Join us this October as we celebrate the Halloween season with our countdown celebrating the 31 most frightening and unsettling moments from The Twilight Zone, one for each day of the month. We begin tomorrow with a look back at the fifth season episode "Death Ship."
Friday, September 30, 2016
Tuesday, September 27, 2016
|Cover illustration by William Sweeney|
Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories
by Charles Beaumont
Edited by Sam Raim
Penguin Classics, 2015
Last October, Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont was introduced into the hallowed ranks of the Penguin Classics book series with a selection of his short stories titled Perchance to Dream. The release was one of three books (along with Beaumont colleague Ray Russell’s 1962 novel The Case Against Satan and an omnibus of Thomas Ligotti’s first two short fiction collections, Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1985) and Grimscribe (1991)) that signaled a relatively recent open-mindedness toward horror and dark fantasy fiction from the esteemed book publisher (in 2013, Penguin Classics launched the six book series Penguin Horror, publishing the likes of Shirley Jackson, Ray Russell, and H.P. Lovecraft under the direction of editors Guillermo del Toro and S.T. Joshi). The book’s title is taken from of one of Beaumont’s better known short stories, a 1958 story originally published in Playboy which he later adapted into an excellent first season episode of The Twilight Zone, starring Richard Conte and John Larch, and directed by Robert Florey.
Beaumont’s inclusion in this revered series of books, which Penguin began in 1946, should not be underestimated, especially considering Beaumont is a writer largely relegated to aficionados of speculative fiction. Beaumont’s early death (age 38) and his relatively small body of work would likely be further mired in obscurity had it not been for his involvement with an enduring property like The Twilight Zone. Perchance to Dream includes a foreword by Beaumont’s literary mentor Ray Bradbury, “Beaumont Remembered,” which originally appeared in the 1982 retrospective Best of Beaumont from Bantam Books; the second such book, after 1965’s The Magic Man and Other Science-Fantasy Stories, to which Bradbury lends an essay in an effort to expose Beaumont to a wider audience. Perchance to Dream also includes an afterword by William Shatner, the star of director Roger Corman’s 1962 adaptation of Beaumont’s 1959 novel The Intruder, a film in which Beaumont played a central role and also featured appearances from Beaumont’s friends George Clayton Johnson, William F. Nolan, and OCee Ritch, two of whom (Johnson and Ritch) would write for The Twilight Zone.
The book’s highly appealing cover is the work of commercial artist and designer William Sweeney. Sweeney’s colorful and surrealistic illustration of a frightened couple driving a vintage automobile through a hellish landscape was an attempt to capture the atmosphere of Beaumont’s work, described by Sweeney as having “a garish, comic book-like quality,” rather than illustrating any one particular story, though Sweeney did also consider using an image created from Beaumont’s story “The Jungle” of a man looking out from a balcony over a futuristic city. Sweeney, along with Art Director Colin Webber and Creative Director Paul Buckley, ultimately decided that this image “didn’t pack the punch of the ghost-train type journey through a land populated by various monsters from the stories.” Sweeney’s creative model was the work of prolific commercial illustrator Virgil Finley, who provided much of his finest work during the height of the pulp era in the 1930s and 1940s for magazines such as Famous Fantastic Mysteries and Weird Tales. Finley’s influence can be seen in the imaginative design of the monstrous beings and in the evocation of the pulp era.
The content within the book is perhaps the most puzzling and frustrating aspect of this wonderful opportunity to expose Beaumont’s work to a wider readership. The story selection is presumably an attempt to cover the widest possible range of Beaumont’s fiction, which is not necessarily a poor approach to take on such a project if the book is not intended, as Perchance to Dream clearly is, to be a collection representative of Beaumont’s finest work (if this is in fact not the intention, one wonders why an editor would not choose an author's best work for inclusion in a "classics" line). Due to this approach, Perchance to Dream includes much of Beaumont’s quality work and nearly as much Beaumont work that is not of the same high quality. The most frustrating aspect of the selection is that several of Beaumont’s finest short stories are left out in favor of lesser works. Meaning that, unless this is volume one in a proposed series of Beaumont collections, readers will have to search elsewhere for such acknowledged Beaumont masterpieces as “Miss Gentilbelle” (Beaumont’s harrowing autobiographical story of the child abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother), “The Hunger,” “Black Country” (perhaps Beaumont’s defining masterpiece), and “Mourning Song,” an ironic dark fantasy published late in Beaumont’s career which would have made a supremely weird episode of The Twilight Zone. Due primarily to the exclusion of these stories, Roger Anker’s 1988 retrospective, Charles Beaumont: Selected Stories (Dark Harvest; reprinted in paperback by Tor Books as The Howling Man), remains the definitive Beaumont collection. Anker’s book also includes essays from several of Beaumont’s colleagues as well as Anker’s own introductory essay, which remains the most detailed Beaumont biography currently available. Instead of the stories listed above, Penguin decided to include such underwhelming fare as “Sorcerer’s Moon,” “Father, Dear Father,” “Blood Brother,” “The Monster Show,” “The Music of the Yellow Brass,” and “The New Sound.”
