The Twilight Zone Dropped The Ball On Their Only Chance To Work With Buster Keaton

The episode of "The Twilight Zone" called "Once Upon a Time" (December 15, 1961) is one of the show's attempts at comedy and, by most viewers' gauges, didn't really work. "Once Upon a Time" starred the silent film superstar and immortal filmmaker Buster Keaton as a sad sack janitor named Woodrow Mulligan living in a small middle-American town called Harmony in 1890. Mulligan hates the fancy-pants modern inventions like bicycles and resents that livestock roam the street. The 1890 sequences were filmed in the style of a silent movie with no dialogue, plinking piano music, and intertitles. Mulligan works for a mad scientist who has invented a time-travel helmet that can bring its wearer into the year 1961, but only for 30 minutes. Mulligan, desperate to see his hometown grown up, gives it a shot.

In the year 1961, now filmed with sound, Mulligan meets Rollo (Stanley Adams) a scientist who feels nostalgia for a simpler time, a time like 1890. Mulligan's experiences in 1961 are largely negative, as the world is only faster and busier than in his home time. Rollo arranges to sneak back into the past with Mulligan, and the two return to 1890 together. Naturally, Rollo is just as disappointed with the backward technology of 1890 as Mulligan was with the forward business of 1961. 

Clearly, the makers of "Once Upon a Time" hoped that the mere presence of Buster Keaton would elevate the material. It seems, however, that even Keaton's involvement couldn't save the episode from being pretty terrible. Writer Richard Matheson, director Norman Z. McLeod, and producer Buck Houghton went on record in Marc Scott Zicree's book "The Twilight Zone Companion" to express their distaste for "Once Upon a Time," and how working with Keaton was a massive case of dropping the ball.

The Time Helmet!

McLeod, it should be noted, was one of the more notable comedy directors of his generation. He helmed such classics as "It's a Gift" with W.C. Fields, "The Paleface" with Bob Hope, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" with Danny Kaye, and the Marx Bros. movies "Monkey Business" and "Horse Feathers." McLeod was already retired by 1961, but Houghton wanted someone with a history of classic comedy to direct Buster Keaton, and the director agreed to come back for one last gig, his first opportunity to work with another legend. "He wasn't working a lot, he didn't want to," Houghton said. "But he thought, My God, work with Buster Keaton? Lead me to it."

It seems that writer Matheson had met Keaton through a mutual friend, and felt that securing the actor's talents for "The Twilight Zone" would have been amazing. Keaton continued to work through the 1966 film "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," released posthumously in 1966. He was open to TV and movies. 

At first, Houghton felt it was a dream come true, recalling: 

"The experience with Keaton was absolutely wonderful. [...] Here's a legend in his own time, for goodness sake, and he was exactly as reported. He was very sober about comedy. He'd take me out on the street and say, 'Buck, you can't do it that way. If I start here, then the gag works, but if I start there you can never make it work.' Such things as walking behind a policeman in step and disappearing down a manhole just before the bird comes, you know, those Rube Goldberg devices that the picture was full of. He knew right down to the jot what made it work."

So what happened?

What happened?

Zicree's book is critical of "Once Upon a Time," feeling that the jokes fall flat; offering intertitles for oinking pigs, for instance, isn't as witty as all that. Matheson's script simply didn't nail the right humorous tone, and Houghton recalls agonizing with the episode's editor, Jason Bernie, about how they might be able to salvage some of the episode's duller moments. Houghton said: 

"This thing sat in the cutting room for weeks and weeks while Jason Bernie and I wondered how to get the goddamn thing to work better. Because it seemed to go kind of slowly, as if there's one apple and two apples ... and three apples — and by then you're bored to hear me talk about the fourth apple. So it needed a goose."

Highton and Bernie ended up salvaging the sequence by pulling frames, making the film look fast and jerky, like an old-fashioned, over-cranked silent film reel. The fast motion of the 1890 sequences, Houghton recalled, did make the scenes play a little bit better. Sadly, speeding up the film ultimately shortened the episode considerably, and more footage needed to be shot to fill out the missing time. Houghton brought in director Les Goodwins to direct an abysmal scene in a repair shop in the 1961 segments. The scene saw Rollo bickering with a repair shop owner, while Mulligan wandered away to find a pair of pants. The extensions weren't funny and only mucked with the pace. 

The new scenes were, according to Matheson, complete death. The repair shop sequence wasn't manic like he had envisioned, and its inclusion made the episode feel that much slower.

Matheson hated it

Richard Matheson, the writer of classics like "The Incredible Shrinking Man" and "I am Legend," was a regular contributor to "The Twilight Zone," having penned 16 episodes, including classics like "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "Little Lost Girl." It seems that what Houghton did to "Once Upon a Time" pained him. Matheson had constructed what he felt was a perfectly funny script, but that editing and reshoots hindered the final result. As he said:

"I had so much more going on, it was so much funnier, what I had written. Obviously, because of cost reasons, the second act became this interminable scene in this repair shop, but I had it a chase from beginning to end, with him going through a car wash and a supermarket on a bike. It never stopped for a moment. After he meets Stanley Adams, though, it just stagnates."

Fans of classic Hollywood may feel a distant thrill in watching Keaton and McLeod working together, at the very least. A ranking of every episode of "The Twilight Zone" compiled by Paste Magazine in September of 2023 ranked "Once Upon a Time" at a modest #48, citing that Keaton's performance was great and that fans of the comedian will not be disappointed. Overall, however, "Once Upon a Time" doesn't possess much of a legacy and was rarely rerun during Thanksgiving Day "Twilight Zone" marathons.