|Mr. Woodrow Mulligan (Buster Keaton), having a bad day.|
“Once Upon a Time”
Season Three, Episode 78
Original Air Date: December 15, 1961
Woodrow Mulligan: Buster Keaton
Rollo: Stanley Adams
Repair Man: Jesse White
Professor Gilbert: Milton Parsons
Clothing Store Manager: Warren Parker
Policeman 1890: Gil Lamb
Policeman 1962: James Flavin
2nd Policeman 1962: Harry Fleer
Fenwick: George E. Stone
Boy on Skates: Jim Crevoy
Utility Truck Driver: Bob McCord
Writer: Richard Matheson (original teleplay)
Director: Norman Z. McLeod (additional scene directed by Leslie Goodwins; uncredited)
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Phil Barber
Set Direction: Phil Barber, H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton, Bill Edmondson
Music: Original composition by William Lava, performed by Ray Turner
And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on the Twilight Zone, we bring to the television cameras a most unique gentleman, whose own very special brand of clown-ship has long ago become a milestone in American humor. Mr. Buster Keaton appears in ‘Once Upon a Time,’ a script written especially for him by Richard Matheson. This one is wild, woolly, and most unpredictable. On the Twilight Zone next week, Mr. Buster Keaton in ‘Once Upon a Time.’
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Mr. Mulligan, a rather dour critique of his times, is shortly to discover the import of that old phrase ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire,’ said fire burning brightly at all times, in the Twilight Zone.”
1890. Mr. Woodrow Mulligan is easily irritated. He thinks the world is loud and fast and expensive. He arrives to work one day after falling head-first into a horse trough and overhears his boss, a scientist, boasting about his greatest invention: a helmet that will allow a person to travel to any time they choose—for thirty minutes. He leaves to celebrate, leaving the helmet unattended. Mr. Mulligan grabs the oversized helmet and straps it on. Any time will be better than this one, he surmises. The helmet begins to pulsate and sparks explode from its sides. Mulligan races into the street with the helmet still upon his head, hysterical.
Moments later he is in another world, surrounded by loud, obnoxious noises. It is 1962. A passing truck knocks the helmet from his head. It is picked up by a boy on roller skates. Mulligan chases the boy. The boy skates into a man reading a book and drops the helmet. Moments later, Mulligan crashes a bicycle into the man reading the book and picks the helmet up. But the helmet is broken. Devastated, he looks at his watch. Only fifteen minutes to get back to 1890.
Days later, Mulligan strolls calmly into work. Life doesn’t seem so dreary now and things don’t bother him as much. When he arrives he finds Rollo in a disgruntled state. 1890 isn’t as nice as he imagined it would be. Nothing is electronic. How can he build machines? Mulligan quietly slips the time helmet onto the angry man’s head and watches him disappear.
Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“’To each his own.’ So goes another old phrase to which Mr. Woodrow Mulligan would heartedly subscribe, for he has learned, definitely the hard way, that there is much wisdom in a third old phrase which goes as follows: ‘stay in your own backyard.’ To which it might be added: ‘and if possible assist others to stay in theirs,’ via, of course, the Twilight Zone.”
Part I: Script vs. Episode
Richard Matheson’s “Once Upon a Time” is an oddball of an episode unlike any the show ever produced. Today this episode seems like an incredibly strange choice for the show and many fans are very critical of it. While it is an odd choice, The Twilight Zone was a show that frequently took risks and tried new things. The first season of the show produced an episode featuring one of the first all-black casts to appear on American television (Serling’s “The Big Tall Wish”). Season Two featured an episode with virtually no dialogue (Matheson’s “The Invaders”) and another in which the audience can’t see any of the characters’ faces for almost twenty minutes (Serling’s “Eye of the Beholder”). And the third season had already produced two episodes featuring thinly-veiled depictions of controversial political figures (Serling’s “The Mirror” and “Deaths-Head Revisited”). So the idea of making an imitation silent film was just another way for the show to push its creative boundaries.
