Silent Reflections – Three Ages (1923)
by HELEN GEIB
The still accompanying this post is of Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, and Wallace Beery in the Stone Age segment of Three Ages. The Stone Age precedes the Roman Age which precedes the Modern Age in Keaton’s comic survey of love through the ages.
Three Ages was Keaton’s second feature film and the first made for his own production company. The production company was started three years before in 1920, the same year he made his first foray into features with a work-for-hire acting job for Metro in The Saphead. The intervening period saw the release of a successful series of Keaton comedy shorts. In Three Ages, as for a number of his films, Keaton is credited as co-director with Eddie Cline.
Three Ages must have looked like a box office gamble because Keaton hedged the company’s financial bets by building the film out of three segments that could easily have been pulled apart and released separately in the commercially proven comedy short format. The segments are an equal 20 minutes (two-reeler length) and each tells a self-contained story. Or more precisely, each tells the same courtship story with the same five actors in the principal roles: Keaton as the boy, Leahy as the girl, Beery as the rival, and Joe Roberts and Lillian Lawrence as the girl’s watchful parents.
Although the plot is the same, events play out in Age-specific ways. When Dad (or in the Modern Age, Mom) weighs the relative merits of the rival suitors, the rival always wins. But in the Stone Age he stood up better to being clubbed on the head; in the Roman Age he ranked higher in the army (to the rival: “Thou rankest high” / to the boy: “And thou art the rankest”); and in the Modern Age he prevailed on the strength of his bank account.
Taken as comedy shorts, the segments are pretty good. There are funny sight gags, like the Stone Age boy riding on a dinosaur’s back, and plenty of pratfalls and other physical comedy. The Roman Age segment is an amusing parody of earnest Classical world dramas. There are some good extended sequences sprinkled throughout like the Roman Age absurdist chariot race and the Prohibition-era Modern Age comedy of errors flowing from the boy’s mistakenly quaffing someone else’s spiked drink. Keaton is always fun to watch and the jokes come at the brisk pace of two-reelers.
The real fun though is in the overarching narrative structure. Rather than unfolding back to back, the segments are intercut. The parallel editing and faux highbrow theme– realized in a deliberately hackneyed plot– loosely parody D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance. More fundamentally, the compare and contrast approach makes each Age’s jokes funnier.
The clubbing to army rank to bank account sequence is a good example. Each scene is funny on its own, but by the time the sequence hits the Modern Age we’re laughing as much at “love through the Ages” as we are at the joke at hand. Even jokes that aren’t particularly funny standing alone get laughs for the Age to Age comparison. We’re fortunate Three Ages was successful as a feature film release, and not only because it encouraged Keaton’s transition to feature filmmaking. This is a case where the whole is decidedly greater than the sum of its parts.
Three Ages is available on DVD from Kino International with music arranged and directed by Robert Israel. The disc includes Keaton’s short comedies The Goat and My Wife’s Relations. Alternatively, the “Ultimate Edition” DVD/Blu-ray release from Kino packages Three Ages with the more famous Sherlock Jr.. The Ultimate version has two bonus music scores, an organ track and a piano track. Extras are an excerpt from a 1912 D.W. Griffith prehistoric romance that was one of Keaton’s parodic targets and a visual essay on the film’s locations. You can also watch- wait for it- Three Ages re-cut as three standalone short comedies.