The Three Ages (1923) Directed by Buster Keaton and Eddie Cline. Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, Wallace Beery (56 min.)

The Three Ages is one of the first old movies I ever saw. It stars Buster Keaton and takes place in three different time periods, the Stone Age, the Roman Age and the Modern (1920s) Age. The girl who stars alongside with Buster is an English girl who could not act to save her life. She won a beauty contest and her prize was to be in a movie.

I love this movie.

In all of the different ages the same basic thing is going on in different times. In all three ages Buster is challenged by the bad guy (Wallace Beery) to a fight for the girl. In the Stone Age, they clomp each other on the head with clubs. In the Roman Age he is challenged to a chariot race, but the day of the race there is a blizzard (in Rome?). So, he puts sled runners on his chariot and fastens on dogs instead of horses. How ingenious! In the Modern Age, the battle is football. In all of these times you have to imagine little Buster up against BIG, BIG Wallace...it is just funny.

One of my favorite parts is in the climax of the Modern Age. Buster is running from the cops (like in so many other movies). He goes through obstacles and comes to a point where he is supposed to jump from the top of one building to the next, so he sets up a diving board on the roof, jumps--and misses! He falls down the side of the building. Now, he was supposed to make that jump, but since it was such a great fall they used it in the movie.

 

 

My favorite part in the whole movie is in the Roman Age. Poor Buster gets trapped in a lion's den. Now, he remembers that once long ago, someone did something to a lion's paws and they became friends. Of course, he is thinking of the time when a man took a thorn out of a lion's paw. But, Buster cannot remember the specifics, so he gives the lion a manicure instead! If that is not funny, I don't know what is!

 

 

So, see this movie even if it is black and white, which I love, and silent, which I also love.

*

notes by moviediva: This was Keaton's first independent feature film.(He'd acted in The Saphead in 1920, but contributed little creatively, so it's not really a "Keaton" film.) He was the last of the three great comedians (along with Chaplin and Lloyd) to abandon shorts for features. He and his team of gag writers came up with the idea of a satire of D.W. Griffith's monumental Intolerance, with its parallel stories of injustice in four historic epochs. Keaton reasoned this episodic structure permitted the film to be edited into three shorts if the feature length version really didn't work. But, of course, it did, and Keaton went on to make his collection of cinematic masterpieces.

There were significant changes as Keaton moved into features. First, he bypassed his vaudeville friend Joe Roberts, who had played the heavy in nearly all his short films, in favor of the more famous Wallace Beery. There would be a bigger budget allowing the construction of more elaborate sets, under the eye of his superb technical director Fred Gabourie. In the early days, Buster often constructed sets and props himself, but after an accident on the set of The Electric House, he relied on Gabourie's expertise. The chariot race that concludes the Roman section took place on the site of the recently closed Hollywood Exposition. The lower tiers of the Colosseum were constructed, and the upper levels were hanging miniatures.

Keaton loved baseball and often had baseball gags in his pictures. This one has a doozy, one that required 52 takes to get just right. Note too, that Buster always gets wet in his movies; his crew considered it to be good luck if the boss got drenched.

Margaret Leahy's beauty contest prize was a role in Norma Talmadge's movie, Within the Law. Hopelessly incompetent as an actress, she was "demoted" to star in The Three Ages. Norma was Keaton's sister-in-law, and her husband Joe Schenck was his producer. Buster couldn't believe he had to take Leahy on, but Schenck announced "Comic leading ladies don't have to act," and he was stuck with her. "The scenes we had to throw in the trash can! Easy scenes!" Keaton recalled later. Fortunately, like many of his leading ladies, she was just another prop in The Three Ages.

 

 

(Sources include: The Complete Films of Buster Keaton by Jim Kline and Cut to the Chase by Marion Meade. The photo of Buster and Amazon Blanche Payson, and in the lion's den are from The Movies by Richard Griffith. Buster kissing Margaret Leahy is from Robert Benayoun's The Look of Buster Keaton. Note how the white makeup on their faces contrasts with Keaton's unmade-up hands.

c.moviedivaOctober 2002