“Once Upon A Time” (season 3, episode 13; originally aired 12/15/1961)
In which time travel is once again not the answer…
Buster Keaton was in his mid-sixties when he starred in “Once Upon A Time,” and it shows. Go back and watch his best films, like Sherlock Jr. or The General, he seems like a statue granted impossible grace, a stone-faced human of elegant construction constantly at odds with his environment. Chaplin made his humanity his calling card, but there’s something almost alien about Buster Keaton at the height of his powers. He’s like Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation: a being of astonishing gifts who is nonetheless constantly thwarted by the demands of the day to day. He was his own best special effect, and his stunts are legendary even today. No computer trickery, no regular doubles, no visible safety nets. You could watch The General a hundred times and still hold your breath as Keaton clings to the front of his train, aiming to knock an obstruction off the tracks. Obviously he’ll succeed, somebody would’ve noticed if he didn’t, and you’ve seen him pull the trick off before; and besides, this all happened a hundred years ago, and everyone’s dead. And yet—maybe this time, he’ll miss. The best of Buster Keaton’s movies still breathe, because the risk in them will never grow stale.
But look at him in “Once Upon A Time,” and the first emotion you’ll probably feel is shock, with maybe a little horror thrown in for extra cruelty. Time makes fools of us all, sure, and it’s not like a wrinkled face and a sagging belly are anything to be ashamed about. It’s just the contrast is so goddamn stark. Keaton was never able to make much of a go during the sound age, so there are fewer visual documents of him going from young and perfect to old and busted. But even without the suddenness of the transition, Keaton (who plays an 1890s janitor named Woodrow Mulligan) still doesn’t look well. This is a man who once hung over waterfalls and rode in bicycle seats and let houses fall on him, and now he’s shuffling up the boardwalk like a granddad somebody forgot at the mall. The fact that Keaton died of lung cancer five years after this was filmed isn’t much of a twist ending.
Yet “Once Upon A Time” is meant as pure, goofy pleasure, and it’s a testament to Keaton’s strength as a performer (and his willingness to do just about anything for a laugh) that the contrast between the performer’s shattered visage and the episode’s whimsical tone never really comes into play. This could have been inadvertently Lynchian (or even Brechtian), the story of a faded superstar playing a shmuck on a TV show who gets a time machine, ha-ha, I bet the real Buster K wishes he could’ve had that fella’s luck, eh? But there’s nothing mean-spirited or cruel about any of this. Keaton may not be as spry as he once was, but he’s still a comic genius, constantly finding little pieces of slapstick to fill the scenes, and the ole Stoneface expression is still there, even if the surface has gone jowlly and soft.
Then there’s the big gimmick: the story begins in 1890, and for the first section, and for all the parts of the episode that take place in the past, everything’s filmed as if it were a silent movie. There’s the tinny soundtrack following Mulligan as he makes his way down mainstreet (with its wooden sidewalk and ads for 17 cent sirloin steak), and occasionally title cards for bits of dialogue and animal noises. Again, this could’ve seemed cruel: look at Keaton, back in his element, only he’s no longer young enough to enjoy it. It doesn’t, though. It also doesn’t seem particularly reverential, or even that much of an aggressive fourth-wall tweaking. Given that the episode hinges on how it distinguishes the past from the present (or the present from the future, depending on your perspective), it makes sense that the distinction between the two be a strong one, especially given how little room a twenty-minute episode has to establish such things. The decision to use “silent film” as a texturing device wasn’t an arbitrary one; nor was Keaton’s casting as someone who ultimately finds himself far more at home in that world a mere bit of good luck. But this meta-aspect never becomes distracting. It’s all so obviously there that if you make the connection, that’s fine, but if you don’t, it doesn’t matter.
The plot is a simple fable. Woodrow is the janitor for a famous scientist who has just invented a “time helmet,” a device that will send its wearer to a different time period for thirty minutes. Since Woodrow thinks 1890 is horribly noisy and over-priced, he steals the helmet and jumps ahead to 1960 New York, where he finds things a lot noisier and substantially pricier. The time helmet is first stolen, and then busted, but fortunately Woodrow makes friends with a rocket scientist (Rollo, played by Stanley Adams), who leads him to an electrician who can repair the device. Silliness ensues—to be honest, it’s been ensuing for most of the episode, but here’s where the plot pretty much stops completely—until finally the electrician gets the helmet up and running. Rollo, determined to go back to a simpler time when there was more fresh air and quiet and whatnot, steals it, and there’s another chase scene before he and Woodrow finally arrive back in 1890. Lesson learned, Woodrow finally appreciates everything he has, and when Rollo complains too much about life in the past, the janitor sends him back where he belongs.
