THE TWONKY (1953)
Running Time: 84 mins. Rating: xx Stars/5 Stars
MPAA Rating: NR
Director: Arch Oboler
Genre: Comedy/Sci Fi
Distributor: United Artists
Cast: Hans Conreid, Janet Warren, William H. Lynn, Edwin Max, Gloria Blondell, Evelyn Beresford, Norman Field
A Cautionary Tale Of TV From The Future
This may have nothing to do about nothing, but a college film student friend of mine was taking a course in American Studies and had to write a paper on the relationship between the film industry and the establishment of early television. I gave him the run down and when he showed me his paper it was 180 degrees from what I had told him. Then he showed me his textbook and damn if the textbook wasn’t 100% wrong about what had actually happened. The professor of the American Studies class was a South Korean with a PhD. in American Studies from a South Korean University and therefore a certified expert in American Studies.
The textbook author, a Johns Hopkins professor no less, was too young to have experienced the era he was writing about and appeared to have established a hypothesis, and then bent some facts, ignored a lot of other facts, shoehorned non-compatible ideas and reinterpreted events to suit his thesis. His idea was that the film industry had taken control of television from the very beginning. As someone who had a tv since 1948 and can remember as far back as 1949, with certainty I know that this is completely wrong. Yet this is what’s taught in our Universities. It gives one pause to think about what we accept as history from more remote times.
Famously the film industry was offered (before WW2) Television first. It was thought that films could be distributed electronically from central points saving on prints, projectionists, physically transporting reels of film, etc. The offer was rejected. Television was taken up by the Radio Industry. NBC and CBS along with DuMont and Westinghouse were the first to start up stations. It fit into the radio model pattern, sponsorship, shows of 15, 30 and one-hour lengths. Sponsors bought time for particular shows and became identified with the shows. Often sponsors or their ad agencies produced the shows themselves.
The film industry’s response was to go out of its way to ignore television. In 1951 MGM released WALK EAST ON BEACON where the script has to go through back-flips as the FBI use television surveillance but can’t mention the word television. In THE NEXT VOICE YOU HEAR the voice of God is heard by families clustered around the family radio. At Warner Brothers, no television set was allowed to be seen in any set shot for the company. Independent producer Sam Goldwyn was more forthcoming, expressing the sense of doom that the other moguls refused to articulate when he predicted that people would stay home to watch bad movies for free instead of going out to pay for bad movies.
Only Universal, owned by the Music Corporation of America, the major talent agency in Hollywood, went into television with their Revue Productions. This was actually illegal because it was a clear conflict of interest for a company to both represent talent and produce (employ them) but they got an exception because of a deal made by the president of the Screen Actors Guild, Ronald Reagan. Reagan went from 18th vice-president of SAG to president because the other 18 guys quit to go into independent production because of the Consent Decree and being a producer and actor’s union official was a Conflict of Interest. The actors like Robert Montgomery, David Niven, Charles Boyer etc. went on to produce tv series. When Ronald Reagan also went into production with Revue it was a secret, and illegal if not unethical.
But, in 1951 the film industry was basically in ostrich mode. Arch Oboler was a radio hot shot, representing absolutely the summit of the mediums’ achievement. His show LIGHTS OUT was universally admired. LIGHTS OUT was a sort of precursor to the Twilight Zone, heavily weighted as a writer’s medium, taking up serious subjects in a fantastical genre.
Oboler had already begun writing and producing for tv when he shot THE TWONKY. This was not a film industry production but an independent (yeah, they had them in those days) production. Most of the action takes place in one large house; one might speculate that it was Oboler’s. The actors, starting with Hans Conried, were all stars from radio. The film can be “listened to” as a radio show. Almost all of the action is shot either in the house or on location, pretty much on the fly. Though listed as a 1953 release (it ran in only three theatres) it has been reported as being filmed in 1952 though from the appearance of Conried’s daughter, Trilby, filming must have started in 1951.
This film was like a living example of LIGHTS OUT, a cautionary tale of the one-eyed monster taking over everybody’s life, controlling consciousness, defining the context of human life all under the aegis of helping mankind. By the end of the decade Rod Serling would have perfected the form and could easily have made The Twonky as a half hour teleplay.
So unlike the official Film Industry, Oboler not only recognized and participated in the new medium, but also called out a warning that some interactive tv from the future could dominate all human life on the planet, even the right to be wrong.
A more modern rethink of this prospect can be seen in Sam Peckinpah’s last film, THE OSTERMAN WEEKEND (1983), which had the advantage of having observed some 35 years of a television saturated society.
The film industry wouldn’t begin to pry its way into television until the middle to late 50s. Sponsored programs disappeared in the 70s as TV stations just sold time.
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