The year is 1890, one Benjamin Harrison is in the Oval Office, steak is a scandalous 17 cents a pound and the federal government is running a surplus of only $85 million.
So begins Buster Keaton’s distinctly odd entry into the Twilight Zone canon. A mix of loving pastiche, creaky sci-fi and homily to the joys of hearth and home.
‘Once Upon A Time’s’ opening, and most successful, segment introduces us to Woodrow Mulligan (Buster), a slightly grumbly old cove irritated by the sound and fury of his small town in the late Victorian era. This whole section is presented as a silent – scratches on the film, jingly piano soundtrack and all – and it’s rather charming. Buster gets to fall into a water trough (there’s nary a one of his classic era movies in which he doesn’t get a soaking one way or another) and there’s a nice little running gag of inter-titles being ‘censored’ when somebody says a bad swear. It’s the sort of joyful spoof that only works if the makers have genuine affection for their subject.
Via the convenient discovery of a ‘time helmet’ (which does look brilliantly of its time – it brought to mind the episode of [insert name of no doubt extremely well known American show] Marty McFly sees when he arrives in 1955 – Woodrow finds himself deposited in 1961. Not quite the haven of peace and quiet he was looking for.
Buster Keaton as Woodrow Mulligan - 1890 version
At this point, we flip into sound and have some fish out of water fun as Woodrow struggles in the modern world. Modern at the time of production, of course. Looking at it today, 1961 is nearly as long ago as 1890 was then, so it feels more like a second safe, quaint world than something brash and new.
There is some good stuff in this section, a nicely done little ‘that guy on TV is talking to me’ gag which is all about timing – something Buster clearly had not lost and, perhaps best of all, a re-creation of a gag Buster first shared with Roscoe Arbuckle in The Garage (1920). In The Garage, Buster is hiding behind Roscoe as they go past a suspicious cop, as they move past Buster slips in front so the cop is only seeing Roscoe’s back. It’s simple, but beautifully done.
In this version, the big man to Buster’s little guy is Stanley Adams as ‘Rollo’, a scientist (of some description) who immediately believes Woodrow is from 1890 (well, he can name the President, after all) and quite fancies using the helmet to get back to a simpler time. The ‘borrowed’ gag still works pretty well but, I think pleasingly, not quite as well as it did with Roscoe. It’s somehow reassuring that two great clowns at the peak of their powers can make a simple bit of pantomime look more fluid and more effortless than even a well done reproduction.
Woodrow and Rollo [SPOILER ALERT] do make it back to 1890, but the twist is that Rollo misses the creature comforts of 1961 (TV dinners and bikinis apparently a particular loss), so the Time Helmet gets another outing and sends him home.
Now, I claim not particular Twilight Zone expertise (slightly before my time, and it was never the touchstone over here that it was in the States – I guess we had Doctor Who instead?) but I’ve seen enough of them (or at least, Treehouse of Horror skits on them) to get the sense that they normally came with more of a sting in the tail. Running with a separate story every week does give you the freedom to do that (check out Inside No. 9 for recent examples – and just because it’s really, really good!), but I’d be interested to know what the show’s devotees made of it.
The moral of the story is laid on pretty thick, with the voiceover telling us “to each his own. Stay in your own backyard and help others to stay in theirs.” Not only does that suggest that the swinging 60s might not have been quite as fearless and forward-looking as we’re sometimes led to believe, it immediately put me in mind of Pleasantville (the show within the movie, at least) and ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’, the hymn to small-time life used to keep Truman Burbank satisfied in his constructed world. I guess as enough time passes, the parody becomes the parodied.
Still, there’s much to enjoy here. Buster (just five years before he died) can clearly still cut the mustard, including in some surprisingly energetic running around and the silent sections are lovely. I just couldn’t shake the sense of a missed opportunity for something bolder.
Once Upon A Time
First broadcast 15 December 1961 CBS
Screenplay by Richard Matheson
Directed by Norman Z. McLeod
Buster Keaton Woodrow Mulligan
Stanley Adams Rollo
Jesse White Repairman