The Twonky

“A twonky is something that you don’t know what it is.” – Coach Trout

The film, The Twonky (1953), you may not know about but you can easily see what it is. A satire on television, using a slapstick approach. Neither works well. But I have watched it and will write not to praise it nor bury it. Just by its title, which I saw listed on COMET, channel 253 (Comcast), I was intrigued and then sold by its description: A man’s new television, controlled by a force from the future, starts to take over his life. By “take over” I don’t mean that his body is snatched. The television simply won’t allow him to do things and generally imposes its will on him.

I found two excellently detailed articles on The Twonky: at Scifist, a sci-fi film history in reviews, and the other at Parallax View, which focused on the direct Arch Oboler. I couldn’t add to them any significant details about the film, but I had recently conducted a film course dealing with Media Movies and seven of the ten films dealt with television. The Twonky predates A Face in the Crowd (1957), the first great film critique of television, by four years. Arch Oboler is no Elia Kazan, and Hans Conried, playing the harried Professor West, cannot come close to the scene-chomping Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes. Yet, Conried is one of the best things about The Twonky. He pours himself vigorously into the poorly written film and man of his co-stars don’t perform badly either.

The movies about television can, like A Face in the Crowd, concentrate on the content. Lonesome Rhodes selling Vitajax, as a combination Geritol and Viagra, is one of the great comical pleasures of the film. Other films, like Being There (1979) and The Truman Show (1999) take the McLuhan approach: “the medium is the message”, that is, television itself regardless of content has deleterious effects on human consciousness and will. The Twonky takes the latter approach. Stupid commercials (“Ring around the collar”) and shows (My Mother the Car) are not the problem. There’s little content on Conried’s intrusive television except at the very end we see an American cavalry charge. From its approach, I hope to find a consistent perspective from the film on the nature of television, but it will not be easy.

Initially, I was hopeful that The Twonky would unconsciously make its way to Being There’s (1979) ethos whence the television ethos absorbs its viewers. Our lives are taken over (we give our lives over) to the tele-visual world and I wanted this to happen to Conried’s character, Professor West. Actually, West’s television serves and protects him while mildly controlling his thoughts. I suppose people thought this about television from the start. Instead of writing a lecture on individual freedom and making independent decisions, the television directs him to lecture on the history of sexual passions. His friend, Coach Trout (William H. Lynn), recruits several of his players to destroy the television but this results in the television zapping them and, afterwards, all they can say is “I have no complaints.” The funniest about the coach is that he hasn’t won a game in six years.

The television also lights West’s cigarettes, opens Coke bottles, and makes counterfeit money. West uses the money to pay a hundred-dollar installment, after he couldn’t get the television salesman to take back the television. Because West’s wife signed the papers, he is powerless to get rid of it. The television’s powers come from the fact that it is actually a robot that had accidentally enter our time continuum from the future. Again, the idea of the future controlling the past has promise, but the film never explains why the robot is here or what kind of future it had come from.

Arch Oboler came from radio and uses The Twonky to exorcise his unease with the new invention. The film was shot in 1951 when ten to twenty percent of homes had one. A radio in the house apparently shouldn’t concern us, but the common image of a family sitting around one in the evening to listen to The Shadow or Bing Crosby might strike people as strange as adults walking around fixated on a smart phone. In fact, Oboler made his reputation by directed the first 3-D movie, Bwana Devil (1952). He also had many writing credits, pre-Twonky, for television shows.

Legacy: A 2004 Jimmy Neutron episode is called “Attack of the Twonkies”. The description on IMDb says that Jimmy brings back a small furry creature from the Twonkus-3 comet that has a violent reaction to music.  Adults in the 1950s and 60s had a similar reaction to strange music taking over their homes.

Note: I have written about Television often. Check out “The Essence of Television: The Irresistibility of Chauncey Gardner” in Bright Lights Film Journal.

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