This is the first of three episodes that Matheson wrote for Season Three. Unfortunately, this season would prove to be his weakest with none of his episodes being particularly memorable. His best effort during Season Three, “Little Girl Lost,” marked the first time Matheson adapted his own material for the show, something he avoided doing during the previous seasons. His other original teleplay for this season, “Young Man’s Fancy,” is a modern ghost story with a clever twist but its charm doesn’t survive long after the first viewing. “Once Upon a Time” is an atypical episode for both the show and for Matheson who, at this point in his career, was not known as a comedy writer—although this was actually his second comedy for the show, the first being the lighthearted Season One finale “A World of His Own” in which he wrote Serling into the final scene as a gag. These two episodes stand in sharp contrast to his novels and short stories of the time which were unapologetically bleak. Although he didn’t write another comedy for the show, possibly due to his dissatisfaction with this episode, he would go on to write a string of successful horror-comedies for director Roger Corman based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
Matheson wrote this episode especially for Buster Keaton after meeting the film legend through writer William R. Cox. The two were invited over to Keaton’s home several times and Matheson was won over by the aging comedian’s charm. So after asking Keaton if he was interested in appearing on the show and running the idea by Serling and Buck Houghton, Matheson wrote his teleplay. The script he sold to the producers, however, is noticeably different from the episode that aired. In Matheson’s original script the frenetic action rarely slows down. The entire script plays into Keaton’s personality and his abilities as a performer. The main difference comes during the second act after Mulligan arrives in 1962. Matheson’s script has Mulligan and Rollo enter a supermarket instead of a repair shop after the bicycle crash. The supermarket scene features two characters that do not appear in the episode: a clerk named Miss Blodgett and a store manager. Rollo enters the store in search of supplies to fix the helmet but after causing a commotion they are asked to leave. The manager alerts the police and another chase ensues. Rollo later repairs the helmet using spare television parts. The episode reverts back to Matheson’s script when Mulligan and Rollo are sent back to 1890.
Matheson’s script was apparently filmed as it was written in September of 1961. But after viewing the rough cut Serling, Houghton, and film editor Jason Bernie all felt that the action seemed a bit slow. As a solution Bernie suggested that they remove every third frame of the film to make the action jumpy and whimsical the way films looked before the advent of the standard film speed of 24 frames per second in 1926. This made the episode run much shorter than originally planned and it was decided that an additional scene was needed to meet the length. So Houghton scheduled a re-shoot in late October with Keaton, Adams, actor Jesse White, and director Leslie Goodwins. The supermarket scene was scrapped and the repair shop scene, featuring a completely new character not featured in Matheson’s script, took its place. It’s unclear who wrote the new scene, which has a substantial amount of dialogue, although it was presumably Serling.
Matheson was not thrilled with the result. His original script was interesting and would have certainly made for an entertaining episode. But the finished product is a solid episode and the repair shop sequence, with the witty back-and-forth banter between Keaton and Adams and White, is possibly its best scene.
Houghton brought director Norman Z. McLeod (1898 - 1964) out of retirement just for this episode. The veteran director had worked regularly with the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields but had never worked with Keaton and jumped at the opportunity. McLeod started as an animator but made the switch to directing in the late 1920’s devoting his skills mostly to comedies. Among his three decades worth of credits are Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), Alice in Wonderland (1933), It’s a Gift (1934), Topper (1937), and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). Unfortunately, this episode would be one of his last projects. He died in 1964 at the age of 65 after suffering a stroke. Leslie Goodwins (1899 - 1969) was also a veteran in the industry. He began his career making two-reel comedies in the 1930’s. Today he is mostly remembered for the Mexican Spitfire film series starring Leon Errol and Lupe Velez. He also directed The Mummy's Curse (1944) starring Lon Chaney, Jr.
Stanley Adams (1915 - 1977) does a terrific job in this episode and his whimsically pompous attitude is a great counterpart to Keaton’s bumbling time traveler. Adams was a prolific character actor probably best known among science fiction fans as the merchant trader in the Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He also appears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and the 1962 film version of Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Part II: Keaton, Chaplin, and the Birth of American Cinema:
This episode is notable for several reasons. It’s a tribute not only to Buster Keaton but to the history of comedic cinema going all the way back to its vaudevillian roots. Comedy is one of the oldest genres in cinema’s history with documentaries being perhaps the only genre to precede it. Historians consider the 1895 short film L'Arroseur Arose, directed by film pioneer Louis Lumière, to be not only the first comedy in cinema’s history but the first film to use a fictional narrative. The plot of the 45 second film is thus: a gardener waters his plants with a hose, a young boy steps on the hose, the gardener looks into the end of the hose to investigate, the boy removes his foot from the hose, the gardener is sprayed in the face, the boy runs. It seems ridiculous that this short clip is such an important mark in cinema’s history but it does achieve the desired effect. It is still as amusing today as it was 100 years ago. It also established slapstick humor as a fail-safe brand of visual comedy that is used in films to this day.
