Saturday, February 7, 2009

2. Three Ages (1923)

Directors: Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline

Cast: Buster Keaton, Wallace Beery & Margaret Leahy

Caveman Quotient: 33.3r %


Three Ages was Keaton's first feature film as director, and only second feature film overall, and it shows. Not in the technical elements of the film (it's spectacularly made and nicely acted ) and not in the quality of the jokes (which are funny and usually quite clever, albeit more cartoonish than those of his later features), but in the structure. Keaton wasn't yet a proven property in features, and so as a sort of insurance against failure he agreed to produce a full-length film that could be divided into three short subjects and recoup costs in the event of it failing at the box office. The inherent flaw of such a strategy is that the film risks becoming woefully episodic if the viewer is forced to sit through three beginning-middle-end narratives one after another. However, the solution that Keaton found to this problem is, quite frankly, genius. Rather than creating an anthology film (always risky, and anyway rather pointless in an era when shorts still got wide distribution) or a film where each story follows on from the last and tells the further adventures of the characters after they resolved their last crisis (similarly pointless - why not just make a serial?) Keaton decided to tell three roughly indentical narratives of the quest for romance, each taking place in a different time period and taking the form, as a whole, of a rather loose parody of Intolerance.

And boy, if ever there were a film that needed thoroughly satirising it's D.W. Griffith's bloated and overly portentous would-be epic. Yes, it's a technical marvel of a film, and it does have jaw-dropping sequences like the full-scale recreation of the battle for ancient Babylon and the justly reveared crane shot of the steps of Solomon's temple, but at the same time it is woefully sentimental, full of black-and-white moralising, leadenly plotted, crammed with dead weight go-nowhere narratives and laden with tin-eared speechifying of the sort that only a Hollywood historical epic can produce. As such, it's a wonderful thing to be able to watch Buster Keaton's zany little oddity of a film, which swipes Intolerance's central conceit of cross-cutting between loosely-related stories occurring in different historical epochs and uses it to launch a bizarre and frequently hilarious send-up of the overdone period film in general.

The film opens with Father Time (subbing for Lillian Gish, who was out sick) sitting in a chair reading from some creaky old leather-bound volume. We learn from this book that love between a man and a woman hasn't really changed all that much throughout history, and that in order to illustrate this point we are going to be treated to three seperate tales set in the Stone, Roman and Modern ages respectively. In each age we have three archetypal figures - the Adventurer (Wallace Beery), a rough'n'tough rake who is basically just Bluto from Popeye; the Worshipper (Buster Keaton), who is basically just Buster Keaton (i.e. - a loveable dork); and Beauty (Margaret Leahy) who is basically just some chick whose pants/toga/leopard skin Keaton and Beery desire access to (a talentless beauty-contest winner, Leahy was apparently dumped on Keaton by the producers - her haplessness might explain the intense vapidity of her role).

In each age the exact same story plays-out. Keaton attempts to woo Leahy, who's obviously fond of him in return, but Beery is having none of it. Leahy's parents side with Beery, who is stronger/higher-ranking/wealthier, and Keaton must find a way to prove his mettle to them via a contest of strength and wits. In the end, Leahy's parents switch allegiance to Keaton, but Beery finds a way to discredit Keaton which Our Hero must work desperately to circumvent at the very last minute (usually in the form of a daring rescue attempt-cum-chase scene).

The result of all this is that the entire film is somewhat repetitious, since it’s effectively recapping itself in different time periods, but at the same time the joy of the picture is in how the writers have warped the core narrative from era to era. For example, in each era Beery and Keaton face-off in a physical challenge to prove who is fit to take Leahy's hand. So in the Stone Age we have a caveman duel, complete with seconds and a choice of clubs, that ends with Keaton winning only to get railroaded out of town by being tied to an elephant after Beery finds-out Keaton was using a weighted club. In the Roman Age, by contrast, Keaton takes advantage of a heavy snow to win a chariot race by replacing his wheels with skis and hitching his chariot to a team of huskies - which goes fine for him, except that after the race Beery tricks him into falling into a lion pit beneath the colosseum (incidentally, when declaring Beery the loser Leahy's dad gives just about the best "Thumbs Down" I have ever seen). And in the Modern Age, the pair play-off against each other at football (a scene ripped-off by more Goofy cartoons than I can count), with Beery going all Forest Whitaker on Keaton's butt until Keaton flips-out and scores a touchdown by dint of his cowardly gymnastics - only to have Beery frame him with a bottle of sly hooch and get him locked away after the game.