Seven stories are included which were later adapted by Beaumont (and in one instance by Beaumont’s friend John Tomerlin) for The Twilight Zone. These are: “The Howling Man,” “The Jungle,” “Perchance to Dream,” “In His Image,” “The Beautiful People” (adapted by Tomerlin as “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You”), “Song for a Lady” (adapted as “Passage on the Lady Anne”), and “Traumerei (adapted as “Shadow Play”). It is unfortunate that the book does not also include the Beaumont stories “The Devil, You Say?” (Beaumont’s first professionally published story, adapted for The Twilight Zone as “Printer’s Devil”), “Elegy” (adapted for the first season of the series), and “Gentlemen, Be Seated” (adapted for The Twilight Zone by Beaumont but scrapped by fifth season producer William Froug), if only to include all of Beaumont’s Twilight Zone material under one cover, to say nothing of the quality of the three missing stories.
Other exceptional stories included in Perchance to Dream are: “Place of Meeting” (a short-short story with a wonderful twist ending), “Free Dirt” (a bizarre horror story of supernatural justice), “Last Rites” (an ambitious science fiction story about religion), “The New People” (a prescient shocker about domestic terrorists in a middle-class neighborhood), and “A Death in the Country” (a pitch-dark thriller concerning one of Beaumont’s favorite pastimes, auto racing).
It is wonderful and refreshing to find Charles Beaumont in the Penguin Classics series, and though the book is somewhat flawed due to the uneven selection of stories, it is hoped that intrepid readers will use Perchance to Dream as a signpost to Beaumont’s other written works, many of which are being brought back into print in handsome paperback editions by the Richmond, Virginia based Valancourt Books, a publisher with a vested interest in resurrecting obscure or neglected works of horror and the supernatural.
Grateful acknowledgement is made to Classic Penguin: Cover to Cover, A Visual Celebration of Penguin Classics edited by Paul Buckley, Creative Director of Penguin Classics (Penguin Random House, 2016) for information and quotes on William Sweeney’s cover illustration for Perchance to Dream. I highly recommend this visual journey through the trend-setting book design of the Penguin Classics series. The book focuses on the last decade of the Penguin Classics series when Creative Director Paul Buckley greatly widened the scope of design on the prestigious line of books. The book includes many image details and rough drafts of the book covers (including two rough drafts for William Sweeney’s illustration for Perchance to Dream) as well as essays and observations from the artists themselves, many of which divulge the creative process of creating the book cover. It is a book lover’s delight.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
|Five lost characters searching for a way back|
to their own stories
Season Three, Episode 79
Original Air Date: December 22, 1961
Major: William Windom
Ballerina: Susan Harrison
Clown: Murray Matheson
Tramp: Kelton Garwood
Bagpiper: Clark Allen
Woman with Bell: Carol Hill
Girl: Mona Houghton
Writer: Rod Serling (teleplay based on the story “The Depository” by Marvin Petal)
Director: Lamont Johnson
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Phil Barber
Set Decoration: H. Web Arrowsmith
Make Up: William Tuttle
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Halenbeck
Editor: Bill Mosher
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton, Bill Edmondson
And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on the Twilight Zone, you’ll find yourself inexplicably entangled in this dark dungeon. You’ll meet an incredible group of people who, like you, will be quite unable to explain how they got there, why they got there, or how they’re going to get out. And at the end, we’re going to belt you with one of the most surprising endings we’ve ever had. Next week, “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” on the Twilight Zone.”
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“Clown, Hobo, Ballet Dancer, Bagpiper, and an Army Major. A collection of question marks. Five improbable entities stuck together into a pit of darkness. No logic. No reason. No explanation. Just a prolonged nightmare in which fear, loneliness, and the unexplainable walk hand-in-hand through the shadows. In a moment we’ll start collecting clues as to the why’s, the what’s, and the where’s. We will not end the nightmare we’ll only explain it. Because this…is the Twilight Zone.”
A man awakens in a dark room, unsure of how he got there. He wears a military uniform. United States Army. Rank: Major. The room is small and circular and the top is exposed to the air. With him in the room are a clown, a tramp, a Scottish bagpiper, and a ballerina. None of them can recall how they arrived in the room, although they have all been there much longer than the major. Every now and then, a loud ringing shakes the room and knocks them to the ground.The major is determined to find a way out. First, he tries to break through the wall. Then he attempts to dig a tunnel in the ground. Finally, he suggests that he and his roommates form a human ladder against the wall. The clown is opposed to the plan because it is dangerous but he is eventually persuaded. They form a ladder by standing on each other’s shoulders. The ballerina goes last. When she gets to the top she finds that her hands cannot quite reach the top of the cylinder. A bell rings violently and sends the five strangers tumbling to the ground. As a result the ballerina injures her leg. The major insists that they try it again, this time fashioning a rope from their clothes and tying it to the end of a sword. They form another ladder without the injured ballerina. The major goes last this time. When he gets to the top of the ladder he swings the rope over the top of the cylinder and hooks it onto the ledge. He pulls himself up and makes it out of the cylinder. Before he has a chance to tell the others what he sees he plummets to the ground below.
