Three Ages

Director: Edward F. Cline & Buster Keaton
Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman & Joseph A. Mitchell& Jean Havez
Stars: Buster Keaton (The Boy), Margaret Leahy (The Girl), Wallace Beery (The Villain), Joe Roberts (The Girl’s Father), Lillian Lawrence (The Girl’s Mother), Horace Morgan (The Emperor / Cave Man / Roman Thug)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1923
Country: U.S.
The Buster Keaton Collection Vol. 5: Three Ages / Our Hospitality Blu-ray
Three Ages

Having directed 20 popular short films between 1917 and 1923, Buster Keaton could reasonably be said to have mastered the art of the one- and two-reeler by the time he co-produced, co-directed, and starred in his first feature, Three Ages. And, because (like other silent film comedians) he was primarily associated with short films, the fact that Three Ages is essentially three shorts cut together into a feature feels like both a brilliant extension of his previous work and an insurance policy guaranteeing that he didn’t stray too far from what had been working for the previous half decade. Of course, any film that is essentially three separate films is going to risk being uneven, and that is definitely the case with Three Ages, which is enjoyable enough, but hardly in the league of Keaton’s best features like Sherlock Jr. (1924) and The General (1926).

The ostensible subject of Three Ages is love, and the film is structed around three narratively and thematically similar stories set during three distinct ages: the prehistoric “Stone Age,” the age of the Roman Empire, and the (then) modern day. In each segment Keaton plays a well-meaning milquetoast who is trying to woo a girl played by Margaret Leahy, a British beauty pageant winner in her only film role (despite having been signed to a three-year contract by producer Joseph M. Schenck). Keaton is then challenged and temporarily bested by a larger, more successful man played by Wallace Beery, a veteran of more than a hundred shorts and features who would go on to win an early Oscar for his dramatic role in The Champ (1931). Keaton has fun with the idiosyncratic details of the different ages: he makes the bearskin clothes and shoes of the Stone Age absurdly furry and awkward (not to mention his fright wig), and his Roman character has a sundial for a wristwatch.

There are some amusing connective bits in each story, such as Keaton always having to prove himself against Beery and being found wanting. For example, in the Stone Age, he can’t take a club to the head the way Beery can; in the Roman era, Beery ranks high in the Roman army while Keaton is described as “the rankest”; and in the modern era, his checkbook is a sad, meager thing next to Beery’s (while the latter has his account at First National Bank, Keaton’s is at Last National Bank). So, across the ages Keaton struggles to assert himself, defying the will of Beery’s various villains and the Leahy’s parents (played by Joe Roberts and Lillian Lawrence) who are, of course, convinced that Beery is the better man simply because he is stronger, higher ranking, richer, etc. As with so many of the films of Chaplin and Lloyd, Three Ages is a silent-era revenge-of-the-nerd fantasy, in which meager and meek and decent and kind win out over brute strength and narcissism.

Given Keaton’s prodigious comic talents and deep understanding of the camera and how it can be used to enhance, not just record, physical comedy, Three Ages has numerous memorable sequences, the best of which are the absurd chariot race in which Keaton beats Beery by employing sled dogs instead of horses to pull his chariot after it snows and the extended chase sequence that caps the modern sequence, which finds Keaton trying to evade the cops while making it to the church to save Leahy from marrying Beery, who is revealed to be a bigamist and forger. Thus, all the masculine-economic power represented by the towering Beery is ultimately proven to fraudulent, and the only real thing in the world is, the film asserts, true love. It is a nice sentiment and one that we can grab onto, even if the film, which is clearly designed as a subtle parody of D.W. Griffith’s multi-plotted Intolerance (1916), doesn’t fully hold together.

Three Ages / Our Hospitality Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 (both films)
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround
  • SubtitlesNone
    DistributorCohen Media Group / Kino Lorber
    Release DateNovember 7, 2023

    As with Cohen’s previous Buster Keaton releases, the Three Ages / Our Hospitality disc is part of the Keaton Project, which was launched in 2015 as a joint venture between Cineteca di Bologna and the Cohen Film Collection to restore all of Keaton’s films made between 1920 and 1928. The visual quality of the two films included on this release are quite different, as the elements available for restoration for Our Hospitality were in much better condition than the ones for Three Ages. This does not mean that due diligence was not done for Three Ages, as five separate elements, three of them held by Cohen and two with the Centre national du cinema et de l’image animée in Paris, were examined for use. A second-generation dupe negative was chosen as the main element for the transfer, with a dupe positive and a second dupe negative of later generations used to fill in three missing shots, including the final shot of the film. Alas, there is quite a bit of damage evident in the final image, some of which obscures almost the entirety of the screen at times. There are tears, stains, scratches, and blotches throughout, although the image is generally stable (despite the appearance of sprocket holes along the side of the image from time to time). Again, this is not due to any lack of effort made, but rather the reality of the status of many silent-era films, including those by luminaries like Keaton. The overall quality of the image is a bit softer than some of the other films in the Keaton Collection, although detail is generally good. Our Hospitality, on the other hand, looks really great, primarily due to the much higher quality of the source elements. For this film, they inspected 17 different elements and honed in on three to use for the transfer: a first-generation nitrate positive from the Library of Congress (which was used for the majority of the transfer) and two second-generation negative duplicates held by Cohen. The image here is much sharper and cleaner than Three Ages, with very little evidence of wear or damage. There is strong evidence of grain that looks good in motion, while contrast and detail are superb for a film of this age. Both films look better than their previous Kino releases, and it should also be noted that both are in pure black-and-white with no tinting or toning (previous releases of Our Hospitality had yellow and blue tinting). As for the soundtrack, Three Ages offers a nice score composed by Rodney Sauer that features piano, accordion, violin, trumpet, and percussion in both DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Our Hospitality features a full orchestral score composed and conducted by silent film composer Carl Davis, which is also offered in both 5.1 and 2.0. Unfortunately, there are no supplements to speak of outside of a restoration trailer for Our Hospitality, which is disappointing given that previous discs in the Buster Keaton Collection included at least a featurette or two.

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    Overall Rating: (2.5)

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