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Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Twonky

This is an obscure and quirky, but fun little sci-fi movie. It's off the beaten path. On the surface, The Twonky is cast as a comedy, but is somewhat pedestrian as a comedy. More intriguing are some of the interesting thoughts interwoven in the script. A cute little TV set, massively retro cute by 2008 standards, sets about taking over a poor college professor's life. Is it protective, or oppressive? Even he can't decide.

Arch Oboler gave us our first post-apocalyptic tale in 1951 with Five. In '52 he directed one of the first 3D movies, Bwana Devil (a typical jungle adventure flick). Then, in '53, he produced and directed The Twonky, a "lite" sci-fi comedy with latent social commentary. Oboler was certainly not in any particular rut.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Professor Cary West's wife Carolyn has to leave him home alone for many days to be with her pregnant sister. To keep Cary from being lonely, she bought him a TV. Trouble is, the TV is actually a servant robot from the future that has disguised itself as a 16" Admiral TV. The "Twonky" sets about doing Cary favors. It lights his cigarette or pipe. It washes the dishes and fixes his tie, shines his shoes etc. Cary's friend, coach Trout, muses about the Twonky being a servant robot from the future that got lost and wound up in 1950s America. It's disguised itself as a TV to avoid arousing suspicion. The Twonky tries to help its adopted master, but gets Cary into trouble. It duplicates a $5 bill into $100 to help him pay a delivery man. It calls the telephone operator to get a blonde female companion for him because he's lonely. This brings the vice squad and a Treasury agent kicking in the door. The Twonky zaps everyone into complacent sleep walkers who mutter "I have noooo complaints..." Cary tries to rid himself of the helpful pest by pushing his car off a cliff (Twonky in front seat), but this fails. He tries to lose the Twonky by abandoning his car, but the Twonky gets into the trunk of the car Cary hitched a ride in. In a misguided attempt to keep Cary safe, the Twonky forces on the car's parking brake. They are rear-ended by a big truck. In the hospital, Cary and his wife celebrate that the Twonky was destroyed in the crash. Coach Trout brings Cary a gift to ease the boredom -- a 16" Admiral TV. Cary goes bezerk. Was it the Twonky reassembled, or just another TV set? The end.

Why is this movie fun?
Firstly, there are precious few sci-fi comedies. As comedy, it's not stellar, but there are some amusing skits built upon the misguided helpful robot premise. What's more fun is the satire on what television does to people. The Twonky is also refreshing as being something very different from the typical sci-fi scenario. It's a very early example of the technophobia sub-genre, but in a light-hearted form.

Cold War Angle
There's nothing overt about the Cold War, but there is a strong undercurrent of commentary on its social-political environment. Coach Trout theorizes that the in the future, each family has a Twonky to help them, but mostly "to control their thoughts and serve the dictates of the super state." This cuts both ways. It's a fret about mind control in the socialist state. It could also be a commentary on the patriotic conformism expected in the McCarthy era. Conformism will show up again and again as a theme in sci-fi movies.

Mixed Bag of Acting -- Hans Conried stars as Cary West. He's one of the fun character actors of the 50s and 60s. He does a good job of vacillating between nervous courage and being flustered. Coach Trout is an oddly assertive, yet melancholy, yet knowledgeable character reasonably played by Billy Lynn. Others are mostly average. The TV repairman, played by Ed Max, is almost annoyingly imbecilic. He may have been funnier to mid 50s audiences, but comes across as absurd in 2008.

Individualism andFreedom Commentary -- At one point, Cary comes home drunk. The Twonky zaps him sober. Cary yells at the Twonky for rigidly managing his life for him. "So is (getting drunk) forbidden in your time? Maybe it's wrong, but I have a God-given right to be wrong." This line is repeated near the end by the eccentric British lady who is driving recklessly on the wrong side of the road. She admits that her insisting on acting as if America was still a British colony might be wrong, but she has a God-given right to be wrong.

Herein is the statement on liberty. There is a subtle tyranny in the demand for homogeneity of opinion, whether its about communism, patriotism, or global warming. Labeling deviations from the official party line as error, is a crafty form of oppression.

Opiate of the Masses -- The Twonky is symbolic of television itself. It seeks to control people's lives, pretending to be helpful, but subtly restricting its owners thoughts. This is driven home time and again by the Twonky zapping people who oppose it. They develop a mindless gaze and weakly say, "I have no complaints..." No matter how Cary tries to get away from the Twonky, it follows him. Since television had only been in people's homes for a few years, this is a surprisingly prescient commentary. TV dominates peoples' lives and controls their thoughts. Perhaps it actually is a tool of the "super state." Arch Oboler, the producer and director, was no fan of television. He came from the radio era and could, apparently, see the dark side of this new TV-technology.

Bottom line: The Twonky is an odd little sci-fi movie but well worthwhile to those who don't mind something NOT formulaic and DO like something that will leave you pondering.


Bill Cahill said...

I first watched that movie as a child in the 50's, and, loved it.
Hans Conreid as the mild mannered proffessor did the move great justice, in my view...
I would enjoy watching that move again.... I highly reccommend it to all...
Bill Cahill

Nightowl said...

Thanks for the comment, Bill. I'd not heard of The Twonky until I started researching for this project. It was surprisingly fun. You don't get much humor in sci-fi. I agree, Hans Conreid was great.

thingmaker said...

I don't recall liking this much, but I suspect it had to do with Arch Oboler's (re)-writing and direction. Oboler was great at radio but somehow managed to be rather poor at film. "Bwana Devil" is not just an ordinary jungle adventure, it is a painfully static, boring jungle adventure that has at least one lion attack which occurs in such a way that without later dialogue, you might not know it had happened. In part the problem may have been limitations of the 3D shooting,but the outcome is unforgivable.
I'll be giving this one another look and I would venture that it is probably a better representation of a Henry Kuttner story than the more recent "The Last Minzy".