City sidewalk. Winter.
A young girl finds an army doll lying on the ground covered in snow. She picks it up and hands it to a woman ringing a bell next to a box marked 17th Annual Christmas Doll Drive. The woman tells her to put it back inside the bin.
Back in the place at the bottom of the barrel, five lonely people attempt to find comfort in the fact that, at least for now, they have each other.
Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“Just a barrel, a dark depository where are kept the counterfeit, make-believe pieces of plaster and cloth wrought in the distorted image of human life. But this added hopeful note: perhaps they are unloved only for the moment. In the arms of children there can be nothing but love. A clown, a tramp, a bagpipe player, a ballet dancer, and a major. Tonight’s cast of players on the odd stage known as the Twilight Zone.”
Commentary:Episode 79 of The Twilight Zone is one of the most memorable the show would ever produce. It’s also one of the best. It’s a premise that revolves almost exclusively around its twist ending and in the hands of lesser storytellers it could have been mediocre and predictable. It is to Rod Serling and Buck Houghton’s credit that they saw in writer Marvin Petal’s five page story more than just a simple plot twist to be stretched into a 25 minute teleplay. Instead, they saw a clever idea with interesting characters and a generous amount of screen time in which to develop them. The result is a weird, existential film that manages to be emotionally compelling and philosophically hopeless at the same time.
“Five Characters in Search of an Exit” is Serling’s adaptation of Marvin Petal’s (1929 – 2013) unpublished short story “The Depository.” Petal was a successful journalist who wrote for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner and later worked for former news conglomerate McGraw-Hill World News throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. He began his career at television station KTLA in Los Angeles where he wrote scripts for local sports programs, court procedurals, and legal documentaries. He met Serling at a political rally held at the home of actor Robert Ryan in 1960. Anticipating that Serling would be there, Petal brought along a five page story he had written called “The Depository” with the hope that he could convince Serling to buy it for The Twilight Zone. Serling seemed interested enough and suggested that he submit it to Buck Houghton for consideration. Houghton saw the potential and promptly purchased the story.
One of Serling’s strongest attributes as a writer was his eye for adaptation. Many of his best episodes were either adapted from the works of others or inspired by true events, although he did write a number of original teleplays that were brilliant. Serling had always possessed a knack for adaptation even in his days as a writer for live television—his 1957 adaptation of Ernest Lehman’s story “The Comedian” for Playhouse 90 earned him an Emmy Award—but on The Twilight Zone he began to rely on existing source material more and more. This is likely due to his contractual obligation to write 80 percent of the teleplays for the first three seasons. However, this proved to be beneficial and many of his adaptations are among the best episodes of the show. “The Depository” has never been published so no comparison can be drawn between the two versions. According to Petal, other than the omission of a minor character, Serling remained relatively faithful to the original story. Given the short length of Petal’s story, it can be assumed that most of the dialogue was added by Serling. Dialogue was always Serling’s greatest strength as a writer and it has never been more apparent than in this episode. His words are crisp and clever and overflowing with emotion.
The title is a reference to Luigi Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author, first performed in Rome in 1921. The play tells the story of a family of six who interrupt rehearsals for a play written by Pirandello. The group claims to be Pirandello’s unfinished characters and they need to find him in order to be complete. The director agrees to let them stay and rehearse with the actors. The six newcomers immediately begin to argue with each other and with the rest of the cast and crew for no apparent reason. It is revealed that their family history is one of deceit, adultery, and a multitude of morally questionable offenses. The play ends with one of the children committing suicide on stage and another drowning in a fountain. The remaining characters exit the stage leaving the cast and crew to process the day’s events.
Although “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” bears little resemblance to the experimental and highly explicit play from which it takes its name, the reference to Pirandello is almost certainly deliberate. Luigi Pirandello is largely considered the major predecessor to the movement in European drama prevalent during the mid-twentieth century known as the Theatre of the Absurd. The movement was born out of Elizabethan tragi-comedy and was heavily influenced by existentialism, particularly the darker themes of Franz Kafka and Albert Camus. It was also influenced by the devastation of war witnessed throughout Europe during the first half of the century. Authors associated with the Theatre of the Absurd stress a deterioration of the human condition and a breakdown in communication in modern society. Their works usually avoid a traditional plot structure and conflicts are seldom resolved. The dialogue is repetitive and characters often babble back and forth at one another without moving the conversation forward. Characters usually find themselves trapped in situations they cannot control or understand. Vaudeville was also a significant inspiration. Authors juxtapose satire and farce with hopelessness and despair to emphasize a pessimistic view of humanity. Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter, and Edward Albee are all closely associated with the Theatre of the Absurd. Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953), a play practically devoid of plot in which two men wait aimlessly for a person named Godot who never appears, is considered the masterpiece of the genre.
