The Twonky (1953)

There aren’t many Fifties SF films I haven’t seen yet – and those few definitely tend to be among the least of the offerings of that era.

Funny how that works out.

This one was made by Arch Oboler, a singularly indifferent director who is best remembered for his radio plays for Lights Out – so famous, in fact, that very few people remember that he didn’t actually create the show.  Frankly, I’ve never much cared for his horror plays, as they tend to be far too dark and gruesome for my tastes.

He is often hailed as a great radio creator, largely because of his later, more serious shows like Arch Oboler’s Plays.  Ironically, while often innovative, I find these far too preachy – and, as most of them were written during World War II – far too propagandistic (and propaganda, whether for the bad guys or the good, makes for poor theater).

His film and TV career was decidedly spotty.  He is best remembered for Bwana Devil, but only because it was the first of the Fifties 3-D craze.  His movie Five – perhaps his best regarded – starts out extremely well, but, unfortunately, is followed by the rest of the film.

Here, working loosely from the story by Lewis Padgett (Henry Kuttner and C.L.Moore), Oboler creates a supposedly satiric comedy about a television set from the future (actually, a shape-shifting robot) designed to care for – and correct – its owner.  Unfortunately, it never really is as funny as the idea sounds, and the Twonky, itself, never actually shows any television images.  Which does sort of undermine much of the satire, when you think about it.  As does the fact that the film itself – because it is mostly limited to one location and is so talky – seems more like a television movie than a theatrical one.

Hans Conreid stars as a mild mannered Professor.  It was his first starring role , but as great a comic as he was, he just isn’t given a lot to work with here.  Apparently, Oboler didn’t tell his cast that they were making a comedy, in the hope that they would turn in more naturalistic performances.  Unfortunately, no one seems to know quite what to do.

I quite like the Twonky itself.  It has a sort of comic cuteness about it, and some hints of personality.  The “puppet” itself, however, is fairly primitive, which really stands out if you watch its legs as it walks.  I suspect that someone with a lot more visual sense than Oboler would probably have had it project images that reinforced what it was trying to “teach.”

However, the film’s biggest flaw is that there just isn’t much happening – or any real sense of direction to the film.  The Twonky starts doing its tricks, which messes up the Professor’s life and starts chasing everyone else away.  He tries to fight back, and fails and then the Twonky does more stuff to mess up his life…

Not much, in other words.

Oh, well.  You also get the world’s oldest college football team (which fails to destroy the Twonky and ends up in a heap on the floor); a bit of comic mind control, leaving its victims saying “I have no complaints”; some paranoid talk about how the machine must have been part of a massive program to control people in some repressive future State; and a sexy bill collector played by Gloria Blondell, who is one of the few high points.

The other is a gloriously eccentric performance by Evelyn Beresford as an unbending British ex-pat.  Unfortunately she only gets a few minutes onscreen.

The end product is mildly amusing and little more.  And, unfortunately, it just sort of…ends.

However there is one thing that puzzles me:  Jeff Rovin’s A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films lists an entirely different ending to the film, with the Professor destroying the Twonky, only to have a baby Twonky crawl out of it.

Now that’s quite different from the original story’s ending and is also much, much better than Oboler’s.  Nor can I find any other adaptation than a radio play which used the original ending.

So where in the heck did that come from???

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