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Blu-ray: Three Ages | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Three Ages

Blu-ray: Three Ages

Buster Keaton's feature debut is daft but delightful

Buster Keaton and Wallace Beery draw swords in 'Three Ages'

The Saphead gave Buster Keaton his first starring role in a full-length comedy, but 1923’s Three Ages is the first feature film which he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Two-reelers were a form where he could go, in his words, “wild and crazy”, the more outlandish the visual humour the better.

Feature films were based on narrative flow, Keaton later commenting that the jokes “had to be believable or your story wouldn’t hold up.” Watch Our Hospitality or The General and you’ll see what he means. Still, the gags which really stand out in Three Ages are the daft, unbelievable ones: Keaton’s caveman whacking a rock, baseball-style, back at an assailant, or using a sledge pulled by dogs to win a chariot race. A parody of DW Griffith’s Intolerance, the film plays out as three linked, cleverly intercut stories set in different historical eras, some critics suggesting that it could have been re-edited into three shorts if it had flopped as a feature. There was no need: Three Ages was well-received, one contemporary commentator describing it as “just about as incoherent as Intolerance, and about fifty times as funny.”

Three AgesEach story depicts Keaton’s battered everyman competing with a brutish Wallace Beery for the same girl (Margaret Leahy in her film debut). The attention to daft pseudo-historical detail is remarkable, from a prehistoric Keaton sliding down the neck of a stop-motion dinosaur and wearing a sundial wristwatch (think The Flintstones, but wittier), and an Ancient Rome skilfully conjured up with recycled sets and matte paintings. A terrifying rooftop leap in the modern-day section recalls Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last!, Keaton’s unintentional near-miss (which took him three days to recover from) later extended with a vertiginous tumble down the side of a building and through a window, before a slide down a pole onto a moving fire engine. Lasting less than 20 seconds, it’s simultaneously terrifying and hysterical.

That Keaton does ultimately get the girl each time won’t surprise anyone. A title card reading “and if anything more were needed to show that love has not changed” sets up the brilliant final gag, Keaton showing us what the future holds for each couple. Three Ages is a lot of fun, an insubstantial but irresistible treat. This 2022 restoration is mostly clear and sharp (the film was at one stage thought to be lost, salvaged from a negative in the mid-1950s), and Eureka throw in some decent bonus features. David Cairns’ introduction is interesting and includes the sad tale of what happened to Margaret Leahy after the film's release. Fiona Watson’s Under the Flat Hat makes an intriguing case for Keaton having had ADHD. Plus, there's a charming interview with Ian "Private Pike" Lavender, the actor describing what Keaton means to him.

The attention to daft, pseudo-historical detail is remarkable

rating

Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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