If Serling was influenced by writers like Pirandello then it seems obvious that The Twilight Zone also carries that influence to a certain degree. An ordinary episode of the show commonly features a character, or characters, inexplicably thrust into an unfamiliar and sometimes hostile environment which they cannot control and often cannot share with anyone else. Serling’s ambition as a writer was to point out society’s flaws much like the works commonly placed under the umbrella of the Theatre of the Absurd. But Serling’s work is rooted more in honesty and realism which sets it apart from his European contemporaries.
“Five Characters in Search of an Exit” is perhaps the closest the show ever came to this type of drama. The story begins without explanation, forcing the characters and the audience to immediately begin evaluating the situation. The characters are archetypal, a trait common to absurdist plays. The atmosphere is bleak but features totally absurd characteristics like bagpipe melodies and ballet dancing which give it a highly unsettling quality. It also deals with identity crisis, probably the most common recurring theme on the show, but features two distinct sides of the dilemma. The four initial characters have presumably gone through stages of anger, confusion, and denial repeatedly for an undisclosed amount of time and have come to accept their reality. But for the Major the situation is new and the nihilistic attitudes of his cellmates are appalling. His despair is only highlighted by the Clown’s mockery of him. When he is placed back into the barrel at the end of the episode, having been exposed to the truth, one can assume that he too will now accept his fate and as more dolls arrive the process will be repeated over and over again. This episode also owes a debt to the works of Kafka and Jean-Paul Sartre, whose play No Exit (1944) features a similar plot in which three characters are trapped in a room for all of eternity.
What makes this such a remarkable episode is that every element is perfectly measured and executed. It is such a delicate plot that if any of the forces at work here were to falter then the entire episode would collapse. The audience is presented with a mystery as soon as the story begins so their attention is immediately drawn to its solution. But Serling’s dialogue is so engaging and the performances of the actors so compelling that the audience is distracted just long enough for the plot to unfold naturally. If the episode had been any longer or if any of the characters had been weak or uninteresting then this would not have worked and the audience would have solved the mystery prematurely.
Director Lamont Johnson (1922 – 2010) proves himself an invaluable contributor to the show with this episode, which he considers his favorite of the eight he directed. Johnson was no stranger to the Theatre of the Absurd and had recently directed a string of Samuel Beckett plays for the UCLA theatre department. He plays into the bizarre nature of the story very well particularly at the beginning when the Major first meets the four other characters. Both the set and the plot are sparse so he has almost the entire episode to experiment with the camera. He makes great use of high contrast lighting, letting the shadows set the tone of the story. There is also an impressive low-angle shot of William Windom as he attempts to dig a tunnel in the ground. There were two barrels used while filming the episode, a vertical one used for the dialogue scenes and a horizontal one that could be tilted allowing the actors to stand on top of one another safely. The circular shape of the barrel proved to be a hassle for director of photography George T. Clemens as it made the scenes difficult to light. This is another reason for all the shadows. Johnson was nominated for eleven Primetime Emmy Awards during his career as a director, winning two for the films Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985) and Lincoln (1988).The closing shot of the dolls is not a shot of the actors but of life-size mannequins made in their image. Before shooting began a cast was made of each actor’s face so their replica would look as realistic as possible. Although Tuttle gets the on-screen credit the masks were mostly designed by long-time friend and make-up legend Charles Schram (1911 – 2008), who constructed similar masks for season one’s “The After-Hours.”
The performances of the three leading actors are all remarkable. Each is so effective in their roles it is hard to imagine anyone else playing them. Although their on-screen chemistry is totally believable, according to actor William Windom there was friction between himself and actress Susan Harrison (b. 1938) over who would receive top billing. At the time, Harrison was actually the bigger name, having landed leading roles in the 1957 film-noir The Sweet Smell of Success and the 1960 crime thriller Key Witness. She had also appeared on Bonanza and Alfred Hitchcock Presents—in Robert Bloch’s “The Gloating Place”—and had a successful stage career. Windom, who is clearly the lead, claims the two argued throughout the filming of the episode—a fight he apparently lost for Harrison indeed gets top billing. Ironically, she retired from acting not long after appearing in this episode.
William Windom (1923 – 2012) began his career at the dawn of television in New York City. After spending a decade appearing in live dramas he moved to Hollywood to pursue a film career. This episode was one of the first jobs he was offered after he moved to California. Windom was at his best when playing likable characters in a state of panic or disillusionment such as his Army Major. He had an empathetic quality that allowed him to connect with audiences no matter how frantic the character. Windom would return to the show during season four in the Charles Beaumont classic “Miniature.” His other notable television appearances include the Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Machine” and two episodes of Night Gallery including Serling’s poignant season one finale “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” which was nominated for an Emmy Award. He starred alongside fellow Twilight Zone alumni Inger Stevens for three seasons in the ABC sitcom The Farmer’s Daughter (1963 – 1966) and won an Emmy for his role in the NBC series My World and Welcome to It (1969 – 1970). In 1962 he played the District Attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird. And in 1971 he played the President of the United States in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.
