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Former radio writer and producer Arch Oboler was on a roll in the early 1950s; in 1951 he independently produced and directed Five, a low-budget science-fiction melodrama about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust - the film was picked up by Columbia Pictures for distribution and earned Oboler a tidy profit. He followed this up with production in 1952 of a modest science fiction satire, about an alien presence known as "The Twonky." Following production, The Twonky sat on the shelf without a distributor while Oboler produced the first major 3-D film of the 1950s, Bwana Devil (1952), starring Robert Stack. Justifiably lambasted by the critics for its ineptness as a film, Bwana Devil nevertheless went on to great box-office success, and sparked the short but intense cycle of 3-D films made in the early 1950s. The following year, United Artists released Oboler's earlier completed film The Twonky (1953), to a small number of screens, after which it was relegated to showings on television, which was ironic since the intended target of satire in Oboler's film was the medium of television itself.
The Twonky is a rather loose adaptation of a 1942 short story by the established science fiction author Henry Kuttner (writing with his wife C. L. Moore and using the pseudonym Lewis Padgett). In the original story, a creature from the future appears in a present-day factory that manufactures console radios. The being from the future makes Twonkys in his world, so he turns out a Twonky that looks like a radio. This device is delivered to a home, and the Twonky/ radio proceeds to take over the life of the new owner. In his adaptation, Oboler uses several gags from the story, but overall The Twonky is unsuccessful as a comedy and heavy-handed and clunky as satire. Oboler's little movie, however, is exceedingly strange and contains several images and incidents that are not easily forgotten.
In a pre-credits sequence, an off-screen narrator warns us (in words that echo the famous curtain prologue of Frankenstein (1931), "ladies and gentlemen, we bring you a strange story about a thing out of space. It may frighten you - it may amuse you, but this may happen to you tomorrow." In a small college town, philosophy professor Cary West (Hans Conried) is being left alone for the weekend by his wife Carolyn (Janet Warren), who is off to visit her sister. West tells us "everything was normal, except on the roof of my house, where something new and diabolical was being added." That something is a TV antenna, because West's wife has bought him a television set to keep him company in her absence. West seems appreciative, and promises Carolyn that by the time she comes back he will know "all the latest wrestling holds." When the set is delivered, West is instantly disdainful of the device, but disdain turns to amazement when the 16-inch Admiral - not yet plugged in - emits a beam from its tube, lighting West's cigarette for him! The TV washes dishes, opens his bottle of Coke, and ties the professor's tie for him, but it also makes seemingly arbitrary decisions for the professor. It won't let him have a second cup of coffee, for example, and when West tries to play a classical record on the phonograph, the TV destroys the disc and plays marching music instead!
When the half-witted service man (Ed Max) comes to collect a 100-dollar fee, the TV uses a five-dollar bill of West's and replicates it on the floor until there is enough money to pay the man. Prof. West confides in his friend Coach Trout (Billy Lynn) who seems to have a handy explanation for the device: "That television set is not an hallucination - that's a Twonky. I had Twonkys when I was a child. A Twonky is something you do not know what it is."
The Twonky was probably aiming for a deft blend of creepy science fiction, offbeat whimsy, and satire, but several of Oboler's decisions work against the film. Jack Meakin's music is heavy-handedly "whimsical" and the playing of the actors is broad and peculiar, so while some of the visuals are startling, there is a constant poke in the ribs to not take anything seriously. The satire is far from subtle and falls flat because Oboler insists on spelling everything out. The Coach character has it all conveniently figured out, at one point blatantly saying "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 placed in every home to regulate every thought according to the dictates of the Super State." In another scene, Prof. West is writing a lecture for his students and begins, "Individualism is the basis of all great art" but he is zapped by The Twonky and forced to scratch the line out. Later, a book with the title "LIBERTY" is zapped out of the professor's hand. Subtlety was never a strong point in Oboler's films.
In advertising the film, United Artists was shy about showing just what The Twonky was (odd, since any review would mention it in the first sentence). The movie poster merely showed a line of arrows heading away from a red planet (Mars?) as the cast looked around with shocked or quizzical expressions. The tagline was "OUT OF YOUR OWN TOMORROW... OUT OF TIME AND SPACE A FEARSOME POWER!" The title is shown twice on the poster, both times in a whimsical typeface, indicative of a comedy.
Reviews of the movie were unkind. Variety merely wrote, "Briefly, it's unbelievably bad," while the writer for the Hollywood Reporter said, "There's a cute idea behind The Twonky, 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."
The Twonky provided the first leading film role for Hans Conried, a prolific radio actor who was one of Oboler's stock company of players. Conried had already appeared in dozens of bit parts in movies, often playing exotic magicians (as in the Orson Welles production Journey into Fear, 1943) or fussy, eccentric types. The same year The Twonky was released, the actor landed two of his most notable roles in features, as the lavender-laced Dr. Terwilliker in the live-action Dr. Seuss extravaganza The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), and as the unforgettable voice of Captain Hook in Walt Disney's animated Peter Pan (1953). Conried was interviewed in 1970 and said that he told Oboler during production of The Twonky that he was worried that the film was not working and that it would bomb at the box office. According to Conried, the producer replied, "That's all right. I need a tax write-off this year anyway" - no doubt to offset the enormous profits reaped from Bwana Devil.
Producer: Arch Oboler
Director: Arch Oboler
Screenplay: Arch Oboler; Lewis Padgett (story)
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Special Effects: Robert Bonnig
Music: Jack Meakin
Film Editing: Betty Steinberg
Cast: Hans Conried (Cary West), Janet Warren (Carolyn West), Billy Lynn (Coach Trout), Ed Max (Ed, TV repairman), Gloria Blondell (Lady Bill Collector), Evelyn Beresford (Old Lady Motorist), Norman Field (doctor)
by John M. Miller