Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Twonky (Arch Oboler Productions, 1950, released 1953)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I’d seen the science-fiction collection The Best of Henry Kuttner with an interesting feeling that I’d heard of the name before somewhere — and it wasn’t until I picked up the book and looked at its contents that I realized where I’d heard of Henry Kuttner: one of the 17 stories represented was called “The Twonky.” I’d first heard of “The Twonky” in 1990, in an issue of Filmfax magazine that contained a long article about the making of the movie version of it in 1950, written, produced and directed by Arch Oboler from Kuttner’s 1942 short story. What I hadn’t fully realized was that Oboler had taken a serious science-fiction story and turned it into a comedy (much the way Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern did with Peter Bryant’s serious novel about World War III, Red Alert, 14 years later to come up with Dr. Strangelove). Kuttner’s version of “The Twonky” begins in the Mideastern Radio factory, where an outer-space alien takes human form, infiltrates Mideastern’s workforce and produces a “twonky” in the guise of an ordinary console radio-phonograph. This particular model gets sold to college professor Kerry Westerfield, who finds the Twonky first doing ordinary household chores — helping him light his cigarettes and washing dishes for him — then deciding how much he will be allowed to drink (it lets him have one cup of coffee but won’t permit him a second), what he will be allowed to read (it lets him read Chaucer and Millay, but not detective novels, histories, Alice in Wonderland or anything to do with individualism as a philosophy) and even what music he may listen to (it allows him Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, but denies him Halvorsen’s Entrance of the Boyars — a piece I don’t know — and Ravel’s Bolero). Eventually it starts blocking out parts of his mind — anything relating (once again) to individualism as a philosophy — and finally it kills both him and his wife when they try to destroy it. Though the Twonky is a mechanical device, while the seed-pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers are organic, the premises of the stories are basically the same: an invader from outer space attempts to dominate human consciousness as a prelude to invasion and domination of the Earth.

Later I got out my videotape of the film version of The Twonky and ran it with Charles at his place. The comparisons were interesting; the first half of the film is actually a fairly close adaptation of Kuttner’s story, while the second half veers off into silly humor that nonetheless remains surprisingly entertaining. Oboler updated the story technologically — his Twonky is built into an Admiral free-standing TV set instead of a radio-phonograph, and somehow Oboler found (or built) a TV whose very appearance, with its all-white cabinet, four bow legs and no bulge in the back for the picture tube (antedating the modern-day “flat” TV’s by about 20 years), is comical. (Admiral may have been doing product-placement in this film — a practice that was just beginning when it was made — because the refrigerator in the central character’s kitchen is also an Admiral.) Oboler abbreviates the character’s name — Kerry Westerfield becomes simply Kerry West (just as well, I guess, given the low fidelity in the sound recording that sometimes made it difficult to understand the dialogue) — and changes his sidekick from the school’s psychology professor to a losing football coach who dabbles in psychology on the side. (He also rechristens Kerry’s wife Carolyn — Kuttner called her Martha.) I recall the Filmfax article claimed that the actors who were making The Twonky had no idea (until they saw the cut film) that Oboler had intended all along to change it into a comedy — a story I frankly find hard to believe, especially since he cast Hans Conried in the lead, and Conried’s overwrought overacting would clearly have been inappropriate in anything but a comic version of Kuttner’s sinister story. And Oboler did add some touches that reinforced Kuttner’s Body Snatchers-esque point — instead of killing those humans who try to harm it, Oboler’s Twonky merely hypnotizes them so they stagger away, as if drunk, and mumble, “I have no complaints.” Also, Oboler’s Twonky is considerably more low-brow in its tastes than Kuttner’s — while it won’t let Professor West read history or philosophy, it will allow him a cheap romantic potboiler called Passion Through the Ages; and it rejects Mozart records in favor of marching music.

Charles, who hadn’t read the story, thought The Twonky was just a silly movie — bad, though not so overwhelmingly bad that it deserved the fate it apparently aroused the first (and, apparently, only) time it was ever publicly shown: the entire audience walked out, except for a six-year-old kid who couldn’t leave because his parents had dropped him off at the theatre and weren’t coming to pick him up again until the movie ended. (There was one unmistakably Ed Woodian use of repeated footage — at the end, when Conried is trying to get away from the Twonky by abandoning his own car and getting into a car being driven by an Englishwoman who is driving on the left side of the road because she refuses to recognize that in the U.S. you’re supposed to drive on the right side — and the speedometer on her car looks identical to the one on Conried’s own, down to the exact same odometer reading!) I remember seeing it in December 1992 (recording it off the TNT network) with Garry Hobbs, who actually liked the film (as did I) — not that it’s a great movie, but it has a peculiar charm, and I remember writing in my journal at the time that the reason it flopped when it first came out was simply that too few people were familiar with the conventions of the science-fiction genre to get the jokes of a movie that was parodying them — and I still like it, even though I can’t help but suspect that Kuttner’s original story would have made a stronger film if it hadn’t been parodied, and if it had had a more subtle director than Arch Oboler (like Don Siegel, who did the first version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers with a quiet understatement — at least until the climax — that is exactly right for this type of material).

