Three Ages Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Three Ages

This DVD is part of Kino’s The Art of Buster Keaton, a series of ten DVDs (available separately or as a box set with a bonus DVD) covering the complete output of Buster Keaton from 1920 to 1928, by far his most fertile and creative period. Each DVD contains between two and four films, so the rating for picture quality applies only to the main feature. All Keaton’s silent films were originally shot in 4:3, so you wouldn’t expect an anamorphic image, and the DVDs have been transferred at the correct frame rate. The rating for sound refers to the quality and appropriateness of the musical score – in all cases, the recording itself is in perfectly serviceable digital stereo. There are no extras apart from the supporting shorts.

Three Ages

Three Ages (1923) was Buster Keaton’s first feature proper, after being a hired hand as the star of the atypical The Saphead (1920) – though even Keaton admitted that it was really three shorts joined together rather than a feature proper (this was a security measure: if it flopped as a feature, it could be cut into three shorts and reissued).

A parody of D.W.Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), Three Ages depicts three boy-meets-girl-who-already-has-boyfriend stories set in different eras: cross-cutting between the Stone Age, Ancient Rome and the present day (or rather 1920s America). In all three, Buster is the hero, Margaret Leahy is the girl, and the hulking Wallace Beery is his brutish love rival.

The humour in the film generally revolves around the concept of applying similar plot ideas to three very different eras, and making anachronistic jokes out of them. For instance, Buster’s preferred mode of transport is, respectively, an adorably rickety stop-motion dinosaur, a horse-drawn chariot and a 1920s motor-car (which falls apart when it hits a pothole; his rival’s is altogether more hi-tech), while his beloved’s parents have attitudes appropriate to the period (is he tough/civilised/rich enough?)

Sporting an Emo Philips pudding-bowl haircut, the slightly-built Stone Age Keaton can’t possibly compete with his rival’s habit of dragging women into caves by their hair, and he’s certainly not up to winning a straight fight with someone who makes Brian Blessed look wimpish (not to mention clean-shaven). Caught out cheating in a duel for clubs after he embeds a rock in the head of his weapon, Keaton wins fair and square in the end after an epic battle of flying rocks, many of them hurled by means of a tree being used as a catapult. Oh yes, and he also invents the game of baseball in the process (in a shot that apparently needed a triple-figure number of takes to get right, though it was certainly worth the wait!).

The Rome sequences show Keaton’s visual and mechanical ingenuity at its best – challenged to a chariot race in the dead of winter, he wins by replacing wheels with skis and the horses with dogs (keeping a “spare tyre” dog under the seat when one injures its paw), holding a cat tied to a pole as an intriguing variation on the old carrot and stick to keep things moving, while later on he rescues his beloved with the aid of a spear that’s used as a pole-vault and a fireman’s pole respectively. There’s also a handy tip in case you’re thrown in the lion’s den and the lion hasn’t got a thorn in his foot – give him a manicure (of course, it helps that the lion is all too obviously a man in a rather mangy costume: a real one might not have been so supportive).

Perhaps predictably, the 1920s sequences lack the same degree of visual invention, though there’s one glorious sequence where Keaton attempts to leap from the top of a tall building to its neighbour, misses the edge (apparently that bit wasn’t originally planned!), plunges through three awnings that help break his fall, hits a ladder, bounces through the window, down a fireman’s pole and onto a fire engine that just happened to be leaving – anyone who wants to see why Jackie Chan reveres Keaton only has to watch this one scene! But ultimately, his rival is defeated by his own dark secret rather than any especial cleverness on the Keaton character’s part, and this sequence lacks the dramatic and mechanical invention of the other episodes.

The DVD is a rather soft transfer of a decidedly pale and grey print that varies from acceptable to alarmingly poor (there are quite a few chemical splotches, mostly affecting the intertitles and Roman scenes, and three or four brief sequences show quite pronounced decay of the original image). The music is standard silent film fare, mostly piano-based, with occasional violin and flute, though it’s pleasant enough. There are just seven chapter stops, a bit skimpy even considering the relatively brief 63-minute running time.

The Goat

The inexplicably-titled 23-minute short The Goat (1921) is a fun but relatively minor short, notable for some terrific sight gags (Buster standing in line at a soup kitchen behind two tailor’s dummies; the wanted criminal Dead Shot Dan posing for a mugshot and shifting the camera so that passerby Buster is photographed instead of him; Buster attempting to evade his pursuers by pretending to be a statue – but the horse he’s mounted is just a preliminary clay model whose legs buckle under the weight), but hampered by a rather slapdash, unconvincing story (with a somewhat perfunctory romance: the girl is seemingly only introduced so that Buster can fall in love with her in record time, be invited back home and then be horrified by the fact that her father turns out to be his old enemy) that lacks the purity and consistency of his best work.

The print is often scratched and occasionally damaged more severely, but this is an altogether sharper transfer than Three Ages, with greater dynamic range. The music is for small-scale ensemble, and sounds specially composed for the occasion. There are four chapter stops.

My Wife’s Relations

More coherent, but still fairly low-key, is the 25-minute My Wife’s Relations (1922), in which, due to a linguistic misunderstanding in a Polish registry office, Buster ends up inadvertently married to an overweight Irishwoman twice his age and has to go and live with her hellish extended family – who treat him appallingly until they find a letter in his pocket that states he’s due to inherit a fortune. But was the letter really addressed to him?

From a historical point of view, this is most interesting for the vat of home-brewed alcohol that the family keeps in the kitchen (which causes chaos when Buster inadvertently adds far too much yeast, flooding the house with a veritable tidal wave of foam) – a sobering reminder that America was still in the early stages of Prohibition (something that the 1920s sequence in Three Ages also alludes to).

Apart from a couple of shots in the middle that show severe damage, the print is in the best condition of any of the ones on this DVD, and the transfer is similarly sharp and detailed. It’s accompanied by a ragtime piano score that does an effective enough job – but it suffers from the addition of some crude slapsticky sound effects whose synchronisation leaves a fair bit to be desired. There are four chapter stops.

As with The Saphead, this DVD is more for curiosity seekers and Keaton completists, though it’s nice to see them being catered for. But – again – I’d recommend one of the more established masterpieces like Sherlock Jr, The Navigator or The General to those who have yet to fully explore his work.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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