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Recap / The Twilight Zone 1959 S 3 E 13 Once Upon A Time
aka: The Twilight Zone S 3 E 78 Once Upon A Time

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Rod Serling: Mr. Mulligan, a rather dour critic 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.

Woodrow Mulligan (Buster Keaton) is a grumpy pessimist from the year 1890 who often complains about his life. Prices are too high, the streets are too noisy, and penny-farthing bicycles rocket past him at the unsafe speed of 8 mph. It just so happens that Woodrow works as the janitor for a pair of scientists, who just have invented a helmet that can send a person anywhere in time for 30 minutes. Wanting to find someplace where he can escape the hustle and bustle of his life, Woodrow waits until the scientists step out for celebratory drinks and puts on the helmet. Though he freaks out as the helmet activates, Woodrow soon finds himself transported to the year 1961, where his rural town of Harmony, New York has become a bustling cityscape. Soon after this, the time-helmet is swiped by a rollerskating boy and soon dropped, causing it to break. During his chase of the boy, Woodrow runs into a modern day scientist named Rollo, who soon believes his claims that he's from the previous century by questioning him about US history and discovering a newspaper from 1890 in his pocket. Wanting to experience a life freed from the hustle and bustle of the 20th century, Rollo agrees to have the time-helmet fixed so Woodrow can go back to where he belongs, provided that the scienist joins him for the ride.

Once Upon a Trope:

  • Actor Allusion: Half of the episode is shot in the style of a Silent Movie as a tribute to silent film legend Buster Keaton, who plays Woodrow. Specifically, the chase sequence after Woodrow arrives in 1961 recreates a scene from Keaton's 1920 short film The Garage, co-starring Fatty Arbuckle, whom Rollo resembles in appearance. In both the film and the episode, Keaton's character loses his pants and is about to be arrested for public indecency. However, his heavyset partner prevents him from being taken when he walks behind him to hide him from the policeman, then helps him to get a new pair, which Keaton puts on after being lifted up while they are walking. Also, Woodrow, Gilbert, and Rollo are names of characters played by Keaton in his silent films.
  • Art Shift: While in 1890, the episode's format changes to a Silent Movie, complete with cutaways to intertitles and an overlaid piano track (played by veteran Hollywood pianist Ray Turner).
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Rollo is the only person who believes that Woodrow is genuinely from the past and tries to help get the time-helmet working again. When it's fixed, he promptly swipes in with the intent of going back to 1890 himself to live in simpler times, while leaving Woodrow stranded in the future, citing that he's far more important as a scientist than a janitor like Woodrow.
  • Born in the Wrong Century: Subverted for Rollo, a scientist from 1961. He intended to go back to 1890 with Woodrow so he could get a job with Professor Gilbert, as well as settle down in simpler times. When he actually gets there, Rollo realizes that they also didn't have the simple pleasures of his time, such as spring mattresses, TV dinners, and bikinis. Having grown annoyed with Rollo, Woodrow puts the time-helmet on his head and sends him back to 1961.
  • Butt-Monkey: Woodrow, who suffers everything from pratfalls, to being chased by the police, to not wearing any pants for most of the episode.
  • Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality: While in Jack's Fix-It Shop, the temporally displaced Woodrow sees a man on a television set, which he mistakes for a window. Believing that the man is talking to him when he warns a woman whom Woodrow just happens to miss that someone can't be trusted, he becomes concerned that repairman Jack is up to something. When Woodrow tells Rollo, the scientist sets him straight, though Woodrow still doesn't understand what television is.
  • Chekhov's Gag / Foreshadowing: Right before Woodrow is sent to the future, a chicken leaps into his arms and is taken to 1961 with him. While this is mostly seen as a humorous throwaway gag, it also foreshadows that anyone holding onto the person wearing the time-helmet can travel with them. Woodrow even brings up the chicken when Rollo tries to ditch him, only to assume that he's lying.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The newspaper Woodrow opens the episode by reading. Rollo discovers it in his coat pocket and takes it as proof that Woodrow is from 1890.
  • Denser and Wackier: Since it's shot largely in the style of a silent film and showered with physical comedy, the episode is a lot more comedic and nostalgic than others in the series.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Rollo expects to find work with Woodrow's employer Professor Gilbert after travelling back to his time, only to learn that the technology is so much simpler that he doesn't have the means to resume his usual work, and is left confused on what to do.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: As soon as Jack tells Rollo and Woodrow that he'll have the time-helmet fixed by Thursday, they understand and start to head out the door, only to turn right back around and shout "Thursday?!" in disbelief.
  • Expy: Rollo, the heavy-set scientist from 1961 who wishes to help Woodrow get back home, looks like Fatty Arbuckle, another famous comedian from the early days of cinema. It's seemingly intentional, given that protagonist Woodrow is played by Buster Keaton, whom Arbuckle worked extensively with.
  • Gag Censor: When Officer Flannagan tells him to watch his step, Woodrow mutters to him in irritation, to which the resultant intertitle reads "Censored!" Immediately afterwards, Woodrow is knocked into a pig trough by a man on a penny farthing and shouts something after him. This time, the intertitle reads "Also Censored."
  • Happiness in Minimum Wage: One of Woodrow's biggest peeves is that he's a janitor working for a pair of noted scientists. When he returns to his own time after his trip to 1961, he enjoys the job a lot more.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Woodrow comes to appreciate his life in 1890 a lot more after his trip to the future.
  • Large Ham: Rollo absolutely devours the scenery, given the comedy stylings of the episode.
  • "Mister Sandman" Sequence: In the opening scene, Woodrow is walking through Harmony's town square in 1890, complaining about the high prices of sirloin steak (17 cents per lbnote ) and ladies' hats ($1.95note ). He gets fed up with the combined noise by a man playing the trumpet and the local blacksmith hammering on his anvil, and is knocked into a pig trough by a man on a penny-farthing bicycle, exceeding the speed limit of eight miles per hour.
    • When he is sent to 1961, this experience is repeated to reflect the then-modern changes of the 20th century. Prices have gone up exponentially, the trumpet player is replaced by a record store blaring jazz music, the blacksmith is replaced with construction vehicles, and Woodrow is nearly flattened by cars going the speed limit of 30 miles per hour.
  • Pants-Free: Woodrow spends his time in 1961 not wearing any pants, as he hung them up to dry after he fell in the pig trough. This results in cops chasing him throughout the episode, looking to arrest him for public indecency.
    • At one point, Woodrow wanders into a mens' tailor shop and decides to take a new pair of pants from the place. He's stopped when the clerk demands he pay up, and he is forced to return to the pants because he doesn't have the money to buy them with.
    • As Rollo uses his large body to hide him from the cops, Woodrow is finally able to sneak a pair from the shop and put them on. When the clerk again demands the money, Woodrow is now able to pay for them by finding loose bills in a pocket.
  • Race Against the Clock: Professor Gilbert tells his assistant (as well as an eavesdropping Woodrow) that the time-helmet can only send a person back in time for 30 minutes. When Woodrow accidentally breaks the helmet, he and Rollo try to get it fixed in the 15 minutes remaining before the deadline, lest Woodrow be stuck in the future forever.
  • Retraux: The beginning and end of the episode, a good half of the running time, are made in the style of a silent movie.
  • Rule of Three: Woodrow is chased by police three seperate times throughout the episode, though one of them chases after Rollo during the climactic chase.
  • Running Gag: As Rollo attempts to help Jack repair the time-helmet, the repairman repeatedly tells Rollo not to touch his tools.
  • Sex Sells: Lampshaded. In 1890, Woodrow spots a poster for horse whips featuring a drawing of a pretty young woman in her undergarments (which look conservative by modern standards). When Woodrow gets to 1961, he sees a poster featuring a drawing of a woman in decidedly more risqué undergarments, selling spark plugs for cars.
  • Silence Is Golden: There is no spoken dialogue in the 1890 scenes, as they emulate a Silent Movie.
  • Symbol Swearing: When Officer Flannagan chastises Woodrow for walking in the street and nearly being hit by a horse and buggy, the first word in the intertitle is represented by a star, an exclamation mark, an asterisk, and a lightning bolt.
  • Theme Tune Cameo: During Serling's closing narration, the overlaid silent-film piano track that has played throughout the 1890 sequences plays the Twilight Zone theme in its own style, before it plays a big finish.
  • Time Travel Episode: On March 10, 1890, grumpy janitor Woodrow Mulligan travels forward in time to 1961 using a time helmet invented by his employers, Professor Gilbert and his assistant.
  • Took a Level in Kindness: After his trip to the future, Woodrow becomes ecstatic to return to 1890, as all the things that previously annoyed him now look better than ever before, even his janitorial job.

Rod Serling: "To each his own" — so goes another old phrase to which Mr. Woodrow Mulligan would heartily subscribe, for he has learned, definitely the hard way, that there's 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.

Alternative Title(s): The Twilight Zone S 3 E 78 Once Upon A Time