‘In a few minutes, your Twonky will twonk no more!’
Meet Professor Hans Conreid. His wife is going to visit her sister so she buys him a TV set to keep him company while she’s away. Unfortunately, it turns out the device has a mind of its own and it’s soon running his life.
Writer-producer-director Arch Oboler was a man of many talents. He was most famous for his hit radio show ‘Lights Out’ in the 1930’s and 40’s but was also a playwright and wrote and directed the first film ever made about survival after a nuclear attack – ‘Five’ (1951). He also directed the first film ever shot in 3-D – ‘Bwana Devil’ (1952). He was a man ahead of his time. Another venture was a very short-lived TV show in 1949, which must have inspired ‘The Twonky’ (1953).
Professor Conreid is initially skeptical about the value of television. Not so when it starts lighting his cigarettes for him, doing the washing up and printing money so he can pay a bill collector. But there are warning signs from the beginning… it won’t allow him to drink more than one cup of coffee and zaps him sober after a night on the tiles. All this is played for laughs but the comedy is lame, obvious and rather banal. It’s far more interesting to consider the underlying themes of the film. The original story on which is it based – by Henry Kuttner – has some justification for the origin of the ‘Twonky’ but Oboler omits that and just throws in some vague talk about ‘robots’ and the ‘future.’
At the time, the film must have seemed pure paranoid fantasy but looked at now, it appears weirdly prescient. Not just for the way it foretells of our dependance on household technologies but also for the wider debate it raises: free will versus the imposition of rules and restraints ‘for our own good’. In the end, Conreid concludes that he must be free to make his own mistakes. It’s a message that resonates in the early 21st Century in a society of increasing regulation on every day life and behaviour.
Having said all that, of course It’s not a good film. It’s cheaply made, poorly acted and has about enough storyline for a 20 minute short. Comedy was certainly not Oboler’s forte and he understood little of filmmaking technique. It was only released two years after it was made.
But Oboler was a man of ideas and vision, who often funded his own projects. In later years, filmmakers as diverse as Francois Truffaut and Don Coscarelli have claimed his work as a major influence.