July 20, 2010

Buster & Three Ages

Today we tackle Buster Keaton's first feature film, Three Ages. Ostensibly a take-off on D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, an epic which chronicled the theme of human intolerance through four epochs, Three Ages does much the same with love across three time periods, the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern (1920s) Age. Presented via the ever-popular but rather lazy framing device of a storybook, the film begins with Father Time lecturing us on the unchanging motivations of love across the ages. The intro is purposefully comically ponderous, and the flowery tone is continued in the intertitles where Buster is introduced as "the faithful worshipper at beauty's shrine." Decked out in fur boots and a bramble of thatched hair, caveman Buster is as ill-equipped a conquering Neanderthal as he is Jazz Age lothario. In every era Buster is as under-qualified a lover, whether in size, skill, or wealth. 

Three Ages is non-linear, bouncing back and forth between time periods with an occasional title card to cue us to the scene. The through-line is simple enough: our hero Buster has to fight for the hand of his one true love (played by Margaret Leahy) against the rival (Wallace Beery); the girl's parents (Joe Roberts and Lillian Lawrence) also appear in each age.

The film is full of jokey anachronisms, such as when Buster shows his "I.D.", a pictograph of a man on a slice of stone, or in the Roman Age, when  he spots a sundial wristwatch. Although clever in concept, these jokes seem overly writerly. Keaton soars on fluid, visual gags stringed in a breathless sequence whereas some of these jokes are more akin to the puns he'd loathe later in his MGM days. Upon execution they grow weary, especially when the novelty of Buster having accidentally "invented" something, as a he does the game of baseball, is repeated over and over. 

A few gags are exceptions, like when Keaton can utilize an object for multiple uses, as he does with his Roman helmet. He unlocks the chinstrap and then clamps the helmet around the wheel of his chariot, "inventing" the car boot. 

Buster's masculinity is challenged and undermined at every turn, in every age. Clearly not cut out for the brawny Stone Age, he's thwarted by a giantess (played by 6 foot 3 inch Blanche Payson, New York City's first policewoman). In the Roman Age, he's thoroughly walloped in Greco-Roman wrestling (though at the time, I assume they just called it wrestling) by a girl he's trying to court to make Leahy jealous. No dice. She flips and pins him handly. 

In the Depression-era '20s, Buster unwittingly drinks a carafe full of illicit booze dumped there by the couple at a neighboring table. As he is there to spy on Leahy and Beery, the alcohol becomes a welcome distraction from his heartache. But Buster's had enough of pain and slides into the neighbors table, while the man (the one with the booze) is away. Even as a drunk, Buster Keaton is subtle. Look at his face in this scene and there's none of the over-exaggerated winks and ticks you get when say, Chaplin plays drunk. Not that Keaton's version is superior, but it's simply well-done. Buster's done what everyone does while inebriated: become a heightened version of one's self. Sober, he is the Great Stone Face. With a drink in him, his Stone Face is the same, only a bit more wobbly, his heavy-lidded eyes are droopier than ever. Chaplin would become querrelous, would weave his way to the girl's heart via a mischevious grin and to the rival, a well-aimed bop on the nose. Keaton just sits there, pining. He is a born loser, in this age and any other. In fact, Buster is the unwitting loser. Beery has sent a note over to the neighboring table, pretending to be Buster, courting the young lady. The young gentleman will have none of this and wakes the snoozing Buster, socks him in the puss, and returns to his table. Exit Buster.

Each timeframe has its own dual for affections: a battle with clubs, a chariot race, and a football game. In the first test, Buster cheats and is banished. He wins the chariot race with ingenuity, replacing the wheels with skis and the horses with huskies. (It had recently, and improbably, snowed.) On the football field Buster is tossed about like a ragdoll and pummeled by Beery before some acrobatic feats allow him to flip and tumble his way to a touchdown. Buster, a baseball fanatic and uber-talented acrobat, excels in these sequences, the most thrilling in the film.

In the Roman Age, Beery devises a trap for Buster, who ends up like Daniel (in the lion's den). In the Modern Age, Beery plants some illegal alcohol on Buster and gets him arrested. The Stone Age, however, is where the chase begins. Buster steals Leahy away from her impending marriage and the cavemen follow. In the film's best bit, the townspeople begin lobbing rocks at the couple by bending back saplings--an early catepault. Not to be outdone, Buster launches himself onto the unsuspecting Beery, a human projectile. Also in this sequence, Buster invents baseball by batting away a rock thrown at his head. According to legend, Buster's writers urged him to shoot the sequence in bits, a close-up of Beery throwing the rock, a close-up of it traveling, a close-up of Buster hitting it and a close-up of the rock hitting Beery. Buster didn't like that, explaining the audience wouldn't laugh if it didn't look real, and for it to look real, it had to be done real. According to gagman Clyde Bruckman the simple five second gag took sixty-seven takes. 

