Tag Archives: Arch Oboler

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: THE TWONKY (1953)

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DIRECTED BY: Arch Oboler

FEATURING: , Billy Lynn, Gloria Blondell, Janet Warren

PLOT: A mild-mannered professor has his world turned upside-down when a new television set purchased by his wife turns out to have remarkable abilities, and uses them to take control of his life.

Still from The Twonky (1953)

COMMENTS: Arch Oboler is a curious figure in the outer reaches of cinema history. His last-people-on-earth drama Five has been credited as the first movie set in a post-atomic-apocalypse world. His inexplicable zombie-village tale The Bubble was one of the more noteworthy installments in the most recent season of “.” His best-known credit is perhaps Bwana Devil, the very first color 3D feature in English to earn a commercial release. (The premiere was the occasion for this legendary photograph.) And all these tiny bits of notoriety are tinged with the harsh truth that film was not his outstanding medium. Oboler came to prominence in radio, drawing acclaim both for pre-World War II productions warning of the rise of fascism, as well as the shocking-for-its-time horror series “Lights Out.”

This preface is necessary to set up the essential contradiction of The Twonky: it is an undisguised attack on an entirely new entertainment medium, television, perpetrated in a competing medium by a man who came of age in yet another medium. Labeling television as a brain-warping incubus is a pastime that has never gone out of style, but when you know that the 1942 C. L. Moore-Henry Kuttner story upon which The Twonky is based portrays the title character as a radio, it’s fair to say that Oboler is not an entirely disinterested party. As far as he’s concerned, TV is evil. And he may be right, but identifying exactly what kind of evil is where The Twonky gets strange.

This ersatz TV set never actually plays a show, which you might think would be the malign influence we should fear. Instead, it initially seems to be a helpmate, lighting Conried’s cigarettes and producing counterfeit money to pay off a creditor. Soon enough, though, it begins to move into mental conditioning, limiting his diet and forcing him to listen to deafening military marches. Despite its appearance as a goofy marionette (the spindly legs and barely concealed puppet movements make it look like an ancestor to this), its actions soon become malevolent, dumbing down Conried’s college professor so that he can no longer speak confidently in his own area of expertise, and reducing any potential threat to a vacant shell who can only mutter “I have no complaints.”

I have complaints. Part of what makes it hard to feel the danger of the Twonky is that the minds it influences are already pretty loopy. Blondell’s bill collector is so committed to her job that she essentially moves into Conried’s house, deliberately taking over his bathtub to heighten his discomfort. (The film pulls back from the very real threat that the Twonky could kill her, substituting a silly offscreen comeuppance in which she is zapped out of her clothes and sent running down the street.) Lynn is portrayed as both an enlightened interpreter of the Twonky’s mission (he’s the one who helpfully defines a twonky as “a thing that you don’t know what it is”) and a dim bulb who can’t see danger directly in front of him, sending his football team and cheer captain into harm’s way. And then there’s Conried, who should be a contented intellectual whose world is upended by the idiot box, but instead is a nervous ditherer from the start. Curiously, he is both a big bundle of nerves and not nearly jumpy enough. Conried is renowned for his over-the-top vocal performances, including Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan and Snidely Whiplash in Jay Ward’s “Dudley Do-Right” cartoons, but here in his first on-camera leading role, he’s a nudnik, unable to either play it straight or unleash the hounds. The character never develops at all, thereby diluting the power of his nemesis.

With its technological target, The Twonky ought to play like an episode of “Black Mirror” produced on the set of “The Twilight Zone.” It’s too restrained for that, though; it takes on the demon beast television, but in such an abstract way that you’re never really sure of the nature of the objection. There are glimpses of the real danger of the Twonky’s infantilizing servitude, suggesting a possible remake in which the villain takes the form of an AI chatbot. What we get, however, is the lightest of screwball comedies, complete with a doting wife, a raucous encounter with a blinkered dowager, and an astoundingly terrible and overbearing score by Jack Meakin that suggests the incidental music from “Leave It to Beaver” (but less weighty.) It’s enough to make you think that Oboler started out with a blistering attack on the new form of entertainment he feared and loathed, but the Twonky got hold of him and turned his product into pablum. The Twonky won’t put you off television. But it’s not doing much for movies, either.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“One of the oddest science fiction films of the 1950s, but still not very good… 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.” – Kim Newman, The Kim Newman Web Site

ADDITIONAL LINK OF INTEREST: Back in 2009, Don Coscarelli wrote of his affection for The Twonky at Ain’t It Cool News, which somehow survives (with its ancient web design) to this day.

(This movie was nominated for review by Alikhat. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)