The Twilight Zone: Season 3, Episode Thirteen “Once Upon A Time”

Original Air Date: December 15, 1961
Writer: Norman Z. McLeod (with an uncredited sequence by Les Goodwins)
Director: Richard Matheson

“The very thought of living in those halcyon days…”

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The year is 1890, the place is a town called Harmony, New York. Amidst a rousing chorus of old-timey piano music, we are introduced to Woodrow Mulligan (played by the legendary silent film comedian Buster Keaton). Through title cards, Mulligan is described as a disgruntled citizen, and a janitor who works for an inventor named Professor Gilbert. We find him walking down the dusty streets of his town, reading a newspaper that says “Government Surplus Only 85 Million Dollars,” and in response Mulligan complains, “What’s our country coming to?” He looks at a nearby poster of a burlesque dancer and shakes his head, followed by a funny gag which seems to show a trumpeter loudly playing music and a stone mason banging away at an iron. Mulligan covers his ears and walks away (highlighting that this is a silent movie scene). A horse-drawn carriage goes rolling by followed by a bicycle alongside a sign that forbids bicycles from moving at speeds greater than 8 miles per hour. Mr. Mulligan falls into a nearby watering trough.

“Mr. Mulligan, a rather dour critique of his times, is shortly to discover the import of that old phrase ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire,’ said fire burning brightly at all times, in the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

He grumbles his way home to wash his pants on a wringer. There are some wonderful throwback gags to the silent era here (including an allusion to Buster Keaton’s own childhood injury with a washboard wringer). At any rate, while his pants are drying Mulligan witnesses his employer Professor Gilbert enter the room with a new invention, a “time helmet” that will transport a person anywhere in time for only 30 minutes. Professor Gilbert and his assistant depart to celebrate the new invention with champagne while Mulligan dons the helmet and explosively travels forward in time to 1962 where he finds that the town of Harmony has become a noisy congested place with cars flooding the streets and commodity prices have risen drastically.

A passing car mistakenly steals Mulligan’s helmet and tosses it to a young boy before it falls to the ground, broken. Then Mulligan convinces a man named Rollo (Stanley Adams) on the street that he is from 1890 by brandishing a newspaper in his pocket, and a by claiming the current President in Benjamin Harrison. They visit Jack’s Fix-It shop filled with a bunch of newfangled technology, like a television and a vacuum cleaner, which leads to more amusing gags (Mulligan is still without pants).

Miraculously, Jack’s Fix-It is able to repair the helmet but Mulligan’s friend Rollo intends to use it himself to return to “that time of bliss and simple pleasures” –a time without income tax. This leads to a street chase about town until Mulligan and Rollo travel back to 1890 together. Suddenly, we are back in a silent film and treated to the sound of ragtime piano again. After a week passes, Mr. Mulligan appears contented, strutting about town appreciatiation of everything around him, while Rollo bemoans the absence of modern conveniences. In the end, Mulligan puts the helmet on Rollo which transports him back to 1962. Thus ends a classic morality fable in The Twilight Zone.

“’To each his own.’ So goes another old phrase to which Mr. Woodrow Mulligan would heartedly subscribe, for he has learned, definitely the hard way, that there is much wisdom in a third old phrase which goes as follows: ‘stay in your own backyard.’ To which it might be added: ‘and if possible assist others to stay in theirs,’ via, of course, the Twilight Zone.”
-Rod Serling

Many of The Twilight Zone’s comedy episodes are often brushed aside in favor of the more serious science-fiction stories, but “Once Upon A Time” is simply a delightful episode, one of the best in the whole series in my view. The cross-over between the silent and sound eras of cinema is poignant especially when considering the central theme of dissatisfaction with one’s own epoch. Mr. Mulligan’s transportation is unique in that he travels forward –typically when people desire to live in simpler times, which is the essence of nostalgia, they hope to travel backwards in time. However, Mulligan’s character arc is the same as Rollo’s. Both men desire to live in a better time period than their own, but once granted the opportunity, they realize it is not what they truly wanted. In the end, they find happiness in their own time. This episode plays out like a tribute to the genius of Buster Keaton, but also it is an homage to silent movies and their vaudevillian roots. I was surprised to learn this episode is often critiqued by fans of The Twilight Zone –I would rank it among the very best.

The Twilight Zone Trivia:

  • Richard Matheson wrote this script especially for Buster Keaton. Matheson met Keaton through writer William R. Cox. After having dinner several times at Keaton’s home, Matheson suggested the story.
  • In the early 1960s Buster Keaton was undergoing a renaissance of sorts. The late 1920s and 1930s were not kind to him after his classic brand of slapstick comedy went into decline along with silent movies, and he also faced a bitter divorce that left him penniless. He spent the better part of a decade bitterly abusing alcohol before re-emerging to appear in a string of movies, including Sunset Boulevard (1950) and It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1964) among others. At the same time his old movies regained a following with the growth of television audiences. This episode plays on some of these themes.
  • The scenes from 1890 were edited and cut to appear as if truly filmed on old celluloid. This cut down the episode run-time significantly so Serling and others were forced to add in an additional set of scenes including “Jack’s Fit-It” shop. Matheson was reportedly not pleased with the final result.
  • Buck Houghton brought legendary comedy film director Norman Z. McLeod out of retirement for this episode (who directed the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields among others). However, he never directed Buster Keaton and thus jumped at the opportunity.
  • This episode takes place in both 1890 and 1962.
  • Sparklers of the kind typically used on the 4th of July were used to create the time machine helmet.
  • In the scene when Buster Keaton gets his finger caught in a wringer, this is actually an allusion to when he was a three year-old and crushed his finger in a wringer. As a result the tip of his forefinger had to be amputated.
  • Woodrow’s last name is Mulligan, a golf term referring to a “second chance” or “do-over” which is also appropriate to his character arc.
  • Les Goodwins delivered an uncredited direction of the fix-it shop scene.
  • At the close of this episode the Twilight Zone theme can be heard playing with a distinctly “Honky-Tonk” thematic motif, in line with the plot of the episode.

Click here to return to my survey of The Twilight Zone series.

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