Looking back with the benefit of a half-century’s worth of media history, the original run of The Twilight Zone seems like it was a breeding ground for soon-to-be-famous stars: it featured early-career appearances from actors like Robert Duvall, William Shatner, Martin Landau, and many more. But The Twilight Zone also provided a home for well-established film actors to do something a little different than their typical bread-and-butter movie roles. That’s certainly the case for a Season 3 episode called “Once Upon a Time,” which aired in 1961 and starred one of silent film’s greatest stars: Buster Keaton.
The episode opens in a small town in upstate New York, called Harmony, in the year 1890. Woodrow (Keaton), who is described as a “disgruntled citizen” and “dour critic of his times,” works as a janitor at an inventor’s lab, and to him, the town is anything but idyllic—the cars are too loud, the meat is too expensive (17 cents a pound!), the government is operating on a paltry $85 million surplus. So, when he discovers that his boss’s new invention is a time machine helmet that can transport him to any point in history, past or future, he immediately programs it to send him to a year he imagines will alleviate all of his concerns and finally give him some peace and quiet: 1962.
Of course, as we and the ’60s audience already know, nearly all of his problems with his current society will be amplified in 1962. In this new century, Woodrow is suddenly thrust into a world of speeding, honking automobiles and $1.49 (!!!) meat, and to make matters worse, he has made the journey across time without his pants—which immediately identifies him as a troublemaker to modern-day law enforcement. Furthermore, his helmet—i.e., his ticket home—gets broken, and he must find a way to fix it before its 30-minute travel limit runs out, thus trapping him in the future forever.
The transition between the time periods is cleverly and humorously emphasized, Wizard of Oz-style, with a shift in filmmaking technique. The 1890 scenes are presented like a silent film, with faux-grain in the frame, simulated accelerated motion, and a kind of ragtime piano score. Most importantly: the only sound we hear is the score, and the episode uses intertitles to communicate sound in these scenes, which makes it especially funny that Woodrow’s main gripe with his town is that it is too noisy. The titles themselves are also used for comedy, such as making a formal record of the diegetic background noises that modern audiences might take for granted; for instance, a shot of some farm animals is followed by “Oink… Oink. Cluck… Cluck.” I love the inherent silliness in showing that title in particular, as though the audience would not know what noises those animals made, or that the oinks and clucks are so necessary to the plot that they simply must draw attention to them. The titles are also used creatively to communicate some more—ahem—colorful phrasings that audiences might find distasteful… as illustrated above. There are a few mouthed outbursts between Woodrow and a similarly grumpy cop, but luckily our delicate sensibilities are protected by these precautionary “CENSORED!” and “Also Censored!” titles. Though this style doesn’t really accurately reflect what film, at least, would have looked like in 1890 (it bears more of the hallmarks of Keaton’s work in the 1920s), we accept it because that’s exactly how we expect to see Keaton, and I will never fault a narrative for giving Keaton a place to display his exceptional physical comedy.
So, it’s a particularly harsh transition to the “futuristic” 1960 scenes, as we go from “silent” to a more modern style, complete with a full range of brash and cacophonous sound design immediately upon entering the scene. It effectively jars the viewer, and Woodrow, into the harsh reality of the future—we spend enough time in that initial silent style, that I was actually a bit startled when the sound came in! Though Keaton’s near-unmatchable skill as a physical performer is on full display here, he does speak in the 1960s scenes, and ably handles the dialogue-based jokes. He captures the grumpiness of his character in his voice, as this character works well within Keaton’s stony-faced scope, so it’s not too strange to hear him speak (as it might be, were he asked to play someone bubbly and optimistic).
In the end, Woodrow learns, as you might expect, that the grass isn’t always greener in the other decade. It’s a very fun episode, as it’s one of The Twilight Zone‘s rare comedies, yet it also maintains their characteristic suspense and sci-fi elements and moral conclusions. As a piece of Keaton’s collective work, it’s also very fun—though there aren’t any particularly stunning opportunities for physical comedy set pieces, I love seeing Keaton work within the framework of this new medium. Keaton made many appearances on television throughout his later career, including hosting his own show—I’m just glad some of those works were on shows as perennially popular as The Twilight Zone, so we can actually still see them today!