Buster's troubles continue in Rome, where he has to make friends with a lion in the form of a ludicrously fake man-in-lion costume. Buster remember that old fable about a thorn and a lion's paw and decides to give ol' Aslan a pedicure. Farcical but funny stuff. Now escaped, Buster rushes to thwart Beery's lecherous advantages. In a sequence prefiguring the athletic climax of College, Keaton sprints, jumps, rides a horse and pole-vaults to Leahy's rescue. 

Back in the twenties, thrown in the clink, Buster discovers a police file for Beery. Turns out the groom-to-be is a forger and a bigamist. Armed with the proof to prevent the wedding, Buster accidentally bumbles his way out of the police station by hiding in a telephone booth just as the police are getting a new booth installed. Now accidentally, although happily, on the run from the cops, the cross-century chase continues and we come to the most interesting and most dangerous story of production on Three Ages. To escape the cops, Buster's climbed to the top of a building. He peers over the ledge and we're treated to a vertiginous point of view shot of the pedestrians below. It's do or die time. Buster pulls out a plank of wood and steadies it over the lip of the building. He readies himself and jumps. He hits the lip of the building, grasping the ledge for a fraction of a second before bouncing down the building's face and out of frame. Cut to a medium shot of the two buildings standing side by side. From out of frame above, Buster plummets, crashing through two awnings before getting entangled in a third and grasping onto a drainpipe which bends backwards and sends Buster careening into an open window, sliding across a floor and through a hole. Buster slides down a fireman's pole, crashing to the ground and scrambling up, bewildered, to sit on the bumper of a fire engine which is just leaving the station. 

Whew! Okay, let's back up. Yes, Buster jumped for real and really fell thirty-five feet to a net below. Keaton's hard and fast command to his cameraman, "Keep filming till I yell cut or are killed," almost came true this time. Buster was in bed recovering for three days. When the team regrouped, Buster and crew looked at the footage--it was too good to scrap. Instead, they built the gag around the injurious mistake. Thus, a jump that was supposed to span two buildings and presumably, continue across rooftops, was transformed into the spectacular gag sequence it is now. Like a pinball machine with Buster as ball, Keaton is batted from awning to pipe to window and slides the long fire pole. The sequence is a tour-de-force cherry on top a so-so movie sundae. The capper of the gag, however, is priceless. Buster, still dazed from the fall, sits on the bumper as the fire engine races to put out a blaze--at the police station. Buster grabs a hose and stumbles towards the building before realizing where he is and, dropping the hose, again runs for his miserable life.

The chase continues. Buster dashes to the church to break up the nupituals, dragging the bride down the aisle and out into a waiting vehicle. Out of a sense of gratitude, Leahy gives him a peck of a kiss. Keaton tosses his hat in the air, grabs her on the wrist, climbs back into the car and shouts, "Back to the church!"

In the film's coda, the theme of love triumphant through the ages is reiterated. As the old rhyme goes, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes...Cut to three little vignettes: In the Stone Age, Buster and Leahy emerge from their cave trailing eleven little bear-skinned kids. In the Roman Age, the couple trots out five togaed youngsters. In this modern age of "speed, need, and greed," Buster and Leahy walk down the sidewalk in front of their house, a tiny Pekingese in tow. 

Three Ages is a good film, but not a great one, mostly because Keaton and co. were playing it safe. After the fact, Buster admitted the tripartite structure was to hedge their bets during distribution: if the film didn't work as a sixty minute feature, each segment could be re-edited into a twenty minute comedy short. The film was thankfully a success, as I don't know how viable that option was given the absolutely identical plot structure of each age. While not a classic, Three Ages does offer up some interesting bits. One at the beginning has Buster being introduced in the Stone Age riding on the back of a dinosaur. Wallace Beery was introduced on the back of an elephant and Keaton wanted to top this. But, how? Recalling a technique he'd seen in a film as a child, Buster hired animator Max Fleischer (later to become famous for inventing rotoscope) to create a stop-motion dinosaur for use in long shots, with a model figurine of Buster riding on top. In addition to this technical wizardry, the Roman sets and costumes are extremely high-quality. There were a lot of pillars and togas lying around in the silent era, but Keaton's Rome is most noticeable for its expansive sets, which were achieved through complex glass effects, where only a portion of the set is constructed and the rest of the effect is achieved through reflections and matte painting. Technically, it's an accomplished film. It would take Keaton's next feature, Our Hospitality, to showcase his genius for storytelling.

A trip back to 1924 and rivalries in the rural South, next time!

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