Kelton Garwood (1928 – 1991) gives a reserved but solid performance here as the Hobo and his dazed expression and slowed mannerisms are completely convincing. A theatrically trained actor, Garwood had a limited career in Hollywood appearing mostly in westerns. Mona Houghton, the little girl who picks up the doll at the end of the episode, was Buck Houghton’s daughter.
While many critics have expressed their distaste at the twist ending—which could seem a bit cheap after such a philosophically heavy set-up—and others have accused it of being a recycled version of Serling’s “The After Hours” from season one—which in some ways it is—“Five Characters is Search of an Exit” has still managed to become one of the most recognizable episodes of the show. Both CBS and the producers deserve credit for putting something so strange and original on television in 1961. It’s a weird, dark story, which doesn’t really have a happy ending, that the producers chose to run as the season’s Christmas episode. Its existential ramblings about Hell and the meaning of life no doubt puzzled viewers who expected a repeat of the previous season’s Christmas tale “Night of the Meek.” This episode was a bold choice for the show but it proved to be worth the risk. It's as effective today as it was in 1961 and has justly earned its place in the archives of popular culture.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following:
The Twilight Zone: Unlocking the Door to a Television Classic by Martin Grams, Jr. (OTR Publishing, 2008)
The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree (Second Edition, 1989)
The Twilight Zone Definitive Edition DVD, Season Three (Image Entertainment, 2004)
--Lamont Johnson audio interview with Marc Scott Zicree
--William Windom audio commentary for “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”
--William Windom also appeared in the season four episode “Miniature.” In 1971 he appeared in Serling’s Emmy-nominated “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” for the finale of the first season of Night Gallery. The following year he appeared in the finale for season two in the segment “Little Girl Lost.”
--Murray Matheson also appeared in the third and final season of Night Gallery in the segment "The Doll of Death." In 1983 he played Mr.Agee in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) in Steven Spielberg’s remake of writer George Clayton Johnson’s “Kick the Can.” It was one of his final performances. He died in 1985 at the age of 72.
--Lamont Johnson directed eight episodes of the show including the fan favorites “Nothing in the Dark” and “Kick the Can.” In 2000, at the request of producer J. J. Abrams, Johnson directed an episode of the television series Felicity called “Help for the Lovelorn” for the show’s second season. The episode is Abrams’ love letter to The Twilight Zone and was filmed in black and white and features stock music from the show. There are Easter eggs hidden throughout the episode and the plot is a loose combination of the plots of “Five Characters…” and season one’s “The Chaser.” It was Johnson’s last work as a director.
--Listen to the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring Jason Alexander.--Brian Durant
Monday, September 12, 2016
|Mr. Woodrow Mulligan (Buster Keaton), having a bad day.|
“Once Upon a Time”
Season Three, Episode 78
Original Air Date: December 15, 1961
Woodrow Mulligan: Buster Keaton
Rollo: Stanley Adams
Repair Man: Jesse White
Professor Gilbert: Milton Parsons
Clothing Store Manager: Warren Parker
Policeman 1890: Gil Lamb
Policeman 1962: James Flavin
2nd Policeman 1962: Harry Fleer
Fenwick: George E. Stone
Boy on Skates: Jim Crevoy
Utility Truck Driver: Bob McCord
Writer: Richard Matheson (original teleplay)
Director: Norman Z. McLeod (additional scene directed by Leslie Goodwins; uncredited)
Producer: Buck Houghton
Production Manager: Ralph W. Nelson
Director of Photography: George T. Clemens
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Phil Barber
Set Direction: Phil Barber, H. Web Arrowsmith
Assistant Director: E. Darrell Hallenbeck
Editor: Jason H. Bernie
Story Consultant: Richard McDonagh
Sound: Franklin Milton, Bill Edmondson
Music: Original composition by William Lava, performed by Ray Turner
And Now, Mr. Serling:
“Next week on the Twilight Zone, we bring to the television cameras a most unique gentleman, whose own very special brand of clown-ship has long ago become a milestone in American humor. Mr. Buster Keaton appears in ‘Once Upon a Time,’ a script written especially for him by Richard Matheson. This one is wild, woolly, and most unpredictable. On the Twilight Zone next week, Mr. Buster Keaton in ‘Once Upon a Time.’
Rod Serling’s Opening Narration:
“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.”
1890. Mr. Woodrow Mulligan is easily irritated. He thinks the world is loud and fast and expensive. He arrives to work one day after falling head-first into a horse trough and overhears his boss, a scientist, boasting about his greatest invention: a helmet that will allow a person to travel to any time they choose—for thirty minutes. He leaves to celebrate, leaving the helmet unattended. Mr. Mulligan grabs the oversized helmet and straps it on. Any time will be better than this one, he surmises. The helmet begins to pulsate and sparks explode from its sides. Mulligan races into the street with the helmet still upon his head, hysterical.
