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Buster Keaton followed a similar career path to that of his peer Charlie Chaplin. He learned to adapt his vaudeville-based comedy to the cinema while appearing in the films of others. Next, he ventured out on his own to take creative control of his image and his comic style in a series of one- and two-reelers. Producer Joseph M. Schenck, who was Keaton's brother-in-law, organized a new company to make movies with the talented comic. He purchased Chaplin's old studio and renamed it the Keaton Studio. After three years of producing shorts, Schenck felt Keaton was ready to direct himself in feature films. Schenck was not only smart enough to allow Keaton creative control over his star image and his films, but he was also savvy enough to retain the rights to those films. After their initial releases, Buster Keaton did not see a penny from his film work--which includes some major masterpieces of cinema history. While The Three Ages (1923) is not one of Keaton's masterworks, it represents a significant juncture in his career, because it marked his transition from shorts to feature-length comedies.
Shot in the late spring of 1923, The Three Ages was actually three two-reelers with a common narrative thread combined into a feature-length movie. The film was extensively previewed; if Keaton couldn't make it work as a feature, then he planned to release it as three shorts. After some additional editing, Schenck and Keaton released The Three Ages as a 63-minute feature in August of 1923.
The film takes place in three different historical eras--the Stone Age, Ancient Rome, and the Modern Age. The plot is the same in each: Buster Keaton stars as a young man who courts the girl of his dreams, but his pursuit is complicated by a rival, played by Wallace Beery. The stories are interwoven, and structured around four plot actions. The characters from each era are introduced and the rivalry between Keaton and Beery is set up; then, in each story, Keaton attempts to make the girl jealous. This is followed by a contest between the two male rivals; and then each story ends with Keaton winning the girl.
The film opens with Father Time reading a book titled Three Ages, which notes, "Love is the unchanging axis on which the world revolves." If this Victorian-style figure and the florid quote seem reminiscent of something from a D.W. Griffith film, the similarity is intentional. The Three Ages is a send-up of Griffith's Intolerance (1916), which was infamous at the time for it pretentions and its losses at the box office. Father Time is equivalent to the character Lillian Gish represents in Intolerance--the eternal mother figure who endlessly rocks the cradle. In Intolerance, a shot of Gish is used as a connective device to tie the four separate stories together thematically; in the considerably shorter The Three Ages, Father Time sets up the theme of love as "the unchanging axis."
Like most people in the industry, Keaton knew more about Griffith than just his misfortune with Intolerance, and his references to "the father of American filmmaking" go much farther. The Stone Age segment of The Three Ages is a take-off on a specific 1912 short by Griffith called Man's Genesis, a dramatic interpretation of the prehistoric era. In Man's Genesis, a caveman dubbed Bruteforce becomes jealous when another man shows interest in a cave girl called Lilywhite. In anger, Bruteforce creates a lethal weapon by embedding a rock inside a club. In The Three Ages, Stone Age Buster, who is dubbed The Faithful Worshipper of Beauty, does the same to defeat Wallace Beery, called The Villain, during a contest between the two men who challenge each other with clubs to vie for the hand of Beauty.
In addition to specific films, character names, and flowery intertitles such as "A troubled heart ever yearns to know the future," Keaton emulated Griffith by using cinematic conventions that had become norms because of the great director. Hollywood melodramas and action-heavy films tended to conclude with complex sequences of parallel editing in which the protagonist rescues the leading lady. These were known as "Griffith last-minute rescues" during the silent era because he had fine-tuned them to an art form. Keaton concludes each story in The Three Ages with a version of this familiar convention. Actually, the plots to most of Keaton's feature films--in which his character works hard to win the hand of the leading lady--are comic reworkings of the Griffith-styled melodrama.
Keaton's comic persona and style had been set by the time he co-directed The Three Ages with one of his favorite collaborators, Eddie Cline. His screen persona was dubbed the Great Stone Face, because of his ability to survive the most difficult and outrageous misfortunes without registering emotion. During the course of a film, his face reveals only the subtlest of expressions as he assesses his bad luck or twists of fate, then adapts to the situation with ingenuity and energy. His persona is revealed in his posture and body language, rather than by an expression on his face. And, while we identify with Keaton, because we have all experienced the pitfalls of life, his character never asks for pity or solicits sympathy. Instead his ingenuity invokes our admiration.
