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.

26 thoughts on “NPF: SLAPSTICK”

  • I love that episode, and it wouldn't surprise me in the least if "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" — he did basically the same thing with Art Carney as the down-and-out department store Santa.

    The other comedic outlier episode is the one with Carol Burnett, which most people forget about because it's just not very good. Most of the other funny episodes do follow a more typical Twilight Zone plot: see "Showdown with Rance McGrew," "Mr. Bevis," "Hocus Pocus and Frisby."

  • Thanks for this, Ed. It was easier to believe in a time-machine hat than that anyone stuck in 1890 would feel nostalgia for "frozen TV dinners."

    I once co-taught a course on Self-Reference in Art and showed The General. Even among those super-hip students it was the highlight.

    The epitome of optimism: Hulu showing a commercial AFTER the feature ends.

  • Townsend Harris says:

    In 1950 Keaton had a heartbreaking bit part as a silent-film era has-been: he played a dinner guest of Gloria Swanson's homicidal has-been, Norma Desmond, in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    I've always loved that episode, also.
    But then, I've been a Keaton junkie since I first saw "A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum" as a kid.

    I've seen all of his movies.
    When I first moved back to NYC in 1981, a revival movie theatre showed all of his movies.
    I was there every evening, right after work, for some of his shorts, followed by a double-feature (kids, shorts are not underwear, but short films- and a double-feature is when you get 2 movies for the price of one).

    And it's not that Charlie Chaplin wasn't great – I prefer Keaton.
    Also, too – WC Fields.

  • CaptBackslap says:

    The late-80s revamp obviously wasn't up to the Serling show's standards most of the time, but it had its moments.

    On the other hand, the 2002 revival (hosted by a bored-seeming Forest Whitaker) was godawful, mostly because the stories felt like rejected "Monsters" scripts minus that show's occasionally charming self-awareness.

  • One of the things that made TZ great (aside from Rod Serling's talent and vision) was using brilliant source material. Check out the short stories of Damon Knight, Kuttner & Moore, Ray Bradbury, Henry Slesar, and most of all, Richard Matheson. Serling's rewrote them for television really well, but he chose their stories for good reason. (Did Judith Merrill's "That Only A Mother" get used? It should have been.)

    My mom had me watching TZ (and NG and OL) with her from my earliest days, and we still notify each other when marathons are on. Good stuff.

    And thanks for shining a light on Buster Keaton. But @Townsend Harris, didn't you think the bridge table of silent film stars with looks and no lines was also kind of hilarious?

  • skwerlhugger says:

    I confess I haven't seen TZ much since my early 60s childhood and my recollections are dim, but… "even if it made zero sense in the context of Twilight Zone as a series", I'd disagree. The Outer Limits was in a me-too pigeonhole. TZ, no. The context was simply raging creativity. Most of it was eerie, because that's where he could cut loose. I doubt Sterling was thinking of this as giving Keaton a chance; more likely he was thrilled at the opportunity Keaton gave him.

  • It has been more than 40 years since I read it, but I remember Keaton’s autobiography, “My Wonderful World of Slapstick” as giving a great view of silent film days and Keaton’s own talents as a physical comedian. His face was perfect for his deadpan reactions.

  • Chalk me up as another Keaton fan. It's worth noting that The General is often cited as the most historically accurate depiction in film of the Civil War. But, of course, it was made only sixty years after the Civil War ended.

  • That was awesome.

    It took me a few minutes to place 'Rollo', the guy who was dragged back to 1890. He had a part in "Lilies of the Field', that old Sydney Poitier classic.

  • … And more importantly, one of the voice actors in that amazing album, "Stan Freburg presents The United States of America".

  • "And it's not that Charlie Chaplin wasn't great – I prefer Keaton."-Cund G

    There is a certain type of comic bit that has always irritated me rather than made me laugh. It's the self-referencing repetitive flub that some (and I don't know who) seem to feel builds to hilarity. Chaplin was the master of it–a repeated pratfall, slip, and double pratfall, lather, rinse repeat… It's almost as if he was begging for laughs–my reaction has always been "ok I see it, move on." In later years, Lucille Ball, with lesser gifts, beat this meme into the ground.