That’s it, there’s maybe a minute’s worth of actual tension in the whole thing, and while the story isn’t that much thinner than Zone episodes usually get, it’s still just an excuse to let Keaton (and then Keaton and Adams, who makes a game, if less adept, partner) do his shtick. This could’ve been deadly in other hands, but while the jokes are uniformly broad, and often pretty hacky, Keaton holds everything together. He plays every bit with a straightforward, unflashy effectiveness, giving the gags an unbending, weary dignity. The few non-Keaton scenes aren’t bad; the exchange between Rollo and the electrician has a great Abbott & Costello absurdism to it. And it really can’t be said enough how clever the silent movie homage sequences are. They help set the tone for everything that follows: playful, odd, and slightly to the left of the usual routine.
But there’s no question who the episode belongs to. He was too old to do the sorts of stunts that made him famous, and he lost a certain spring in his step, but man, you get Buster Keaton in front of a camera, and you give him something, anything—wet trousers, a cellar door, a hat with sparklers glued to the sides—and he could make it sing. Yet even as funny as this is, it’s not as funny as the movies Keaton made in his heyday. There’s a lot of entirely practical reasons why this is so, but while there’s not a hint of sadness or gloom in “Once Upon A Time,” looking back on it now, it’s hard not to be a little sad. The moral is, you should stay in your place, which isn’t all that great as morals go, and it’s even worse when you realize what that meant for Keaton, and how his inability to transition from silent to talking motion pictures destroyed the latter half of his career. The more I think about it, as great as Keaton is in this, he looks undeniably tired; not in a soul-searing, last legs kind of a way, but just going through the routines without all the flair they once had. Because the truth of the matter is, as much as we’d like to find that one year, that one town, that one moment that fits us better than any other, things are always rushing forward, and there’s no special helmet to set the dial back.
What a twist: Woodrow Mulligan thinks the future will be better than the present, but it isn’t.
- There’s a TV joke in this that you can see coming a mile away. What struck me was how long it took for the television to come on after Mulligan inadvertently hit the power button on the remote. That’s another point of interest: it’s always fun to see what signifiers an older show uses to indicate “the present.”
“Five Characters In Search Of An Exit” (season 3, episode 14; originally aired 12/22/1961)
In which a major, a dancer, a clown, a hobo, and a bagpiper walk into a room…
It’s hard to imagine a show currently airing devoting an entire episode to a spin off of absurdist writers like Pirandello and Sartre. It’s not really the sort of topic TV regularly embraces, and when it does, the results are usually pretentious and dour; the artificiality of theater allows greater heights of experimentation, but television is more intimate, more based off the illusion that we’re glimpsing the lives of others than it is on questioning the inherent limitations of the form. Which isn’t to say the TV can’t create great art, or that shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad (and The Sopranos before them, and a dozen other shows) haven’t embraced existentialism and the study of man’s place in the universe. But as a rule, shows deal with these questions from the perspectives of the characters experiencing them—the philosophical concerns have to be extrapolated out from, say, Don Draper’s flings or Walter White’s dabbling in the meth business. The practical comes first, then the symbolic. And while there have been attempts at stranger or esoteric fare, those don’t tend to be popular, network programs airing in primetime.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying “Five Characters In Search Of An Exit” is a gloriously odd chunk of television, even by the standards of The Twilight Zone. It’s central twist—the five “characters” (Army Major, Ballet Dancer, Hobo, Clown, and Bagpiper) are all dolls in a charity bin, waiting to be taken to needy children—sounds like it belongs in an animated special, or maybe a blockbuster CGI franchise, but the episode doesn’t play like something made for children. For most of its running time, it’s all eerie and unsettling and stark, all bad dreams and mystery. There’s nothing here that’s substantially different from other episodes in the series, and yet the combined effect is unique, at once a tribute to the plays which inspired it and still unquestionably concerned with the Zone’s most frequently recurring themes. Namely, How The Hell Did I Get Here? and How The Hell Do I Get Out?
Again, I find myself marveling at the necessity of the twenty minute running time. One of the elements that makes this so memorable is how lightly the scenario is sketched in. The Major finds himself trapped in a kind of circular cell with an open ceiling. He doesn’t know who he is, and he doesn’t know how he got there, but soon enough, he discovers he’s not alone. There’s a Clown, who talks like one of Shakespeare’s fools, minus the Elizabethan English; a lovely Ballet Dancer; a soft-spoken Hobo; and a Bagpiper. (He gets even less to do than the Hobo.) None of them know exactly where they are, or how they happened to be trapped in such a place. More disturbing, they don’t know exactly who they are, either. They have the clothes of their respective professions, and the Clown can do pratfalls and the dancer can dance, but none of them seem to have names or a past they can remember. And maybe most disturbing of all is that apart from the Major, they’ve all given up. The Major is intent on escaping, to the point of desperation, but the others, while they aren’t happy with their lots, don’t have enough energy on their own to get things done. They need some guidance, and the Major—well, he’s not “happy” to oblige, exactly, but he’ll do it. He doesn’t seem to have any choice.