There are a lot of other neat contrasts like this - for example, in each era Beery is shown driving a much newer and much nicer vehicle than Keaton. In the Stone Age, Beery rides a mammoth while Keaton is stuck with a dinosaur, and in the Roman Age Beery's chariot is drawn by snow-white thoroughbreds while Keaton's is drawn by mules and jackasses (as Leahy's father aptly puts it - Beery is one of the highest ranking men in the Imperial army, while Keaton is one of the rankest). The real pay-off, though, comes in the Modern Age, where Beery drives a shiny new auto and Keaton is stuck with a clapped-out model T. Not that funny? Well, when Keaton hits a speed bump and his model T disintegrates into its constituent parts, that's funny.

As you might be able to guess, a lot of the humour in this film comes from the deployment of creative anachronisms by Keaton's character. In fact the 'Stone Age' segment of the film could almost be seen as a grandiose one-upping of Chaplin's 'Martini-Making Monkey Man" act from His Prehistoric Past, with the exception that Keaton generally preferred to play nice guys. As a consequence in the Stone Age you get stuff like caveman golf, caveman business cards, and caveman secretaries taking dictation with a chisel, while the Roman Age provides such curiosities as sundial wristwatches, chariot wheel-locks, Latin "No Parking" signs and husky-pulled snow-chariots complete with spare tires (he keeps a border collie in the trunk). The humour in theses two segments is funny but hardly groundbreaking, though it does have a few moments of surreal brilliance. For example, in both the Stone Age and the Roman Age Keaton visits a soothsayer to find-out if Leahy loves him. In the first of these segments, the caveman clairvoyant has a ouija board set-up, but instead of using a glass he and Keaton must put their hands on a tortoise and let it wander around the board. The sheer ludicrousness of the sequence is beautiful.

The other scene I really love takes place in the Roman age. Keaton is trapped in the lion pit with just about the most loveable man-in-suit lion I've ever seen. Recalling that "... somewhere - sometime - somebody made friends with some lion by doing something to some of its paws" Keaton proceeds to take-up a human bone and give the lion a manicure. This is funny enough, but at the end the lion pauses, holds both his paws out at arm's length to inspect them, and then shakes Keaton's hand for a job well done.

Unfortunately, the Roman period also plays host to the only real blemish on the film. Keaton goes to visit a soothsayer yet again, except that this time he has to roll dice to determine if he has Leahy's heart (incidentally, he does). The punchline comes when a bunch of African slaves show-up and start shooting craps (Keaton loses and storms off in a huff). It's funny, I suppose, but it's not very edifying, and anyway why on earth are all the slaves in this vision of ancient Rome black? It's almost as bad as in the Garbo version of Anna Karenina when all the bath houses are manned by black guys. Yes I know that this is a comedy and it was all meant in jest but still - think a little, Hollywood. To Keaton's credit, though, he doesn't have the black guys bug their eyes out and act all lazy and cowardly, and so by the standards of 1923 this is a pretty dignified portrayal.

The Modern Period probably hangs together the strongest, coming across less as and excuse to string together bizarre sight gags than as an honest attempt at storytelling. In this respect, it most resembles Keaton's later features - movies like The General and Our Hospitality weren't
always riotously funny, but they had a wealth of subtle humour and some intelligent observations to make about society. The Modern Era of this film is nowhere near at that level, but it does have the "restaurant scene", which is certainly the best extended sequence in the film. A man who looks alarmingly like HP Lovecraft is on a date at a restaurant. He and she are enjoying a bit of bootleg liquor when the appearance of a detective forces Lovecraft to dump the hooch in the water carafe at the next table over. A few minutes later Beery and Leahy enter on a date, and Keaton follows them at a distance and takes a seat at the table with the spiked drinking water. He gets thirsty, ends-up unwittingly drunk, and starts hitting on Lovecraft's girl when the guy goes to the loo. She ignores him, powdering her nose at the table, and Keaton takes his cue from her and takes-out his shaving kit and begins freshening up. It's all very simple and silly stuff, but it works wonderfully with Keaton playing off of the familiar setting and being his own unflappable self rather than draping himself in props and outlandish situations (not that those aren't great, too).

There's actually a fair bit of subtlety in this film, too - particularly in the way that Keaton shows the gradual shifts in attitude, and in power and gender relations, through the years. This is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, there's the way that Keaton in progressive ages is able to rely less on brute force and more on his wits, as the balance of power shifts away from mindless physicality. On the other hand we have such contrasts as Caveman Dad and Roman Dad being masters of their domains, while Modern Age dad is at the mercy of his penny-pinching martinet wife.

