Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Buster Keaton in "Once Upon a Time" on The Twlight Zone

Buster Keaton and Gil Lamb in The Twilight
"Once Upon a Time"
Buster Keaton was one of the most successful and creative individuals in the film industry in the Twenties. From 1923 to 1929 he appeared in (and often directed as well) in some of the most inventive comedies of the era. Even when a particular movie was not a success at the box office (such as The General), they would come to be highly regarded in later years. Sadly, in 1928 Mr. Keaton would sign with MGM and give up his independence. It would be the beginning of a decline in his career and even his personal life that would last for years. Fortunately in 1949 Life magazine published the article "Comedy's Greatest Era" by film critic and journalist James Agee. In the article Mr. Agee ranked Buster Keaton alongside Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon as the greatest clowns of the Silent Era. The article is credited with reviving Buster Keaton's career.

Not only would Buster Keaton once more appear in films, but he would also appear on the new medium of television. Not only would Mr. Keaton appear in a diverse number of commercials for everything from Alka Selzer to Ford to Northwest Orient Airlines, but he guest starred on shows from The Donna Reed Show to Route 66. Among his best remembered guest appearances would be one on The Twilight Zone, "Once Upon a Time."

In "Once Upon a Time" Buster Keaton played Woodrow Mulligan, an old man who does not like what his hometown of Harmony, New York had become in 1890. The once tranquil town had become a noisy city with horse drawn carriages, bicycles, and cattle filling the streets and where prices are much too high. Woodrow goes to work as a janitor for the scientist Professor Gilbert (played Milton Parsons), who has invented a time helmet which allows the wearer to travel through time. Certain that the future must be better than 1890, Woodrow steals the time helmet and travels forward through time to 1962. Unfortunately, he finds 1962 to be even noisier and more expensive than 1890 was. Unfortunately, before he can return to his proper time, the time helmet is stolen and then damaged...

What sets "Once Upon a Time" apart from any other Twilight Zone episode (or episodes of other shows, for that matter) is that the sequences set in 1890 are done in the style of silent films, complete with title cards and saloon style piano accompaniment. Rod Serling's opening and closing narration is the only sound to be heard aside from the musical accompaniment. Borth the sequences set in 1890 and 1962 feature the sort of gags that made Buster Keaton a living legend.

"Once Upon a Time" was written by the legendary Richard Matheson, who wrote a total of 16 episodes of The Twilight Zone. Mr. Matheson was friends with author and screenwriter William R. Cox, who introduced him to Buster Keaton. After visiting Mr. Keaton several times in his home, Richard Matheson asked Buster Keaton if he would like to appear on The Twilight Zone and the comedy legend consented. "Once Upon a Time" was then written with Buster Keaton specifically in mind. The major difference between Richard Matheson's script and the finished episode is that in the original script in 1962 after the helmet is damaged Woodrow enters a supermarket where he causes a ruckus. In the finished episode, Woodrow enters a repair shop instead.

Rod Serling apparently realised they had something special in "Once Upon a Time." To direct the episode he got Norman Z. McLeod, who had directed such comedy classics as Horse Feathers (1932), Topper (1937), Road to Rio (1947), and The Paleface (1948). It was over a month after the episode had completed production that Les Goodwins was brought in to direct the sequence in the repair shop. Les Goodwin had begun his career in the Silent Era and had directed several "Mexican Spitfire" comedies. He would go uncredited in the episode.

While Richard Matheson's script is arguably stronger than the finished episode (in the original script the action is nearly non-stop), it is still one of the better episodes of The Twilight Zone and certainly one of the most memorable. It is true that this is not Buster Keaton in his prime. He is not as spry as he once was and he is clearly older. That having been said, Buster Keaton in his sixties is better than most actors and comedians in their twenties. He may not be the Buster Keaton who grabbed a speeding car in "Cops" or rode the cow catcher of a train in The General, but he is still Buster Keaton. There are several wonderful gags and bits throughout the episode, and the silent movie sequences in 1890 are magic. Certainly "Once Upon a Time" could have been better, but it is still one of the best episodes of The Twilight Zone as it is.

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