Moments later he is in another world, surrounded by loud, obnoxious noises. It is 1962. A passing truck knocks the helmet from his head. It is picked up by a boy on roller skates. Mulligan chases the boy. The boy skates into a man reading a book and drops the helmet. Moments later, Mulligan crashes a bicycle into the man reading the book and picks the helmet up. But the helmet is broken. Devastated, he looks at his watch. Only fifteen minutes to get back to 1890.
Days later, Mulligan strolls calmly into work. Life doesn’t seem so dreary now and things don’t bother him as much. When he arrives he finds Rollo in a disgruntled state. 1890 isn’t as nice as he imagined it would be. Nothing is electronic. How can he build machines? Mulligan quietly slips the time helmet onto the angry man’s head and watches him disappear.
Rod Serling’s Closing Narration:
“’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.”
Part I: Script vs. Episode
Richard Matheson’s “Once Upon a Time” is an oddball of an episode unlike any the show ever produced. Today this episode seems like an incredibly strange choice for the show and many fans are very critical of it. While it is an odd choice, The Twilight Zone was a show that frequently took risks and tried new things. The first season of the show produced an episode featuring one of the first all-black casts to appear on American television (Serling’s “The Big Tall Wish”). Season Two featured an episode with virtually no dialogue (Matheson’s “The Invaders”) and another in which the audience can’t see any of the characters’ faces for almost twenty minutes (Serling’s “Eye of the Beholder”). And the third season had already produced two episodes featuring thinly-veiled depictions of controversial political figures (Serling’s “The Mirror” and “Deaths-Head Revisited”). So the idea of making an imitation silent film was just another way for the show to push its creative boundaries.
This is the first of three episodes that Matheson wrote for Season Three. Unfortunately, this season would prove to be his weakest with none of his episodes being particularly memorable. His best effort during Season Three, “Little Girl Lost,” marked the first time Matheson adapted his own material for the show, something he avoided doing during the previous seasons. His other original teleplay for this season, “Young Man’s Fancy,” is a modern ghost story with a clever twist but its charm doesn’t survive long after the first viewing. “Once Upon a Time” is an atypical episode for both the show and for Matheson who, at this point in his career, was not known as a comedy writer—although this was actually his second comedy for the show, the first being the lighthearted Season One finale “A World of His Own” in which he wrote Serling into the final scene as a gag. These two episodes stand in sharp contrast to his novels and short stories of the time which were unapologetically bleak. Although he didn’t write another comedy for the show, possibly due to his dissatisfaction with this episode, he would go on to write a string of successful horror-comedies for director Roger Corman based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
Matheson wrote this episode especially for Buster Keaton after meeting the film legend through writer William R. Cox. The two were invited over to Keaton’s home several times and Matheson was won over by the aging comedian’s charm. So after asking Keaton if he was interested in appearing on the show and running the idea by Serling and Buck Houghton, Matheson wrote his teleplay. The script he sold to the producers, however, is noticeably different from the episode that aired. In Matheson’s original script the frenetic action rarely slows down. The entire script plays into Keaton’s personality and his abilities as a performer. The main difference comes during the second act after Mulligan arrives in 1962. Matheson’s script has Mulligan and Rollo enter a supermarket instead of a repair shop after the bicycle crash. The supermarket scene features two characters that do not appear in the episode: a clerk named Miss Blodgett and a store manager. Rollo enters the store in search of supplies to fix the helmet but after causing a commotion they are asked to leave. The manager alerts the police and another chase ensues. Rollo later repairs the helmet using spare television parts. The episode reverts back to Matheson’s script when Mulligan and Rollo are sent back to 1890.
Matheson’s script was apparently filmed as it was written in September of 1961. But after viewing the rough cut Serling, Houghton, and film editor Jason Bernie all felt that the action seemed a bit slow. As a solution Bernie suggested that they remove every third frame of the film to make the action jumpy and whimsical the way films looked before the advent of the standard film speed of 24 frames per second in 1926. This made the episode run much shorter than originally planned and it was decided that an additional scene was needed to meet the length. So Houghton scheduled a re-shoot in late October with Keaton, Adams, actor Jesse White, and director Leslie Goodwins. The supermarket scene was scrapped and the repair shop scene, featuring a completely new character not featured in Matheson’s script, took its place. It’s unclear who wrote the new scene, which has a substantial amount of dialogue, although it was presumably Serling.
Matheson was not thrilled with the result. His original script was interesting and would have certainly made for an entertaining episode. But the finished product is a solid episode and the repair shop sequence, with the witty back-and-forth banter between Keaton and Adams and White, is possibly its best scene.
