Thursday, January 31, 2013
Random Movie Report: The Twonky
Arch Oboler had good reason to resent television. As everyone knows, American radio networks more or less abandoned radio theater when TV came along, transferring all their talent and money to the boob tube once they realized how big it was going to be. Oboler, a star writer for Lights Out!, didn't make the transition to television easily but found it impossible to go back to what he did best, as the networks began to discard radio drama. So Oboler looked to film, and decided to take a stab at the medium which had caused him so much pain. The Twonky is a weird little satire that's all the more fascinating because it doesn't quite gel. Oddly enough it's not the transition to film that trips Oboler up; instead, the story has fundamental flaws that you'd expect he'd be able to overcome.
Hans Conried stars as Kerry West, a college professor whose wife is going out of town for a while, leaving him with a gift- a brand new television set. Unimpressed by the meager offerings of broadcasters in 1952, Conried sets the machine aside and tries to work- only for the TV to come to life and impose its services as a robotic helpmate. The strange machine can light the Professor's cigarettes, square away trash, even duplicate $5 bills. But it's an insistent beast, distracting West whenever he tries to read anything enlightening or creative, or compose lectures on art as individual expression. West enlists the help of the school coach Trout (Billy Lynn), and eventually they work out that the machine is possessed by an alien intelligence, probably from some kind of machine-world where individuality and liberty have been stamped out and replaced with soulless servitude. How they work this out is never fully explained, but in any case Kerry's troubles deepen, as the Twonky gains the ability to hypnotize people and turn them into drones, and resists any attempt at being moved.
There's a really good premise here, with the original story composed by two science fiction writers, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (both using the joint psuedonym of Lewis Padgett.) But for some reason the picture struggles to come up with anything really exciting for the characters to do. Part of the problem is that Kerry West never trusts the thing to start with; instead of being suckered in by the insidious lure of the idiot box, the protagonist is merely proven right about what he already assumed, and never has to undergo any significant change. There's a scene set during one of his classes that shows he's being subtly influenced, but it seems to play in isolation with everything else.
The film stumbles into a number of blind alleys, including an unnecessary and exceedingly confusing plot about a seductive woman who shows up on West's doorstep and turns out to be a bill collector, and there's no sense of forward momentum. It's never particularly funny either, lacking for obvious jokes but never generating a consistent sense of absurdity either- it seems like we're supposed to laugh simply because things are a little off-kilter.
I will credit the picture for using Conreid as a protagonist; he's an engaging, animated presence wherever he appears and this is no different. What energy the movie has is largely down to him, even if he can't carry it across the finish line. There's an element of the Red Scare in the idea of the television as a force for conformity and mechanization, fears which were common to postwar society, and even though we don't see any of the TV's programming, it's easy to see how its actions serve as a metaphor for what the filmmakers think it does- it's a very McLuhanesque approach to the idea.
There just isn't a lot of entertainment value in this movie, but in its portrait of a culture being changed there's at least a significant amount of historical interest. It's odd how a storyteller like Oboler could produce something so inert, though- it would be one thing if the film were merely static or visually uninteresting due to his inexperience with the medium, but instead he makes a lot of rookie mistakes. (The film's lack of a substantial budget was likely an issue, but surely shouldn't have been this crippling.) Sadly it's little more than a curiosity, though we can at least credit it with being the Videodrome of its day.
Story by Lewis Padgett
Written for the Screen and Directed by Arch Oboler