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Three Ages
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by Jay Seaver

"Roughly the sum of its parts."
3 stars

"Three Ages" was hardly the first parody movie - the practice of doing a quick takeoff was so common in early cinema that Thomas Edison's employees may have spoofed "Frankenstein" mere days after making it, for all we know - but it's noteworthy, a feature by one of the great silent comedians that not only has fun with a great movie but makes it his own. Buster Keaton may not quite be Mel Brooks at his peak here, but he's still a guy who knows his way around a joke.

His inspiration here is D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, although his parallel stories are much simpler. In each, a beauty (Margaret Leahy) is courted by a suitor (Wallace Beery) who appeals to her parents (Joe Roberts & Lillian Lawrence) and The Other Guy (Keaton) who loves her true but can't catch a break. And while the specific trials in all the time periods - the stone age, the Roman Empire, and present-day 1923 - may be different, the basics of the story are the same.

This basic premise sort of winds up a stumbling block as well, because it means there's no escaping that Keaton and his compatriots are repeatedly telling the audience the same joke three times in a row. That's kind of rough when the joke already has whiskers on it, like Buster trying to make his beloved jealous by cozying up to another girl who is not in on the gag, but even the better parts suffer for the repetition: Keaton, co-director Eddie Cline, and writers Clyde Bruckman, Joseph Mitchell, and Jean Havez are not trying to subvert expectations as they cycle between ages, and what probably seemed very clever for a comedy 90 years ago doesn't quite get the same reaction now. Also not aging particularly well (and probably not that great in 1923, either) - how all three of Margaret Leahy's characters come off as somewhere between fickle and indifferent to which man wins her, even if all three do start to show some fondness for the Keaton characters later on.

Of course, it's not like the Buster Keaton section of an evening at the movies was ever about nuanced storytelling or great acting - though Keaton, Leahy, and company are fine - it was about gags. While there are pratfalls aplenty, there aren't a whole lot of the really elaborate bits that Keaton is best known for. There's also a steady stream of jokes based on how modern activities translate to other times, most pretty good. It did make me curious just how long the "cavemen dragging women off by the hair" meme has been with us, as this movie not only uses but makes some fun of it.

Though Three Ages doesn't quite have the scale of some of Keaton's other movies, it's actually a pretty solidly constructed hour. I don't know whether the Roman sets were built for this picture or standing from another, but they look nice, and while the caveman costumes and props are goofy, they never feel cheap. Heck, I was actually fairly impressed by the (presumably) stop-motion dinosaur Buster rides at one point, and a lion puppet is impressive both for how it gives the initial impression of being real and for how well its operators work it for comedy.

This wound up being Buster Keaton's first feature, and he built it so that it could be pulled apart into three shorts if it flopped or the gimmick didn't work. That caution hurts it a bit (and indicates how formulaic some of these shorts could be), but more jokes work than don't, and Keaton finding his feet is still pretty good.

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originally posted: 07/15/14 11:27:30
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  DVD: 20-Nov-2001

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