But humorous cinema can trace its roots even further back than this. In America in the late nineteenth century a distinct form of traveling variety theatre arose which, on any given night, could feature singers, dancers, jugglers, magicians, live animals, pantomime artists, clowns, ventriloquists, and comedians all on one bill. Vaudeville was flamboyant and exciting and its success was measured across economic borders. It was entertainment that was universally appreciated. When moving pictures arrived at the turn of the century vaudeville companies simply incorporated them into their lineup. The first films shown to the public in America were shown in vaudeville theatres and they were usually comedies. A great majority of the early comedy stars including Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle, W.C. Fields, Red Skelton, the Marx Brothers, and Oliver Hardy sharpened their skills as performers in vaudeville before making the jump to film. Keaton was born into a traveling vaudeville family and incorporated into their act—the Three Keatons—as soon as he could walk. Unfortunately, cinema would eventually be the death of vaudeville as film companies could offer higher wages and greater exposure for their artists. It was also generally cheaper for patrons. The 1920’s saw a sharp decline in the public’s enthusiasm for vaudeville and by the middle of the twentieth century it was a lost art.
But in the wake of vaudeville’s decline the American comedy film was born. The two major players at the beginning of the story of silent comedies were producers Hal Roach and Mack Sennett. Between the two of them the comedy film became one of the country’s favorite past times. After working under D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios in New York, Sennett founded Keystone Studios in California (far from the dictatorship of Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company) in 1912. Here he helped launch the careers of Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, W.C. Fields, Gloria Swanson, and Charlie Chaplin. Roach founded Hal Roach Studios in California in 1915. He was responsible for launching the film careers of Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, Charlie Chase, and Laurel and Hardy. He also created the Our Gang film series which later became The Little Rascals. Although Keystone Studios arguably had the bigger impact on film history, it did not have the endurance that its competitor had. Sennett left the company in 1917 to start a new company with Paramount which eventually went bankrupt. The studio declined after his departure and closed its doors in 1935. Hal Roach Studios stayed active well into the dawn of television and produced successful films for both Norman Z. Mcleod and Leslie Goodwins.
Silent comedies are held in such high regard today because they were innovative and pushed creative and political boundaries. Like vaudeville, they appealed to a versatile audience. Their slapstick humor appealed to children or to those who simply sought escapism in film. But behind the absurdity were filmmakers addressing poverty, racism, political reform, parental neglect, hypocrisy, and corruption. They used satire and absurdism to deal with real subjects and were not afraid to crucify celebrities and political figures. Their films were also among the most technically daring films of the time with elaborate visual effects and life-threatening stunt sequences.
1889 - 1977
|Safety Last |
|Arbuckle and Keaton|
Once on his own, Keaton formed Buster Keaton Comedies as part of Joseph M. Shenck’s production company and began to write and direct his own films. From 1920 to 1923 Keaton made a string of highly successful short comedies including One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), The Boat (1921), and Cops (1922). His films were technically innovative from the very beginning. While Chaplin concentrated more on character development Keaton’s films were visually stunning for their time. The Playhouse features an inventive dream sequence in which Keaton plays every character and Cops features an elaborately orchestrated chase scene with hundreds of extras.
His on-screen character was a well-meaning nobody who commonly found himself in extraordinary situations. He bore a deadpan expression with large blank eyes gazing from underneath his signature pork pie hat—which he made himself—which earned him the nickname “The Great Stone Face.” His first feature length film was Three Ages in 1923. He followed this with a series of highly successful films including Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), and Seven Chances (1925).
