If I might risk being accused of echoing the same good-ole-days-isms that Rod Serling kept coming back to in season one of The Twilight Zone, the audiences of 1961 had one big advantage over the audiences of 2018. Just about everybody who sat down to watch Richard Matheson’s “Once Upon a Time” knew who Buster Keaton was. And it’s not as though he’s unknown today, but I think that even when I was six years old in 1977-78, I knew who Keaton was, if by stunts and not necessarily by name, and what silent films were. But since time has marched on, and since there’s simply so much more film and television being made today than in the 1970s, audiences have to make more of an effort to go back and see something old. When there were only eight channels, you’d run into older stuff without trying.
My son needed a crash course, so before we watched this morning’s episode, we spent nine minutes watching a 2015 episode of Every Frame a Painting on YouTube. He enjoyed a few good chuckles and got a quick handle on the title cards and player piano language of silent movies. I had never seen this particular episode of Zone, so I wasn’t sure what specifically to emphasize. I was right to point out the physicality of Keaton’s work. He was 65 years old when this episode was made, and still pulled pratfalls and stumbles that looked like they really could have hurt, and he ran down the streets of the backlot chasing one fellow or another with the energy of a man in his twenties.
The episode is a charming delight, and our son really got into it. He loved the slapstick and the physical humor, and got amusingly outraged when some juvenile delinquent on roller skates pilfers Keaton’s Time Helmet. His character, who’s sent on a half-hour trip seventy years into his future, even gets to do some Catweazle-like gags about the baffling technology of the modern day, and our son had definitely seen those sort of yuks before.
One final note just to praise the co-star: casting Stanley Adams was a stroke of genius, because when the episode goes from silent movie to noisy modern day, who better to cast than an actor with as deep and booming a voice as Adams? It makes the juxtaposition even funnier. And one thing I didn’t specifically point out to my son when we watched the YouTube episode was that in Keaton’s old movies, the characters within the frame could only see what the audience could see. There’s a terrific set of gags that require Keaton to hide behind Adams’ larger body, making him completely invisible to a policeman who in reality would certainly have seen him. But it works so well because everybody making this comedy is telling a classic, well-worn joke to an appreciative audience. Since our son likes silly things much more than serious things, except when there are explosions, he certainly appreciated this one.