In fact, reading the Kuttner book — I made it through three of the 17 stories contained in it, including the ones Ray Bradbury named in the preface as his favorites, “The Twonky” and “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” — it was clear that understatement was precisely his greatest strength as a writer. He could toss off sentences like, “Once, when he couldn’t locate some tungsten, he hastily built a small gadget and made it” (the punch line being that tungsten is an element, and therefore “unmakable” without elaborate atom-smashing equipment), “Joe went over into a corner, felt around in the air, nodded with satisfaction and seated himself on nothing, three feet above the floor. Then he vanished,” or, “He went across the hall and stopped in the doorway, motionless and staring. The radio was washing the dishes,” in a matter-of-fact way that suggested there was nothing at all unusual about the events being described. Kuttner may not only have anticipated the concept of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, he also may have been the first science-fiction writer to describe virtual reality (as the “Escape Machines” in the story “Two-Handed Engine,” whose plot — in which humankind’s machines intervene to restore a sense of conscience to a world in which the human race has lost it — seems more relevant in the Gingrich era than it probably did in 1955 when he wrote it), and he seems to have been ahead of his contemporaries in describing both the beneficial and the malevolent effects of computers. It would surprise me indeed if none of Kuttner’s other stories have been filmed — “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” (in which Lewis Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky” turns out to be a mathematical formula for interdimensional travel, understandable as such only by children five and younger whose perceptions haven’t yet been molded into the shape of Euclidean logic) would seem to be a perfect story for Steven Spielberg. — 12/14/95


Last night’s screenings at the Vintage Sci-Fi event in Golden Hill ( consisted of two early-1950’s movies, both featuring Hans Conried, an eccentric actor who was the sort of performer who couldn’t ask another character to pass him the salt without it sounding like a melodramatic invitation to torture or mayhem. The first was a film I had actually supplied, dubbed from an old VHS tape of mine that also contained a 1992 Tony Brown’s Journal challenging the idea that HIV caused AIDS and the 1942 film Dead Men Tell, the last in the 20th Century-Fox Charlie Chan series with Sidney Toler (who bought the rights to the character from the widow of original author Earl Derr Biggers and shopped them around to various studios, but after Fox lost interest no other major studio signed on and Toler got stuck making his later Chan films at Monogram). It was called The Twonky and started life as a marvelously dark 1942 short story by Henry Kuttner (though, as with a lot of his stories, his wife, C. L. Moore, might have collaborated, and the original publication was credited to “Lewis Padgett,” a pseudonym apparently used by both members of the couple, jointly and severally) in which an alien named “Unthahorsten” infiltrates a Midwestern factory that produces radio-phonographs and, purely out of boredom, decides to insert a “Twonky,” a mind-control device from his home planet, into one of them. 

The Twonky-containing radio set ends up in the home of a professor named Kerry Westerfield and causes him all sorts of problems; at first its interventions in his home life are beneficent, lighting his cigarettes and washing his dishes (Kuttner was such a master of understatement that he could matter-of-factly toss off a sentence like “The radio was washing the dishes” without any obvious indication that there was anything remarkable about it), but then it starts deciding what books he can read, what music he can listen to, and what he can write in the lectures he gives his students. Radio writer Arch Oboler, who had just broken into film production and direction with a 1949 movie called Five — referring to the number of survivors in the world after a nuclear war and in fact the first post-nuclear apocalypse movie — which was a smash hit. So he took his backers’ money and invested it in a film adaptation of Kuttner’s story that changed it into a comedy. Since he was filming in 1950 (though the movie didn’t get released until 1953, and then only in a limited run — according to Filmfax magazine, its first public screening was such a disaster the whole audience walked out except for a six-year-old kid who couldn’t leave because his parents had dropped him at the theatre and weren’t coming to pick him up until the movie was over) he changed the household appliance occupied by the Twonky from a radio-phonograph into a TV set, and he got a white bow-legged model from Admiral whose appearance was hilarious in and of itself. He also shortened the name of the lead character from Kerry Westerfield to Kerry West and got Hans Conried to play him, and Conried responded with a feast of overacting as his life gets more and more miserable with the Twonky exerting control. 

Kuttner was clearly an early libertarian — in his story “The Iron Standard” a group of astronauts from Earth land on Venus, which has a fully functioning socialist economy, and bring it down with their entrepreneurial capitalist machinations; when I first read it I told Charles it was the sort of thing Ayn Rand could have written if she’d ever shown any sign of subtlety or wit — and the social message of “The Twonky” is that individualism is good and any outside authority that tells us how to live, think or entertain ourselves is bad. A little of that survives in the movie, but the film is basically an excuse for Oboler to satirize the conventions of science fiction — though, as I pointed out on one of my previous screenings of The Twonky, one problem is that in the early 1950’s the conventions of science-fiction weren’t that well known outside the limited, geeky circles of science-fiction fandom. Today the conventions of Star Trek and Star Wars are so well known that even someone who’s never seen a Star Trek TV episode or a Star Wars movie can “get” a parody of them; in the early 1950’s it was harder to find people who knew enough about science fiction to laugh at a film satirizing its genre conventions. The Twonky (the movie) is a fun film as it stands, with some marvelously barbed lines, notably the one in which Kerry West’s Black maid, Maybelle (Bennie Washington), congratulates him on finally getting with it and buying a TV set, then boasts, “Yours is only 16 inches! Mine is 20!” It’s also got a great character of a collection agent (played by Joan Blondell’s sister Gloria) who zeroes in on married men with outstanding debts and poses as a floozy so they’ll pay up to get rid of her before their wives come home. But it doesn’t even remotely do justice to Kuttner’s (and maybe Moore’s) magnificent tale, which deserves to be remade as a film the way the Kuttners wrote it. — 1/18/18