My first viewing of a Buster Keaton movie came in a roundabout way: during the early 1970s, my mother liked seeing rock concert films of the Woodstock variety. She would drag me and my sister to see them, under the theory that young people like rock music. (Perhaps we did, but that did not necessarily include liking concert movies, which we found horribly boring.)
One of these movies was playing as a double feature with a documentary film called Four Clowns, about four silent film comedic stars: Keaton, Charley Chase, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Now, why anyone would think to pair a documentary film about silent film stars with a rock concert film remains a mystery to me to this day, but I’m grateful to the person who did it. While I had seen Laurel & Hardy sound films on television, I had never seen any of their silent work, and this was also my very first experience watching Buster Keaton.
At first I thought I was going to be bored out of my mind, but the movie included an abridged version of Keaton’s Seven Chances. I just about busted a gut laughing. It was a watershed moment for me as far as movies go, because before that I thought of silent films as irrelevant.
Hey, give me a break, I was probably only 11 or 12 years old at the time.
I wanted to write about Seven Chances for this blogathon but someone beat me to it (grumblegrumblegrumble). So I thought I would pick something from later in Keaton’s career. I chose his appearance in the “Once Upon a Time” episode of The Twilight Zone.
The plot of Once Upon a Time is very simple: a janitor named Woodrow Mulligan (Keaton) living in 1890 is dissatisfied with his life and society. Cars move at the insane speed of 8 miles an hour! Steak is 17 cents/pound! He finds it unbearable.
It just so happens he works for a scientist who has invented a helmet that can transport people to a different time (but only for thirty minutes). He travels to 1960 and is appalled to find modern life is more of the same, only worse–traffic, noise, sexy advertisements, food that’s even more outrageously expensive (steak at $1.49/pound!). A boy on a skateboard gets the helmet from him and he has to chase him. He runs into a man named Rollo (Stanley Adams) who happens to be a scientist.
They recover the helmet but need to get it fixed. They take it to an electrician. After it’s repaired, Rollo insists on going back to 1890, for he has always wished to live in a simpler time. Woodrow is thrilled to be back in his own time. Rollo soon misses his time, so Mulligan jams the helmet on his head and sends him back.
I’m so glad I chose this because the episode (written by Richard Matheson) is obviously meant as an homage to Keaton’s silent career. All the scenes in 1890 are silent, with intertitles and accompanying piano music. The scenes in 1960 have sound, but still mimic the feel of a silent movie. There are no daring stunts (Keaton was in his 60s) but there is quite a bit of physical comedy, including pratfalls and chases, especially involving policemen (in both time periods).
The theme of the episode, as host Rod Serling points out in the narration, is “stay in your own back yard,” in other words, don’t romanticize either the past or the future. As with many of The Twilight Zone episodes, he was trying to make a political point (Serling was famous for his liberal politics), in this case criticizing those who would try to turn back to clock politically.
But in a funny way, by paying homage to Keaton’s work, the episode does try to romanticize a lost cinematic past. I’m not sure it’s completely successful. The scene in the fix-it shop is overlong and draggy (writer Matheson has been quoted as saying he originally conceived the episode as one long chase). There’s a rather funny joke about television in the scene (of course) but other than that, it feels tacked on and pointless.
Even so, Keaton’s many comedic gifts are showcased. Watching him do something as simple as trying to use an old-fashioned laundry wringer to dry a pair of pants is funny and charming. There is one segment where Woodrow and Rollo evade the police by walking in tandem. It’s a perfect visual gag that could have come out of a classic silent film. I think if the show had stuck to more of this kind of comedy–or even had had the guts to make the entire episode silent–it might be remembered now as one of the classic episodes of The Twilight Zone. (And I’m not just talking out of my hat here–one of the best-remembered episodes of The Twilight Zone, The Invaders, is almost entirely silent.)
Once Upon a Time is probably The Twilight Zone’s most purely comedic episode, but it has a subtext that’s very sad. The truth is, we can’t “stay in our own back yard.” We age and get dragged into the future –a future where we may or may not fit in. Seeing Keaton trying (and occasionally succeeding at) recapturing what he could no longer do because time had marched on gives the episode an unintentional poignancy.
Even with its flaws, Once Upon a Time is well worth the time for any fan of Keaton.