In 1926 he made one of the most ambitious—and expensive—films in history. The General is a sprawling Civil War epic, inspired by the memoirs of William Pittenger, about the 1862 Union raid of a Confederate passenger train, an event commonly known as the Great Locomotive Chase. It was also inspired by D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Keaton makes brilliant use of the camera in this film which features thousands of extras and highly elaborate stunts and visual effects that are still impressive today. At the end of the film Keaton famously blows up an actual bridge and locomotive. Today the film is considered his masterpiece but in 1926 it did poorly at the box office and got mixed reviews from critics. The Civil War was still a sore spot on America’s conscience and many did not appreciate Keaton’s slapstick version of it. It was an expensive flop and eventually cost Keaton his creative freedom.
Keaton grew dissatisfied with Schenck and his distributer, United Artists, and moved to MGM, a decision he would later regret. His first film for MGM, The Cameraman (1928), did well but Keaton did not make the transition to sound smoothly and the studio soon stripped him of all of his creative authority. His decrease in popularity and brutal divorce from actress Natalie Talmadge left him penniless. In 1934, after being sacked from MGM and legally prohibited from seeing his children, Keaton filed for bankruptcy. He spent much of the next decade insatiably drunk and trying to earn a living as a gag writer and bit actor.
Keaton eventually conquered his alcoholism, remarried, and experienced a renewed interest in his work during the 1950’s. He made cameos in several high profile films including Sunset Boulevard (1950), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In 1957 director Sidney Sheldon made a film about his life called The Buster Keaton Story with Donald O’Conner playing Keaton (it’s considered highly inaccurate). He also made numerous appearances on television where his older films were finding a new audience. In 1960 he returned to the stage in the touring company of the musical Once Upon a Mattress. He received an Honorary Academy Award in 1959. One of his last film appearances was the 1966 musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in which Keaton, terminally-ill with lung cancer, performed many of his own stunts. He was invited to the Venice Film Festival in 1965 for a screening of his short film, Film, based on a screenplay by Samuel Beckett. After the screening was over he received a five minute standing ovation. He died in 1966 at the age of 70.
The era of the silent film is almost like an unrecognizable chapter in the story of film. It is considerably different than anything that came after it. The films look different. They feel different. And watching them requires different muscles than the ones we are accustomed to. Hollywood was different. There were genres that were widely successful that no longer exist. There were actors and directors and studios that were once instantly recognizable, but are now completely unknown to a modern audience. The advent of sound affected the industry in different ways, some positive and some not. There are those who had been drifting along during the silent era, mildly successful, who found success during the sound era because it better suited their abilities. There are a few, like Chaplin, who were lucky enough to keep doing exactly what they doing before with little misery. But for many, like Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the world simply vanished almost overnight. New genres like animation and musicals took the place of physical comedy and swordplay. As it happened, talkies arrived at the dawn of the Hollywood studio system and the establishment of the five major studios who would reign until the 1950’s. This made a comeback career all the more difficult for those outside of the industry.
During the 1950’s and 60’s, however, there was a renewed interest in the early days of cinema. Television became a saving grace for silent films. Younger audiences were introduced to films by former masters and shows like The Twilight Zone offered them a new career. “Once Upon a Time” is by no mean a perfect episode. It is slow at times and some of the comedy is noticeably contrived. But it’s still an enjoyable episode and Keaton is as agile as ever. His timing is still impeccable and his gags are as funny as they were 30 years before. Instead this episode stands as a fitting tribute to the earliest chapter in the story of cinema and to one of the funniest people to ever grace the silver screen.
1895 - 1966
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following:
Richard Matheson’s The Twilight Zone Scripts Vol. 1 edited by Stanley Wiater (Gauntlet Press, 2001)
Silent Film Comedy and American Culture by Alan Bilton (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).
Harold Lloyd: Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses by Annette D'Agostino Lloyd (BearManor Media, 2016)
"The Little Fellow" by Charles Beaumont. Remember? Remember? (Macmillan Company, 1963)
Archive of American Television
--Interview with Richard Matheson conducted by Karen Herman (April, 2002).
Archive of American Television
--Interview with Richard Matheson conducted by Karen Herman (April, 2002).
The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (second edition, 1989)
Turner Classic Movies Official Website
Turner Classic Movies Official Website
--Stanley Adams also appeared in the fifth season episode “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.”
--Jesse White also appeared in the third season episode “Cavender is Coming,” as well as the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse episode "The Time Element," scripted by Rod Serling and often considered the true pilot episode of The Twilight Zone.
--Check out the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring John Rhys-Davies.