    But Keaton was nothing like that–he was electric and moved from one moment to the next offering the unexpected and outrageuos. His ability to surprise and delight puts him, in my book, well ahead of his contemporaries Chaplin and Lloyd.

  • I've always felt that physical comedians like Keaton never really get the respect they deserve. To me, watching the masters of the art is very much like watching Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire dancing in the classic musicals. The precision and choreography of top-notch slapstick can be just as impressive, but it doesn't get the same credit.

  • postcaroline says:

    Not a Buster Keaton comment… Rod Serling and I share the same alma mater: Antioch College. We Antiochians are especially fond of the episode "Changing of the Guard" and its many references to our weird school. Plus it features a young/old Donald Pleasence (younger in real life/made up to be a wizened old man). Probably the spookiest thing about the episode is that teaching is presented as a noble and even somewhat lucrative profession.

  • I'm not sure that this episode will be my cup of tea, but no hyperbole can accurately describe the greatness of The Twilight Zone. I'll have to go back and watch this episode whn I get home, since I don't remember it.

    Some of the episodes are hokey – to the point of being laughable sometimes – or somewhat boring, but the next one will leave your jaw hanging. The first one I saw did that. It was the episode with no dialog until the very end, with the woman fending off tiny alien invaders in her log cabin.

  • Chalk me up as a Keaton fan- he was an incredible athlete to be able to do his stunts. Plus he didn't seem to fall prey to the slightly mawkish sentimentality of Chaplin, not to mention the obsession with jailbait.

  • anotherbozo Says:

    "Thanks for this, Ed. It was easier to believe in a time-machine hat than that anyone stuck in 1890 would feel nostalgia for "frozen TV dinners.""

    considering what food was like in 1890 for the ordinary person………

  • Ok, so "found" a copy I could view.

    Whilst noting Keaton's ability at the prat fall, I was underwhelmed. The little homily at the end did it for me: be a good little citizen, don't imagine there is anything better out there for you. Stay in your box, stay with what you know. Good lad.

    And that omni-present policeman…..

    This is pure late 1950's Conservative, semi-authoritarian horseshit.

  • On top of all that, if you view his early films like The General, he was a looker in those days! And athletic. I was used to the older Keaton when I was growing up in the fifties, and when I saw him in that early movie, I was amazed.

  • Keaton was a great talent and my favorite silent comedian, if you can see Sherlock Jr or Our Hospitality for the master at his best. After the twilight zone he made a promotional film for the Canadian National Railway which ranks with his best work and was the last thing he made.

  • I watched the Twilight Zone episode the day this posted. Then I searched YouTube for more Keaton and have been watching his one or two reelers.

    Every once in a while I have to get away from my obsessive news reading. A few years ago I read a lot of books about Broadway shows and their writers and composers. I saw an article about Harold Lloyd which led me to his films and I've watched most of his "glasses character" films.

    I'd seen some Keaton clips before, but had never watched a full movie. He was a great physical comedian in his silent films. He started with Fatty Arbuckle (who had amazing grace for such a big man [he did not play a fat man] and who did some great stunts). I've now watched a few Arbuckle-Keaton films.

    I grew up in the 50s on Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges and Abbott and Costello.

    There were some really bad copies of Chaplin shorts on TV sometimes and some silent slapstick run at sound speed. Chaplin had withdrawn his films that he controlled (like Modern Times and The Great Dictator). Sometime in the 70s Blackhawk Films had a deal with Chaplin which allowed you to "lease" a copy of one of the withdrawn films in 16mm, but you had to promise to return or destroy it after a period of time (20 years?).

    Anyway thanks for pointing me in this direction. I'm having a lot of fun.

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