Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Films of Buster Keaton: Three Ages (1923)

Three Ages (1923)
Directed by: Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline.
Written by: Clyde Bruckman & Joseph A. Mitchell & Jean C. Havez & Buster Keaton.
Starring: Buster Keaton (The Boy), Margaret Leahy (The Girl), Wallace Beery (The Villain), Joe Roberts (The Girl's Father), Lillian Lawrence (The Girl's Mother).

Buster Keaton hedged his bets a little bit when he went from making shorts to features. His first feature was Three Ages – but he designed it so it could be cut up into three shorts very easily. While Three Ages is ultimately one of Keaton’s weaker features – it’s still very funny – and benefits from the fact that it is a feature, and not three standalone shorts. It’s a movie that generates more laughs because of the contrast between the different segments than any of the individual jokes. As three shorts, they may well have ranked among his weakest – as a feature, it works amazingly well.

The film takes place in three different time periods – the Stone Age, the Roman Age and the Modern Day (1920s America). In each, Keaton plays a hapless young man in love with a woman (Margaret Leahy – who was apparently a contest winner of some sort, and it shows – he’s not very good) – but first has to overcome the Girl’s other suitor – Wallace Beery – and the girl’s parents. The first trio of segments may well be the best – as Keaton shows the different ways parents had for picking a “suitable mate” for their daughters – going from hitting each with a club to see who was the strongest to comparing military rank and finally by looking at their bank balance (for some reason, Keaton’s bank book from “Last National Bank” compared to Beery’s from First National Bank had me laughing more than practically anything else in the movie).

Keaton continues this pattern throughout the film – although the Blu Ray of the movie has a feature where you can play Three Ages as three shorts, I wouldn’t advise it. The humor comes from the same scenes repeating themselves in the three different times periods. I often found myself smiling at the Stone Age segments, chuckling at the Roman Age, and laughing out loud at the Modern Age – and not because the Modern Age is better. I wouldn’t be laughing that much had the joke not been as firmly established in the first two segments.

Three Ages does not come close to matching the best of Keaton’s output. The structure does mean it is a little scattershot, and some jokes fall flat. Yet there is more than enough here to sustain its fleet 63 minute runtime – including some great special effects (Keaton riding on a dinosaur) and a wonderful shot of Keaton falling off a cliff in the Stone Age segment (that looked so much like Gwen Stacy’s fall in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 I nearly laughed out loud during that film’s big dramatic moment). Keaton is, as always, wonderful – even if in two of the segments he’s robbed of his porkpie hat – and while Leahy is generally bad in her role, Beery and frequent Keaton co-star Joe Roberts make up for it in the supporting cast.

Three Ages wouldn’t be the film I would start with when looking at Keaton’s work. It isn’t one of his essential masterpieces. But it’s an enjoyable, fleet first feature from a man who would, with his very next film, make one of the great screen comedies of all time. Three Ages is him just getting warmed up.

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