Houghton brought director Norman Z. McLeod (1898 - 1964) out of retirement just for this episode. The veteran director had worked regularly with the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields but had never worked with Keaton and jumped at the opportunity. McLeod started as an animator but made the switch to directing in the late 1920’s devoting his skills mostly to comedies. Among his three decades worth of credits are Monkey Business (1931), Horse Feathers (1932), Alice in Wonderland (1933), It’s a Gift (1934), Topper (1937), and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947). Unfortunately, this episode would be one of his last projects. He died in 1964 at the age of 65 after suffering a stroke. Leslie Goodwins (1899 - 1969) was also a veteran in the industry. He began his career making two-reel comedies in the 1930’s. Today he is mostly remembered for the Mexican Spitfire film series starring Leon Errol and Lupe Velez. He also directed The Mummy's Curse (1944) starring Lon Chaney, Jr.
Stanley Adams (1915 - 1977) does a terrific job in this episode and his whimsically pompous attitude is a great counterpart to Keaton’s bumbling time traveler. Adams was a prolific character actor probably best known among science fiction fans as the merchant trader in the Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He also appears in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and the 1962 film version of Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight.
Part II: Keaton, Chaplin, and the Birth of American Cinema:
This episode is notable for several reasons. It’s a tribute not only to Buster Keaton but to the history of comedic cinema going all the way back to its vaudevillian roots. Comedy is one of the oldest genres in cinema’s history with documentaries being perhaps the only genre to precede it. Historians consider the 1895 short film L'Arroseur Arose, directed by film pioneer Louis Lumière, to be not only the first comedy in cinema’s history but the first film to use a fictional narrative. The plot of the 45 second film is thus: a gardener waters his plants with a hose, a young boy steps on the hose, the gardener looks into the end of the hose to investigate, the boy removes his foot from the hose, the gardener is sprayed in the face, the boy runs. It seems ridiculous that this short clip is such an important mark in cinema’s history but it does achieve the desired effect. It is still as amusing today as it was 100 years ago. It also established slapstick humor as a fail-safe brand of visual comedy that is used in films to this day.
But humorous cinema can trace its roots even further back than this. In America in the late nineteenth century a distinct form of traveling variety theatre arose which, on any given night, could feature singers, dancers, jugglers, magicians, live animals, pantomime artists, clowns, ventriloquists, and comedians all on one bill. Vaudeville was flamboyant and exciting and its success was measured across economic borders. It was entertainment that was universally appreciated. When moving pictures arrived at the turn of the century vaudeville companies simply incorporated them into their lineup. The first films shown to the public in America were shown in vaudeville theatres and they were usually comedies. A great majority of the early comedy stars including Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Fatty Arbuckle, W.C. Fields, Red Skelton, the Marx Brothers, and Oliver Hardy sharpened their skills as performers in vaudeville before making the jump to film. Keaton was born into a traveling vaudeville family and incorporated into their act—the Three Keatons—as soon as he could walk. Unfortunately, cinema would eventually be the death of vaudeville as film companies could offer higher wages and greater exposure for their artists. It was also generally cheaper for patrons. The 1920’s saw a sharp decline in the public’s enthusiasm for vaudeville and by the middle of the twentieth century it was a lost art.
But in the wake of vaudeville’s decline the American comedy film was born. The two major players at the beginning of the story of silent comedies were producers Hal Roach and Mack Sennett. Between the two of them the comedy film became one of the country’s favorite past times. After working under D.W. Griffith at Biograph Studios in New York, Sennett founded Keystone Studios in California (far from the dictatorship of Thomas Edison's Motion Picture Patents Company) in 1912. Here he helped launch the careers of Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, W.C. Fields, Gloria Swanson, and Charlie Chaplin. Roach founded Hal Roach Studios in California in 1915. He was responsible for launching the film careers of Harold Lloyd, Will Rogers, Charlie Chase, and Laurel and Hardy. He also created the Our Gang film series which later became The Little Rascals. Although Keystone Studios arguably had the bigger impact on film history, it did not have the endurance that its competitor had. Sennett left the company in 1917 to start a new company with Paramount which eventually went bankrupt. The studio declined after his departure and closed its doors in 1935. Hal Roach Studios stayed active well into the dawn of television and produced successful films for both Norman Z. Mcleod and Leslie Goodwins.
Silent comedies are held in such high regard today because they were innovative and pushed creative and political boundaries. Like vaudeville, they appealed to a versatile audience. Their slapstick humor appealed to children or to those who simply sought escapism in film. But behind the absurdity were filmmakers addressing poverty, racism, political reform, parental neglect, hypocrisy, and corruption. They used satire and absurdism to deal with real subjects and were not afraid to crucify celebrities and political figures. Their films were also among the most technically daring films of the time with elaborate visual effects and life-threatening stunt sequences.
1889 - 1977
|Safety Last |
|Arbuckle and Keaton|
Once on his own, Keaton formed Buster Keaton Comedies as part of Joseph M. Shenck’s production company and began to write and direct his own films. From 1920 to 1923 Keaton made a string of highly successful short comedies including One Week (1920), The Playhouse (1921), The Boat (1921), and Cops (1922). His films were technically innovative from the very beginning. While Chaplin concentrated more on character development Keaton’s films were visually stunning for their time. The Playhouse features an inventive dream sequence in which Keaton plays every character and Cops features an elaborately orchestrated chase scene with hundreds of extras.
