THREE AGES || 1923, USA || Comedy || Directed by- Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton / Written by – Clyde Bruckman, Joseph A. Mitchell, Jean C. Havez, Buster Keaton / Produced by – Buster Keaton, Joseph M. Schenck / Cinematography – Elgin Lessley, William C. McGann / Art direction – Fred Gabourie / Starring – Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, Wallace Beery / Running time: 63 mins.
Three Ages is credited as the first feature outing by Buster Keaton, aided in directorial duties once again by Edward F. Cline, though Cline often remains uncredited on screen. It is also one of the earlier instances of direct spoofs on a film, freely inspired in premise, form and setting though not so much in the narrative itself, by D.W. Griffith’s mastodontic Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages.
Here, Keaton plays a triple role, as he fits the proverbial shoes of a caveman, a Roman empire fiend and a modern day sap. In all three instances, the storyline is very simple, and the juxtaposes episodes revolve around similar situations, always revolving around altercations between our hero and a brutish antagonist played by William Beery, as they challenge each other for the attentions of their beloved belle, played by Margaret Leahy.
In all three different instances, Keaton invents a language of conventions ofthe times they are set in, that shift in tone from flirtatious to openly childish, often challenging the perception of masculinity through the ways in which the central male antagonists contend for the right to marry their object of adoration. For instance, in one succession of sequences, the cavemen challenge each other to a duel fought with rudimentary clubs, in the Roman timespan the challenge takes the form of a Ben-Hur inspired chariot race and in the modern day timeframe the two are placed in the opposing teams of a vicious American football match. Likewise, there is admirable satire offered in its enriching and perhaps overlooked observation on the evolution of the role of the female throughout the ages. In the stone age, she is used and abused. In the Roman times, she is a well respected muse. In modern times, she is already empowering and showing signs of suffragette confidence and strength.
Much like Intolerance, the film travels through time and juxtaposes its titular ages through systematic editing. Three Ages sometimes stumbles on its ambition, and not all transitions are as smooth as one would hope. Furthermore, while the cavemen are cartoonish, and the 1920s storyline comfortably familiar, the Roman sections are often weaker and duller. Nevertheless, this Keaton feature debut contributed to clearly set his style aside from other comedians and filmmakers of their time, namely Chaplin, through a distinctive kind of ambition and more adventurous, action packed developments that are still admired to this day, and were bettered in other works that would follow. – 4/5