The Twonky (1953)

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I love the TCM Underground. In the span of a week it can go from 1970’s experimental Shakespeare to 1950’s Sci-Fi Comedy. There’s no consistency in programming here at all, I tell ya. Not a lick. I admit I like it, though. It’s a good way to keep things fresh. You never know what you’re going to tune in and see.

The Twonky starts out innocently enough. Professor Cary West’s wife has just left to visit her sister, leaving him alone in the house. Well, all alone except for that new television set she bought so that he wouldn’t be too bored. It’s an odd looking thing, having more of a resemblance to a moderately carved end table than an old box television.

West is completely disinterested in the device. Until, that is, he sits down to light his cigarette and the TV sends out a little beam of light and does it for him. It repeats the action when he goes to light his pipe.

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Odd. I don’t remember the catalogs mentioning
a “Light My Smoke” function?

Undoubtedly shaken, and believing he’s losing his mind, West rushes to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. The television follows and when the professor goes for that second cup, the one his wife told him not to drink, the TV zaps the cup out of his hands…. and then proceeds to clean and put away the dishes. The evil, cubic bastard.

Just when West wants nothing more than to have the thing out of his house, a convenient plot point emerges. Seems the TV deliveryman forgot to collect full payment on the television and the professor doesn’t have the necessary dough. Back to the store it goes! Except the blasted thing doesn’t seem to want to leave, and it quickly materializes the necessary cash needed in order for it to stay.

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And so it was, that the TV did need $170 dollars.
And so it came to be.
-His Holy Twonky 12:57

Forced to spend the evening with it, West just gets more exasperated, realizing that it won’t let him do what he wants. First it impatiently finishes his card game for him, then it won’t let him listen to the record he wants, tossing the vinyl aside and replacing it with a loud march (That it then proceeds to awkwardly dance to.)

It’s not all bad, though. The TV also opens drinks for him, shaves him, and shines his shoes. But by the time it’s run off the maid because it insists on cleaning the house itself….

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Or it just wanted to have some special private alone-time with the vacuum cleaner.
Who can really say…

He decides he needs some help. So he calls his friend Coach Trout, a well-read eccentric bachelor who prefers to pickle his liver with his own homemade concoctions, rather than use store bought. It is the coach who gives it the name Twonky, saying that it is “something you do not know what it is.”

The coach even has the clever idea of trying to get photographic evidence of the Twonky in action, but the damn thing is sentient enough to zap his camera, giving him nothing to work with.

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The Twonky has a curious and disturbing sense of humor.

And it is the coach, not the professor, who comes up with a theory of what the Twonky really is. He speculates that the Twonky is a robot (I would have gone with alien, but robot works) from the future that has managed to travel to their century. Not wanting to frighten anyone (Though walking around and zapping people does that just fine on it’s own) it took the form of a television set. He also believes that the Twonky is loyal, and thus, will only serve and protect one human, Professor West.

Whatever it is, it’s increasingly apparent that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Just about everything it’s done, short of housework, does nothing but cause the professor grief. It’s not just little things anymore, either.

First it prevents the professor from completing his own thoughts. Seems in it’s self-appointed task to protect, the Twonky also believes it must protect the owner from themselves, often preventing independent thoughts, and instead promoting a sort of herd-like mentality. Hell, even having thoughts about independent thought are too much for it, as it zaps the professor when he begins his lecture with the sentence, “Individualism is the basis of all great art…”, and instead forces him read this:

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Are you sure it’s malicious? Maybe it just wants to help freshen up your love life.

Completely mucking up his lecture and making him look like a fool in front of all his students.

Then it inexplicably gets on the phone and harasses some poor unsuspecting operators…

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That face pretty much speaks for itself.

This causes the police to show up, followed shortly by the FBI because, heh, guess what? Remember all those bills it made earlier? Yep, they’re counterfeit. And things only get worse from there, leaving West to take drastic measures.

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Chairs: For when a simple b*&#%slap just isn’t enough.

Now, at it’s heart the Twonky is a comedy. West’s drive to get rid of the Twonky is really just a reason to get him into one ridiculous mess after another as he bumbles his way through each situation. Yet, at the same time, it also has a serious undercurrent. It’s hard to ignore that the director, Arch Oboler Jr., is clearly suggesting the control that television would have over people’s lives. It’s literally trying to equate TV viewing with the loss of individuality and suggesting that it has the ability to placate and simultaneously brainwash the masses.

The Twonky visually depicts this idea several times throughout the movie. Whenever it zaps a human being, other than West, they all become very docile, stand up straight, and monotonely mutter “I have no complains” before shambling out of the house like one of the undead. For a film mainly focused on comedy, it’s damned eerie.

One of the defining features of this film is the characters, and they’re a strange group of characters at that. The Coach and the Professor are quirky fellows, quite out of the norm. Then there are the side characters such as the TV repairman and the female bill collector…

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This lady was once the voice of Daisy Duck. Use this trivia! Impress your friends!

…who are not only quirky, but often seem too out of place, even in a movie about a walking, talking television. The repairman is just too goofy for words and the bill collectors actions are extreme to the point where you’ll feel they don’t quite fit into this little sci-fi world.

Of course, that’s not to say the acting is poor. Billy Lynn, who plays the Coach, is an excellent eccentric with a strong screen presence despite his shorter stature. It’s a shame that it doesn’t look like he made any more films. Hans Conried, who played West, was not only a seasoned character actor, but also a voice actor and most widely recognizable for providing the voice of Captain Hook in Disney’s Peter Pan. The other cast members are serviceable, but with the exception of the Repairman and Bill Collector, largely forgettable.

As for the effects, they’re sadly sub-par. The little light zapping effects are simple and reflective of the times. But it’s the poor Twonky itself that truly suffers. The Twonky does in fact move around quite often, but a lot of effort was put in to avoid showing it when it’s in motion. For the most part it’s movements are largely left just off screen, legs cut off as it rocks back and forth and moves forward. In the instances where you can see how it moves, it’s treated more like a poorly controlled puppet with no sense of weight and bending awkwardly at the knees.

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Seriously, look at those knobby things. I’m amazed it can stand upright.

You rarely see it like this, and for good reason, as puppet Twonky often looks like a puppy trying to run on slippery linoleum floor. It’s awkward and funny, but it’s also a bit painful to watch.

The Twonky is a film based off of an original story written in 1942 by Henry Kuttner and his wife C.L. Moore under the name of Lewis Padgett. They collaborated on several stories, including Mimsy Were the Borogoves, which the film The Last Mimsy was loosely based off of.

In the end, the Twonky is an interesting combination of comedy and sci-fi, though it leans much more heavily towards the comedy aspect. Though humorous at times, it often seems like everyone was trying a little too hard to be funny. But perhaps that was part of the point. There are reports that when one of the actors told the producer that they thought the movie was going to fail, the producer responded with, “That’s all right. I need a tax write-off this year anyway.”

That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a film, but it gives you a decent idea of what to expect. For most people this movie will probably fall into the “so corny it’s good” category, so for someone looking for a light sci-fi or comedy this may be something you’ll want to look into more.

As far as I can tell, The Twonky has either not been officially released on DVD or Bluray, or was released so long ago that it is long out of print.

Michi

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