Cast & Crew
"The hero faces the problem of the lover with a formidable rival in three ages. In the stone age he and his rival throw giant pebbles at each other and eventually he drags off the girl by the hair. In the Roman age a chariot race settles the competition and in the modern age he has to combat with the most popular asset of the suitor of today--wealth. Just as the girl is about to wed the moneyed suitor, the hero makes a bold play for her, however, and wins." (from Moving Picture World, 8 Sep 1923.)
The Three Ages (1923) - The Three Ages
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
The Three Ages (1923) - The Three Ages
Sherlock Jr./Three Ages - SHERLOCK JR. & THREE AGES - Buster Keaton on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber
Kino International continues its Buster Keaton series of Blu-ray discs with a double bill of his early features Sherlock Jr. & Three Ages, including a number of eye-opening extras. Both films are a delight to watch, and frequently fall-down funny. Sherlock Jr. displays camera tricks that prove Keaton to be a master of his medium.
A plot description makes Sherlock Jr. seem like a fairly ordinary comedy. Buster is a movie projectionist frustrated in love because the object of his affections (Kathryn McGuire) is attracted to a dishonest rival (Ward Crane). Buster is also an aspiring detective, and when the girl's father's pocket watch disappears he tries to take charge of the situation. But the rival contrives to make Buster look like the culprit. While projecting a show about two lovers and a similar domestic crime, Buster experiences a bizarre daydream of "entering" the world of the movie. He dreams that he walks right up to the front of the theater and steps into the screen. The last act of the film introduces one pell-mell action thrill after another, a cascade of beautifully engineered chase stunts. Buster rides a motorcycle while sitting on the handlebars, barely missing trains and trucks. He plummets from a tall building and uses a delightful bit of stage magic to make an instantaneous costume change. The crime is solved and the girl rescued, all within Buster's cinematic daydream.
Keaton had used dream sequences in several of his comedy shorts, and a big section of Sherlock Jr. takes place in a sustained fantasy of wish fulfillment. The characters and events in Buster's movie dream closely parallel his real-life romantic quandary, to the extent that the movie's heroine becomes Buster's girlfriend, etc.. Just by falling asleep, Buster replays his problems in an alternate cinematic universe.
Film critics have marveled at this central dream sequence for the better part of a century. Fighting his way back "into the screen", Buster becomes caught within the filmic convention of The Cut. While the audience and orchestra continue watching, Buster stays on screen as the film cuts between different locations. Finding himself in a garden, Buster sits on a bench, but the scene changes to a busy street and he falls backwards into traffic. The street changes into a rocky cliff, and he almost loses his balance. A few seconds later Buster tries to dive into the ocean, but the scene changes to a snowy landscape. He ends up stuck in the snow, with his legs flailing about.
One must appreciate the state of film effects in 1924 to understand the technical accomplishment involved. Some of the "movie screen" scenes in the dream are clever double exposures, but others are built right into the theater set, where the screen should be. Keaton's absurd transitions had to be measured with great precision to place him in the exact correct position across cuts. Buster leans against a tree just as the scene cuts to a garden; his position between the two shots is a perfect match.
Once the cutting games are over, the dream world becomes an exaggeration of Buster's waking dilemma. Buster enters the movie story as "Sherlock Jr.", a master detective summoned to find a purloined necklace. The thieves try to kill him with a trick chair and an explosive billiard ball, to no avail. Buster's cinematic alter ego Sherlock Jr. exhibits the self-confidence that the "real" Buster lacks. This of course cues the thrilling physical stunts when Sherlock chases the villains.
A couple of wild stunts were accomplished by double exposures and running the camera backwards, but others would appear to be extremely dangerous. Keaton learned to drive a motorbike while sitting on the handlebars. He had no way of applying the brakes as he rides through traffic. Buster attempts a leap between two buildings and doesn't make it, a stunt that looks guaranteed to break one's neck. Another seemingly less hazardous gag requires Buster to be knocked to some railroad tracks by water from a spout. Years later, a doctor informed Keaton of a hairline fracture in his neck that had never been noticed before. From the doctor's description, Keaton realized that the injury had to have happened on Sherlock Jr., when he fell a few feet to the rails.
1923's Three Ages is conceptually less advanced, but often just as funny. Basically a cinematic in-joke on D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, the film compares and contrasts three identical stories set in the Stone Age, Roman times and the "modern, fast and greedy" present. Buster pursues the girl (Margaret Leahy) in all three ages of the title: as a caveman, a Roman citizen and a young man about town. Three iterations of her parents prefer the more aggressive villain (Wallace Beery). Not yet the flabby blowhard of his MGM talkies, Beery plays a generic Bluto type. The rivals compete, respectively, in trial by combat, a chariot race and a football game. Buster to the 3rd power eventually wins, by a combination of pragmatism and blind luck.