The central plotline in The Three Ages, which is repeated in each of the three stories, established the narrative structure for the bulk of Keaton's feature films. At the beginning of his movies, the Keaton character is generally perceived as weak, inept, or lacking some essential quality that defines a heroic protagonist. In The Three Ages, Keaton looks physically weak and therefore ineffectual in comparison to the antagonist, who is played by tall, barrel-chested Wallace Beery. Next, the imperative or goal for the Keaton character is established, and he never hesitates to take action, though he often miscalculates the impact of his actions. In the case of The Three Ages, he tries to make the girl jealous and then to win her hand in a contest with Beery. Finally, his character accomplishes the goal, which is usually to win over the girl's affections through ingenuity and action. In the Stone Age story, his character fights off his rival's cohorts by bombarding them with stones; in the Ancient Rome story, he rescues the girl from Beery through a series of stunts involving a horse and a spear; in the Modern Age, he embarks on a last-minute rescue to save the girl from marrying the villainous, untruthful Beery.
The Three Ages contains all of the ingredients essential to a Keaton film: the preference for long shots; the acrobatic stunts; and the interest in gadgets, machines, or the camera as a mechanical apparatus. The large scale of Keaton's gags, in which his characters are often at the mercy of nature (floods, wind, animals) or interacting with machines, vehicles, or buildings, necessitates the use of long shots. Keaton was a master at the trajectory gag, which consists of several large-scale stunts in a row propelled forward by a cause-and-effect logic that concludes with a big finish. The Ancient Rome and the Modern Age stories end in trajectory gags, which showcase Keaton's agility and athleticism. In the trajectory gag that concludes the Modern Age story, Keaton is being pursued by the police as he races to save the girl from marrying Beery. He runs up the fire escape of a multi-storied building to the roof. Standing on the ledge, he faces the roof of the adjacent building. Using the fire-escape ladder as a springboard, he leaps across to the other building to try to catch the ledge, but he misses. He falls down through the cloth awnings of several windows, before catching hold of one awning and grabbing the adjacent drainpipe. He clings to the drainpipe, which comes loose from the building and pivots on its lower end, projecting him into a window two stories down. The building happens to be a fire house, and Keaton barrels through the window, grabs the fire pole, and slides down to ground level. He leaps onto the back of a fire truck as it drives out of the garage to a fire. When he realizes the fire is at the police station where he began his escape, he quietly puts down his fire axe and strolls away. Legend has it that Keaton had not intended to miss the roof on the leap from one building to another, but once he did, he had to change the gag to match this accident. However, given Keaton's expert calculations, athletic prowess, and intensive planning, this is likely just another Hollywood myth.
Keaton's interest in the mechanics of filmmaking is revealed in the clever Willis O'Brien-style animation in the opening of the Stone Age story. The scene opens with Keaton pacing back and forth laterally, but when the camera cuts to a long shot, it reveals that he is on the back of a dinosaur. The dinosaur is a cartoon, so the shot is a clever composite of live action and animation.
A major weakness of The Three Ages is Keaton's leading lady, Margaret Leahy, who landed the role as the result of winning a beauty contest in England arranged by Joseph Schenck. While Keaton was preparing the film, Schenck, his wife Norma Talmadge, and Keaton's wife, Natalie Talmadge, journeyed to England to meet Leahy. They arranged for her and her mother to come to Hollywood, where she was supposed to appear as the second lead in Norma Talmadge's next movie. Leahy had no training as a performer, and Schenck soon realized she was incapable of handling any role in a drama, let alone the second lead. He begged his brother-in-law to cast Leahy instead, because the leading ladies in Keaton's films were seldom fully developed characters, and he could get away with using a nonprofessional. However, her inexperience and lack of charisma were liabilities for any genre, necessitating the editing of many of her shots from The Three Ages. Leahy never made another film.
Producer: Joseph Schenck for Buster Keaton/Joseph Schenck Productions
Directors: Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline
Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Jean Havez, and Joseph Mitchell
Cinematography: William McGann and Elgin Lessley
Cast: The Boy (Buster Keaton), The Villain (Wallace Beery), The Girl (Margaret Leahy), The Girl's Father (Joe Roberts), The Girl's Mother (Lillian Lawrence), The Emperor (Horace Morgan).
by Susan Doll