However this all really pays-off in the final shot of the film, in which we are treated to the one true example of how little love has changed through the ages:

So, he may have been casually racist, but at least Buster Keaton supported birth control.

In any case, I may have a few quibbles, but they shouldn't take away from what is ultimately a very clever and extremely funny (albeit rather slight) film.

I'm No Scientist, But...

Once again, this is a comedy and critiquing the science in it seems pointless at best. However, I feel that I should point-out to all those people who grew-up watching the Flintstones religiously that NO! GOD! DINOSAURS did NOT live alongside CAVEMEN! You would think that everyone knew that already, but my dad and sisters still get confused by it a little. In the case of films, especially fantasy films, it's of course a moot point since it's either 1) for laughs or 2) just so that John Richardson can spear an allosaur - and I think we can all agree that a rigorous scientific approach should take a backseat in both instances. Still, it's actually gotten me curious now as to when exactly paleontologists figured-out that humans and dinosaurs didn't co-exist. I realise that humans have never been found in layers dated at the same time as dinosaurs, but way back in the early days of paleontology it was a lot trickier to date discoveries - part of why evolutionary timelines up until the 50s were, if I recall correctly, still pinning the KT extinction at between 20 and 40 million years ago. My dates are probably off, but in any case we have The Lost World coming up soon and in the book Arthur Conan Doyle is fairly sincere when he claims that the world is only a few million years old. I'm a little less certain of what to make of a title like One Million B.C.

I'm also a little perplexed as to why there are stones everywhere in the Stone Age. I mean, literally everywhere. I have no idea where they shot these exteriors but it looks like a marble rink for cyclopses. Look:

As for Roman times, there's little to critique but I am confused as to what sort of rank is held by Margaret Leahy's father. I'm assuming events take place in the actual city of Rome (which, in the film, appears to have been backed by a series of very Californian-looking cliffs), but if so then that means that Leahy's dad must be the Emperor, since he presides over big chariot races and gives orders to all and sundry. And yet, if that's the case then the decision Roman Beery takes to kidnap Roman Leahy is suicidal at best. I suppose Beery is shown to be an important general or some such, and if Leahy's dad is actually just a prefect or accountant or something then I suppose he could use his military muscle to defer the consequences of his actions. Otherwise, it seems like a relatively small thing to go all Praetorian revolt over. In any case, the Roman mis-en-scene looks great. Apparently Keaton had a much bigger budget to work with this time out, and he milks the locations for all they're worth. The attention to detail is great and, save for the jokes, it's very easy to forget you're not watching an actual sword and sandal film.

In the Modern Age, I'm mainly curious about how the hell Keaton and his team rigged what is to all appearance a perfectly functioning automobile to disintigrate mid-traversance into its constituent parts. My guess would be that there's actually a smaller vehicle concealed under a trick chassis, and that it's wheels are attached loosely enough to come off when they hit the speed bump - the trick chassis, in the mean time, falling to bits and spilling prop parts all over the place. I suppose the answer is probably out there on a Buster Keaton fan site, but I couldn't be bothered to check.


3 1/2 McClures out of five



  1. Oh man I have seen that car-falling-apart gag on DVD somewhere, and it really is AMAZING. I have to admit that this movie sounds hilarious.

    Anyway, this movie sounds a little bit like Fritz Lang's DESTINY, in which a woman makes a deal with Death and tries to save three different men from three similar situations in three different vignettes. But it sounds even more like BEING HUMAN, where serious, weepy Robin Williams plays four men in four different time periods. (Luckily for you, none are the stone age, so you won't have to watch it.) Though probably the "parallel vignettes in time" approach has been used for many many movies that nobody remembers because most of them are no good.

  2. I have decided from now on to only watch Robin William films in which he is a murderous creep.
    However Destiny sounds really interesting, and I now intend to seek it out.

    As to the "parallel vignettes" deal, I suppose the most common version these days is the "Wizard of Oz" approach, where someone gets bumped on the noggin or reads a book or something and encounters a fantasy land that is suspiciously familiar. Unfortunately this has become so popular that we've got things like the TV version of Alice in Wonderland where it's revealed that all of the figures she encounters are actually her friends and family members. It annoys me so much! It's not clever - it's just manufactured significance because the film makers can't feel comfortable producing willful nonsense.

    Incidentally yes this film is hilarious.