The Intolerance spoof makes no critical claim on Griffith, as Keaton instead derives his humor by adapting gags to the three time periods. Buster's attempts to make his girlfriend jealous by romancing another girl backfire in slightly different ways. The cave girl he chooses turns out to be much bigger than he, and throws him off a cliff. The Roman nymph is a champion wrestler. The 1923 Buster tries to get close to another man's date in a restaurant, only to lose his head after drinking some forbidden bootleg gin. The chariot race provides some big laughs when Buster arrives in a rig pulled by dogs instead of horses. When one dog injures a paw, Buster swaps it for a "spare" dog kept in a box on the back of the chariot! The rivalry gag is almost the same as in Sherlock Jr.-- the villain turns out to be a nasty bigamist. Buster's race to the church is the expected marvel of compressed stunts and gags, but he arrives in time to save the day.
Three Ages makes use of a number of sophisticated camera techniques, including an elaborate foreground miniature for the Roman stadium scenes, and Willis O'Brien-style stop-motion animation for a few shots of caveman Buster riding in the back of a Brontosaurus. The action stunts are breathtaking. Escaping from a police station, Buster climbs a building and swings downward on a loose drainpipe. It catapults him into the window of a fire station, where he slides down the fire pole and leaps onto a departing fire truck --- which takes him right back to the police station!
Keaton ends the modern story with a wry joke. Epilogues to both of the earlier "ages" show Buster with a full brood of offspring, appropriately clad in bearskins and Roman togas. But the modern couple quietly emerges from their house accompanied only by a little dog on a leash. Buster would top this "what happens after the big kiss" gag in his later College with a more cynical black-comedy montage. The happy lovers grow old and gray before finally transforming into a pair of tombstones. Fade out.
Kino International's Blu-ray of Sherlock Jr. & Three Ages is a fine HD transfer of these early vintage comedy silents. Sherlock Jr. is for the most part in fine shape. Speckling is apparent on inter-title cards and some scratches crop up here and there. We also notice that a missing shot or two are represented by inferior sources. One of these is a terrific billiard table trick that Keaton later edited out of the "dream" sequence. The older Three Ages has survived intact but in less perfect condition. Many scenes are marred by flickering patterns of very light image deterioration. The way some material is untouched and other parts are affected, it's possible that tinted sections of the archival copy may have decomposed at a different rate.
Sherlock Jr. carries three separate music choices: the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, the Club Foot Orchestra and a jazz score compiled by Jay Ward. Three Ages has a Robert Israel score, an organ score by Lee Erwin and a piano score.
David Kalat's commentary and a short documentary by David B. Pearson offer a wealth of information and opinion about Sherlock Jr.. Experts still debate the assertion that Keaton's frequent partner Roscoe Arbuckle may have directed parts of the film. Kalat deconstructs the film's sophisticated dream structure, noting the absurdity of Keaton restricting "impossible" action to the movie-within-a movie -- on grounds of credibility.
Three Ages includes Man's Genesis, a 1912 D.W. Griffith short with a similar caveman setting. Buster Keaton may have hedged his bet by designing the show so that it could be broken down into three two-reel comedy shorts, should audiences not accept him as a feature film star. To see how this would work, another extra re-edits Three Ages' stories into separate short subjects.
Both films carry fascinating photo-comparison featurettes by John Bengtson, author of Silent Shadows. Bengtson specializes in determining the exact locations where silent films were shot, and shows us plenty of examples. The Stone Age hills in Three Ages were filmed out in Chatsworth, and Keaton used some of the structures of the then-new L.A. Coliseum for the Roman segment. Locations for Sherlock Jr. range all over Hollywood and Orange County. Los Angeles residents will be impressed to see which local streets served as "famous" filmic locations.
Kino's producer and writer Bret Wood is again responsible for the disc's handsome packaging design.
Reference: Buster Keaton by David Robinson, Indiana University Press 1969.
For more information about Sherlock Jr./Three Ages, visit Kino Lorber. To order Sherlock Jr./Three Ages, go to TCM Shopping.
by Glenn Erickson
Sherlock Jr./Three Ages - SHERLOCK JR. & THREE AGES - Buster Keaton on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber
Buster Keaton's first feature film. He chose to construct the film as a series of separate episodes so the film could be cut into individual shorts to be rereleased on their own if the feature was a failure.