If this were longer, that lack of backstory, and the fact that most of the episode takes place in a single, mostly empty set, would start to wear more. There are only so many ways a small group of people can try and escape a deep pit, and once “digging out” and “climbing out” are exhausted, all that’s left is the method they eventually try. Maybe there could’ve been some forced conflict thrown in, like the Bagpiper and the Hobo fall in love with the Dancer, and try and duel for her hand. (This is just me blue-skying, as neither character comes across as antagonistic or particularly romantic.) As is, the sketchiness works to heighten that nightmare feeling of a situation that is at once utterly ridiculous and impossible to deny. These shouldn’t be fully rounded individuals. They should half-formed notions, just a few breaths past a cliche; enough to make us interested in the mystery around them, and care about their fate, but not so much that they solidify into anything specific. Out of all of them, only the Major, the Clown, and the Dancer seem like they might be people, but there’s still something off about them. The Dancer is lovely, and kind, but a little lost. The Clown casts doubts, but doesn’t have any answers. And the Major is so obsessed with freedom that getting out of the cage becomes the only point to anything, the only reason for doing anything. Which makes sense: they never get hungry, or thirsty, or tired. They simply exist, without knowing why.
I know I harp on the advantage of brevity a lot in these columns, but there’s something so marvellously fragile about “Five Characters” that I can’t help but marvel at it. On one level, there’s the sort of meat-and-potatoes structure you need to get things moving: one character, who, because he’s new to the bucket, doesn’t know the rules like the others, has an objective. He works harder and harder to achieve that objective. There are setbacks, until he finally hits on a solution. The solution (the five characters each stand one on top of the other’s shoulders) doesn’t work at first, but then it does, and we get our twist ending. That’s not all that happens, but that’s most of it, and if this was stretched any more—well, it wouldn’t break, exactly, but it wouldn’t be what it is. And there’s more than enough time for the incidents that make a simple mechanism like a story more effective than its moving parts. There’s the suggestion of horror in the face of the unknown, and the sinking sensation of being trapped without any obvious recourse; some personalities need to act, while others need a leader, and others just want to sit on the sidelines and snark. There’s a wonderful, creepy moment when the Dancer decides to dance for the Major, and the Bagpiper plays while she taps along—she’s graceful enough, but the contrast between the harsh, grinding music and her movements make her look jerky, forced, almost… toy-ish.
I’m over-selling to an extent. This isn’t a revolution. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything on TV quite like it before. Twilight Zone directors often make great use of shadow, and since the lighting is basically the only trick here, Lamont Johnson makes the most of it; I love how people and things (like the stack of swords, left over from previous toys maybe?) keep disappearing in a space where it should be impossible for anything to come up on you unawares, and yet it never seems unrealistic. Or, at least, the appearances don’t violate the the integrity of what we see on the screen. The actors are all excellent (I liked Murray Matheson’s Clown a lot; very Fellini-esque), and everything fits together as it should. While Pirandello and Sartre dug into deeper, and harsher truths, it’s still a relief when Serling re-appears, reassuring us that there is a light at the end of the tunnel; someday, the Major and the rest will find new homes. And yet, it’s hard to forget what that bucket was like, and the stark terror of its inhabitants, struggling to make sense of their plight, forever incapable of doing so. I’m sure we’ve all felt like toys at some point in our lives, floundering in the snow, waiting to be loved.
What a twist: The Major and the other four aren’t people, but toys donated to charity.
- The Major, I get. Ballet Dancer, Clown, sure. But who wants to play with a Hobo and a Bagpiper? I guess that’s why they’re in the bucket.
- Anybody read the short story this is based on, “The Depository” by Marvin Petal? I’m curious.
- “We’re nameless things with no memory.” -The Ballet Dancer
- There’s a bit where the Dancer lists all the possible explanations for what’s happened to them. I like how most of them sound like the endings to Twilight Zone episodes, and none of them come close.
- Merry Christmas!
Next week: Todd finds how just how strained “A Quality Of Mercy” can be, and then spends some time with Robert Redford and Death in “Nothing In The Dark.”