Season Three, Episode Thirteen
Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Norman Z. McLeod
A cute critique of political reactionism, Once Upon a Time is one of the few, if the only, straight-up Twilight Zone comedies, featuring the consummate comedian Buster Keaton, his famously stony visage now marked by conspicuous wrinkles. Bookended by two sequences of clever silent-film pastiche—complete with title cards and a brilliant piano score by William Lava—the episode finds Keaton, playing a scientist's janitor, disgusted by the degradation of his decade, the 1890's—the noise, the expense, the prurience and the hustle and bustle. (He's up-ended by a high-wheel bicycle moving at the absurdly rapid speed limit of eight miles per hour!) Finding a time-machine helmet in his master's laboratory, he decides to visit what he imagines must be the peaceful utopia of the future, and travels to 1960, where he finds himself in the middle of automobile traffic, a future immediately recognized as far worse than the past marked by its old-time bikes. The episode's sound returns as the din of shouts and traffic horns deafen, while Keaton takes in his noticeably more expensive and salacious surroundings.
Written by Richard Matheson, who would later insist that his original script was much funnier, and directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who in his heyday had directed many of post-silent cinema's classic crackerjack comedians (the Marx Bros., W.C. Fields, Danny Kaye), Once Upon a Time must surely be the last traditional silent film produced in America. Plottily thin, it's essentially an ode to Buster Keaton and his silent comedies of yore, and welcomely it eschews sentimentality, choosing instead to pay tribute to his masterful oeuvre with solid work in turn. It's certainly not Keaton's most hilarious or inventive turn, but it's strong nevertheless, full of prop-humor yuks, as Keaton attempts to accustom himself to the gadgetry of the post-war era, and time-honored physical gags; a sequence in the middle, in which his newfound friend of the future (Stanley Adams) helps a pantsless Keaton evade a trailing policeman is classic Keaton and, though brief, makes the episode worth seeing, at least for fans. Keaton's a marvelous casting choice, not only for his deft comic timing but because he works exceptionally well as a fish-out-of-water in the modern world, as his character ought; it's alarming for the audience to discover that not only is Buster Keaton alive, but he has the ability to speak.
Adams, however, is dreadfully miscast and despoils the episode's charm, moreso than the oft-blamed—this isn't a particularly popular episode—dragging middle sequences at a repair shop, which were filmed weeks after wrap by a different director, Les Goodwin. Adams' gestural, exaggerated performance seems to belong more to the silent era; despite the fact that's he's meant to be an avatar of modernity, he comes across as though he'd be more at home in the 1890's than even Keaton.
Keaton can't wait to get back his temporal home, and at last Adams declares his intentions to accompany him, yearning for "those halcyon days". But his imagined past is as misguided as Keaton's imagined future, and when Adams arrives in 1890, he's soon at his wit's end—there are no comfortable mattresses, electronic devices, and so on; hell, there isn't even any sound or color! Keaton, sick of his whining, pops the helmet on his head and sends him home, as Serling reminds the viewer to "stay in your own backyard...and if possible, assist others to stay in theirs." It's a pointed attack on American conservatives, who to this day are still advocating for a return to the "good old days", a return to the mythical American past. It seems every generation has a tendency to romanticize the ones before it, without realizing how tethered they are to their own place in time nor how the past was not actually as they imagine it to have been. But casting Keaton gives the film another subtext, serving to point out his obsolescence in modern film culture specifically and, on a greater scale, to demonstrate just how much the world has changed; Keaton, who struggled to find work after the pictures learned to talk, just doesn't belong among us anymore. Mourn it if you choose, but Once Upon a Time plays it for laughs.
For Netflix purposes:
On Vol. 10 of Image Entertainment's Twilight Zone DVD Collection.