Remembered by only the buffest of old-time radio buffs, Arch Oboler was one of the medium's most famous writer/directors. His most popular series, Lights Out!, presented atmospheric horror, while Arch Oboler's Plays was fantasy with a social conscience. Oboler's style -- which might be described as heightened reality, the way regular people would talk if they had a good writer giving them pointers -- and the programs themselves were undoubtedly a prime influence on Rod Serling's Twilight Zone many years later.
Oboler made the occasional foray into movies during this time (including the previously-discussed Gangway for Tomorrow) bouncing back and forth from film noir to anti-fascist dramas. In 1951, perhaps intrigued by the then-burgeoning television industry, he wrote and directed The Twonky, a low-budget sci-fi picture that over 60 years later remains a fascinating misfire.
The Twonky tells the story Professor Kerry West dealing with the new television that his wife has given him. Without even being plugged in, the TV starts quite literally taking over West's life. Giving the concept of "portable TV" a rather ominous twist, it even follows him around the house to keep an eye on what he's up to. Cops, colleagues and varsity football players who try to destroy the cathode-ray monster are knocked unconscious, only to awaken in a hypnotic trance babbling, "I have no complaints... I have no complaints... I have no complaints" like your average couch potato parked in front of a 50-inch 3D HDTV with his pretzels and Pabst.
For it's not enough that the TV insists on doing everything for West -- it does what it believes best for him, like replacing classical music with military marches or helping him play solitaire. By way of explanation, the talking TV identifies itself (in the typical take-me-to-your-leader patois) as a representative of the Bureau of Entertainment, which sounds like something straight out of 1984 -- or 2013.
Having taken charge of West's leisure time, the TV eventually prevents him from thinking for himself, going so far as to change his class lecture topic from "Individualism as the Basis of Great Art" to "Passion Through History." And when its tyrannical behavior eventually drives West to drink, the TV zaps him back to sobriety. "I may be wrong," West screams in retaliation, "but it's my kind of wrong. It's my God-given right to be wrong!" That notion probably seems shocking to anyone growing up these days. In fact, if The Twonky were a new release, the TV would destroy West's cigarette rather than lighting it as it does here.
"Twonky," by the way, is simply a slang dreamed up by one of West's colleagues, Coach Trout, for something inexplicable. Trout eventually comes to the conclusion that the TV is a robot from the future that fell through a time portal. Having landed in 1951 Los Angeles, the robot took the form of something that would help it blend in. The robot, he believes, was constructed to regulate every thought according to the dictates of the superstate -- a rather heavy idea for a movie many people probably blew off as being one step above a kiddie matinee.
Some years later, a Twilight Zone episode worthy of a horror movie featured a similar concept concerning a gambling addict and a slot machine. But here, the scare factor is undercut by a bassoon & flute-heavy score reminding us It's only a joke, folks. Someone more tech-savvy than me should post a remix The Twonky with Bernard Herrmann's music from Citizen Kane and Vertigo. It could be the stuff of nightmares.
But even that wouldn't do anything to improve the dialogue or direction. Oboler made the unfortunate decision of wrapping The Twonky's spooky package with a whimsical ribbon, undercutting whatever message he might have tried to get across. Whimsy was the bete-noir of Oboler's unofficial protege Rod Serling as well, as demonstrated by the atrocious Twilight Zone episodes starring Carol Burnett and Buster Keaton respectively. (You haven't lived 'til you've heard a laugh track on The Twilight Zone. Nor do you want to.)
The Twonky's cast does what it can with the material provided. Hans Conried's name is often preceded by "the great" for a reason. A solid character in movies, radio and TV for six decades. Endless voice-over work in cartoons. A face and delivery you recognize immediately. Known mostly for comedic roles, Conried could have made his Prof. West a compelling dramatic part had he been allowed. As it is, his reaction to the crushing of his independence is still quite moving at times. His plaintive cry, "Why is it when a man tells the truth, he's accused of drinking?", could have been just a comedic line in other hands. When delivered by Conried, it becomes the apotheosis of the sane human in a world gone mad. Yes, this is the great Hans Conried.
No one else in The Twonky comes with 100 TV antennae of Conried, although Billy Lynn, as Trout, is certainly something. It's difficult to say if he was the most subversively subtle character actor of his time or the brother-in-law of the casting director (he has only a handful of credited roles). What's not up for debate is that Lynn has the worst teeth in movie history outside of Lon Chaney's Phantom of the Opera.
The Twonky went unreleased for two years after its 1951 production. It could very well be due to its overall shabbiness. Much of the audio sounds like it's emanating from a cave, thanks to the indoor-location shooting. The static direction and cinematography is what you would have found on syndicated sitcoms of the time. What is definite is that The Twonky's promotion was piggybacked onto Arch Oboler's Bwana Devil, the movie that started the original 3D craze in 1952.
As anyone who's seen Carnival of Souls or The Honeymoon Killers can attest, a movie's low budget can actually create a genuinely disconcerting ambiance. No, what ultimately works against The Twonky is, ironically, what its evil TV is a proponent of: not trusting people to think for themselves. Had Oboler gone the dramatic fantasy route of his great radio plays, The Twonky could have been one of the most interesting, unnerving low-budget sci-fi movies of the '50s. The taglines on the poster promise much and, occasionally, glimpses of greatness are seen. By the end, though, the film pulls its punches, settling for comedy rather than the serious, even prophetic ideas it lays out. But what can you expect from a movie called The Twonky anyway?
It wouldn't surprise me if a seven year-old Steven Spielberg saw The Twonky at his local movie house one Saturday afternoon. In 1971, his first feature, the made-for-TV movie Duel, was about a monstrous truck... that seems to have a life of its own. There isn't one second of humor in its running time. So successful was Duel, Universal Pictures released it theatrically in Europe. Let this be a lesson to moviemakers everywhere: When inanimate things come to life, it's scary.