NPF: SLAPSTICK

Posted in No Politics Friday on August 22nd, 2014 by Ed

While I'm not a big fan of "classic TV" in general – anachronistic shows like Leave it to Beaver are a genuine chore to watch in my opinion – I do have a pretty serious Twilight Zone obsession. In the "suspense" genre there aren't many shows or movies made since 1960 that don't owe it some kind of debt (or, in some cases, ripped off TZ plotlines lock, stock, and barrel). It would be possible and probably enjoyable for a small number of us to spend a year on nothing but daily posts about different TZ episodes and we'd cover just about everything Hollywood knows or ever has known about writing plots that twists and making things that are scary-unsettling rather than scary-"loud noises and fake blood." One thing that it isn't known for, with good cause, is comedy. Ask people to name funny or even pleasant TV shows and Twilight Zone is not going to top anyone's list.

While it is hard to disagree with that characterization, I submit for your consideration Season 3 Episode 13, "Once Upon a Time." Starring Buster Keaton. Not a lot of people would be able to pick Buster Keaton out of a lineup today but prior to World War II he was one of the most famous and popular celebrities on the planet (the end of the silent film era combined with his descent into twenty years of raging alcoholism did him in). In his later life – circa 1950-1960 – he overcame his addiction and the creative world started to recognize his greatness, giving him a lifetime achievement Oscar and a too-brief second act for his career. He would die in 1966 at the age of 70, five years after filming the Twilight Zone episode you see here.

As TZ episodes go the plot here is pretty dull – man travels through time, finds that he is out of place, and gains a new appreciation for the life he lives – but I defy anyone to watch this and not be happy at the end. There are certainly no other TZ episodes, and perhaps no episodes period, that please me as much as this one. The production team absolutely nails the silent film feel, from the jerky film speed to the dialogue cards to the ragtime-y piano. And holy crap, this might be Keaton's masterpiece. He is absolutely flawless here; 65 year old post-alcoholism Keaton somehow gave us one last look at his complete mastery of silent film acting. The physical comedy is impeccable, his deadpan rubbery face conveys more than most actors can in speaking roles, and he is endearing in every possible way.

You may not think much of silent films (although you should give Keaton's The General a shot regardless) but this is the undisputed master of the medium in all his glory, showing everyone that even in his dotage he could be totally dominant. If you watch a bunch of TZ episodes in a row on Netflix or on DVD, this one always comes as a surprise. It's just so different than everything before or after it in the series. While there are some episodes with comedic elements (the clown in "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" comes to mind) there are no other straight-up comedy efforts like this. I've often wondered if perhaps Rod Serling was a huge Keaton fan and simply decided that he was going to give the Old Man one last chance to remind everyone of his greatness even if it made zero sense in the context of Twilight Zone as a series.

I'm glad he did. 24 minutes. Do yourself a favor and watch it.