The Twonky

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(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

Promotional poster for The Twonky.

Promotional poster for The Twonky.

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. Continue reading

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The Magnetic Monster

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(4/10) In a nutshell: This 1953 film uses least 10 minutes of special effects from the German film Gold and steals its premise from an Arch Oboler radio show, but still manages to come off as something quite original. Made by Ivan Tors and legendary sci-fi writer Curt Siodmak, the film follows a sort of sci-fi FBI, trying to neutralise a radioactive material that keeps growing and threatens to sling the Earth out of orbit. Starring sci-fi cult actor Richard Carlson and features a bit-part by comedienne Kathleen Freeman.

The Magnetic Monster (1953). Directed by Curt Siodmak, Herbert L. Strock (uncredited) & Karl Hartl (uncredited). Written by: Ivan Tors & Curt Siodmak. Inspired by The Chicken Heart by Arch Oboler (uncredited). Edited from the film Gold (1934, uncredited). Starring: Richard Carlson, King Donovan, Jean Byron, Harry Ellerbe, Leo Britt, Leonard Mudie, Byron Foulger, Kathleen Freeman, Hans Albers, Michael Bohnen. Produced by Ivan Tors for A-Men Productions. IMDb score: 6.0

King Donovan and Richard Carlson in a magazine ad for The Magnetic Monster.

King Donovan and Richard Carlson in a magazine ad for The Magnetic Monster.

Legendary low-budget producer Roger Corman made many of his most famous sci-fi films by taking lavish European special effects films that were virtually unknown to American audiences or even critics, and intercutting them with newly shot scenes with American actors. The method wasn’t new. In 1943 Edward Dmytryk took a good portion of his Captive Wild Woman (review) about an ape woman from a 1932 lion taming film called The Big Cage. But what probably inspired Corman even more was German expat Curt (Kurt) Siodmak’s 1953 film The Magnetic Monster, which basically took its whole last 20 minutes from the German sci-fi thriller Gold (1934, review). Continue reading

Five

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(6/10) In a nutshell: Arch Oboler’s independent 1951 film is the first American film to deal with nuclear annihilation, the first real post-apocalyptic film, the first empty world film and the first serious science fiction feature film with a major black character. Heavy on biblical reference and weighed down with pompous monologues and slow pacing, the film nonetheless has startling moments of cinematic brilliance and bold editorial and cinematic flourishes. A gritty, bleak vision of the future driven by a humane core, good ensemble acting and glimpses of lyrical beauty.

Five (1951). Written and directed by Arch Oboler. Starring: William Phipps, Susan Douglas Rubes, James Anderson, Charles Lampkin, Earl Lee. Produced by Arch Oboler for Arch Oboler Productions. IMDb score: 6.5

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If 1950 marked the beginning of the golden age of Hollywood science fiction with the space flight films Rocketship X-M (review) and Destination Moon (review), 1951 was a year of many firsts. The Man from Planet X (review) was the first feature film to introduce the goldfish bowl alien with his ray gun, and The Thing from Another World (review) gave us the first bona fide alien monster. Later in the year the first benign feature film alien arrived in Washington in his UFO (the first actual alien flying saucer on film) in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review), and the first trip to the hollow center of the Earth commenced on October in Unknown World (review). But in April, about the same time as The Man from Planet X was revealed, Columbia Pictures released the first film depicting the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust in the independently produced Five, something of a great white whale for movie fans for a long time, since in wasn’t made available for home viewing until 2011. Continue reading

Lights Out

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(5/10) In a nutshell: Arguably the first anthology TV show to feature science fiction, Lights Out was adapted from a popular horror radio show in the US in 1949. Broadcast live with a varying degree of quality, very light on sci-fi and quite heavy on traditional ghost stories. Lights Out sported an impressive roster of actors, but the direction and originality never quite reached the same quality as rivalling shows that popped up in the early fifties, like Out There or Tales of Tomorrow.

Lights Out (1949-1952). Directed by William Corrigan, Laurence Schwab Jr, Kingman T. Moore, Grey Lockwood, Fred Coe, et. al. Written by: A.J. Russell, George Lefferts, Fred Coe, Ernest Kinoy, Douglas Parkhurst, Wyllis Cooper, Arch Oboler, et. al. Starring: Frank Gallop, Jack La Rue, Mercer McLeod, Leslie Nielsen, Gregory Morton, John Newland, Peter Capell, Alfreda Wallace, Richard Derr, Ross Martin, John Forsythe, Burgess Meredith, John Carradine, Vaughn Taylor, Grace Kelly, George Reeves, Veronica Lake, Basil Rathbone, Anne Bancroft, Anne Francis, Boris Karloff, Anthony Quinn, Melvyn Douglas, Vincent Price, Produced by Herbert B. Swope, Fred Coe for NBC. IMDb rating: 7.3

Frank Gallop as the eerie presenter of Lights Out.

Frank Gallop as the eerie presenter of Lights Out.

Not really a science fiction show per se, Lights Out can still be credited as the first anthology show to bring sci-fi to the small screen. You could debate whether it was in fact the first science fiction show or not, but I’m going with the latter, and I’ll explain why below. Continue reading