film career, and is thoroughly out to sea here. Gloria Blondell as the sassy Lady Debt Collector seems to be the only actor who knows what she’s doing, as it seems she is more interested in seducing west than getting the money back. Blondell was the sister of Oscar-nominated movie star Joan Blondell, and is best known for providing the voice of Daisy Duck in Disney’s films in the forties and fifties.
Among the rest of the cast, best known is probably William Phipps, who played the lead (and very well so) in Five. In 1953 he appeared in no less than four sci-fi films. He has a tiny part as a student in The Twonky, had a slightly larger role as a military sergeant in Invaders from Mars (review) and another fairly prominent supporting role in The War of the Worlds (1953, review). He played one of the leads in Cat-Women of the Moon (1953, review). In 1954 he had a supporting role in The Abominable Snowman. As of 2016, William Phipps, born 1922, has the distinction of being the oldest living actor to be primarily associated with science fiction, according to this list, and when writing this, he is the 22nd oldest movie star alive.
Stephen Roberts had a long career as a bit-part actor, including Gog (1954, review) and Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971). As the cute watergirl with the football team we see Connie Marshall, a former child actress almost grown up in one of her last roles. Much of the bit-part actors only have a handful credits to their names.
Cinematographer Joseph. F. Biroc was one of the best in the business, and had previously worked on Frank Capra’s 1946 Christmas classic It’s A Wonderful Life. He had a prolific career, but got something of a second coming in the seventies and later with Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Superman (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974), where he photographed the action sequences and was awarded an Oscar for the effort. Biroc also became known as the cinematographer to go to for comedies, as he shot blockbusters like Blazing Saddles (1974), Airplane! (1980), and Airplane II: The Sequel (1982). He photographed a number of episodes of Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), as well as the sci-fi films Red Planet Mars (1952, review), Donovan’s Brain (1953, review), (1953), Riders to the Stars (1954, review), The Unknown Terror (1957), and The Amazing Colossal Man (1957). Most of the rest of the crew are fairly anonymous.
The movie is good for a few laughs, and there are individual scenes that are quite funny. It is well filmed, thanks to Biroc, but the editing is off and the directions clumsy. You sometimes get glimpses of Hans Conried’s genius as a comedic actor, and just wish the film would simply have been better, as this was his first role as a leading man. But once you get the general idea (after about 7 minutes), there’s really nothing driving the plot forward and now real dramatic arc. There’s no interesting personal drama and we really don’t care much for any of the characters, who are so cartoonishly drawn that they are hard to take seriously. Oboler simply squanders a great opportunity.
The Twonky (1953). Written & directed by Arch Oboler. Based on a short story by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. Starring: Hans Conried, William H. Lynn, Gloria Blondell, Edwin Max, Janet Warren, Evelyn Beresford, Bob Jellison, Norman Field, Stephen Roberts, Connie Marshall, William Phipps, Bernie Washington, Lenore Kingston, Alice Backes, Charles Phillips, Gayle Pace, Al Jarvis, Joe Hawthorne, Jackson Wheeler, Jack Rourke. Music: Jack Brunker Meakin. Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc. Editing: Betty Steinberg. Property master: Clem Widrig. Sound recordist: R.D. Cook. Special effects: Robert Bonnig. Produced by Arch Oboler for Arch Oboler Productions.