His on-screen character was a well-meaning nobody who commonly found himself in extraordinary situations. He bore a deadpan expression with large blank eyes gazing from underneath his signature pork pie hat—which he made himself—which earned him the nickname “The Great Stone Face.” His first feature length film was Three Ages in 1923. He followed this with a series of highly successful films including Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock Jr. (1924), and Seven Chances (1925).
In 1926 he made one of the most ambitious—and expensive—films in history. The General is a sprawling Civil War epic, inspired by the memoirs of William Pittenger, about the 1862 Union raid of a Confederate passenger train, an event commonly known as the Great Locomotive Chase. It was also inspired by D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). Keaton makes brilliant use of the camera in this film which features thousands of extras and highly elaborate stunts and visual effects that are still impressive today. At the end of the film Keaton famously blows up an actual bridge and locomotive. Today the film is considered his masterpiece but in 1926 it did poorly at the box office and got mixed reviews from critics. The Civil War was still a sore spot on America’s conscience and many did not appreciate Keaton’s slapstick version of it. It was an expensive flop and eventually cost Keaton his creative freedom.
Keaton grew dissatisfied with Schenck and his distributer, United Artists, and moved to MGM, a decision he would later regret. His first film for MGM, The Cameraman (1928), did well but Keaton did not make the transition to sound smoothly and the studio soon stripped him of all of his creative authority. His decrease in popularity and brutal divorce from actress Natalie Talmadge left him penniless. In 1934, after being sacked from MGM and legally prohibited from seeing his children, Keaton filed for bankruptcy. He spent much of the next decade insatiably drunk and trying to earn a living as a gag writer and bit actor.
Keaton eventually conquered his alcoholism, remarried, and experienced a renewed interest in his work during the 1950’s. He made cameos in several high profile films including Sunset Boulevard (1950), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). In 1957 director Sidney Sheldon made a film about his life called The Buster Keaton Story with Donald O’Conner playing Keaton (it’s considered highly inaccurate). He also made numerous appearances on television where his older films were finding a new audience. In 1960 he returned to the stage in the touring company of the musical Once Upon a Mattress. He received an Honorary Academy Award in 1959. One of his last film appearances was the 1966 musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in which Keaton, terminally-ill with lung cancer, performed many of his own stunts. He was invited to the Venice Film Festival in 1965 for a screening of his short film, Film, based on a screenplay by Samuel Beckett. After the screening was over he received a five minute standing ovation. He died in 1966 at the age of 70.
The era of the silent film is almost like an unrecognizable chapter in the story of film. It is considerably different than anything that came after it. The films look different. They feel different. And watching them requires different muscles than the ones we are accustomed to. Hollywood was different. There were genres that were widely successful that no longer exist. There were actors and directors and studios that were once instantly recognizable, but are now completely unknown to a modern audience. The advent of sound affected the industry in different ways, some positive and some not. There are those who had been drifting along during the silent era, mildly successful, who found success during the sound era because it better suited their abilities. There are a few, like Chaplin, who were lucky enough to keep doing exactly what they doing before with little misery. But for many, like Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, the world simply vanished almost overnight. New genres like animation and musicals took the place of physical comedy and swordplay. As it happened, talkies arrived at the dawn of the Hollywood studio system and the establishment of the five major studios who would reign until the 1950’s. This made a comeback career all the more difficult for those outside of the industry.
During the 1950’s and 60’s, however, there was a renewed interest in the early days of cinema. Television became a saving grace for silent films. Younger audiences were introduced to films by former masters and shows like The Twilight Zone offered them a new career. “Once Upon a Time” is by no mean a perfect episode. It is slow at times and some of the comedy is noticeably contrived. But it’s still an enjoyable episode and Keaton is as agile as ever. His timing is still impeccable and his gags are as funny as they were 30 years before. Instead this episode stands as a fitting tribute to the earliest chapter in the story of cinema and to one of the funniest people to ever grace the silver screen.
1895 - 1966
Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following:
Silent Film Comedy and American Culture by Alan Bilton (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013).
Harold Lloyd: Magic in a Pair of Horn-Rimmed Glasses by Annette D'Agostino Lloyd (BearManor Media, 2016)
"The Little Fellow" by Charles Beaumont. Remember? Remember? (Macmillan Company, 1963)
Archive of American Television
--Interview with Richard Matheson conducted by Karen Herman (April, 2002).
Archive of American Television
--Interview with Richard Matheson conducted by Karen Herman (April, 2002).
The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc. Scott Zicree (Silman-James, 1992)
Turner Classic Movies Official Website
Turner Classic Movies Official Website
--Stanley Adams also appeared in the fifth season episode “Mr. Garrity and the Graves.”
--Jesse White also appeared in the third season episode “Cavender is Coming,” as well as the Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse episode "The Time Element," scripted by Rod Serling and often considered the true pilot episode of The Twilight Zone.
--Check out the Twilight Zone Radio Drama starring John Rhys-Davies.