Three Ages [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Eureka
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (7th August 2023).
The Film

"If you let your mind wnader back through History you will find that the only thing that has not changed since the world began is--LOVE. Love is the unchaning axis on which the World revolves," so says the prefatory text to Three Ages which endeavors to prove this by visiting three periods of history and three love stories casting Buster Keaton (The Navigator) as "The Boy", Margaret Leahy as "The Girl", Wallace Beery (Beggars of Life) as "The Villain", and Joe Roberts (Our Hospitality) and Lillian Lawrence as the girl's parents in each of them. In the Stone Age, The Boy and The Villain vie for The Girl's hand. Her father decides on brawn, so The Boy has to use his wits when The Villain challenges him to a duel. In Ancient Rome, The Boy is a Roman soldier attempts to court The Girl who has also caught the eye of The Villain who outranks him – The Girl's Father decides on The Villain once again ("Thou rankest high in the Roman army-- and thou art the rankest!") – and this time around The Villain challenges The Boy to a chariot race, and The Boy must think fast when it starts snowing. In "The Present Age of Speed, Need, and Greed," and this time The Girl's Mother wears the pants in the family and decides that The Villain's bank balance is more attractive than that of The Boy. When The Boy persists in courting The Girl, The Villain sets him up and gets him arrested; however, The Villain may have unintentionally given The Boy an unexpected advantage.

The second feature film of actor/director Buster Keaton following The Saphead - a stage play adaptation directed by Herbert Blachι () and Winchell Smith which was star vehicle for Keaton but lacks his personal touch - and roughly thirty shorts in six years as actor and co-director under his contract with comedian Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle – who himself directed well over a hundred shorts and starred in over a hundred-and-fifty shorts and features in his twenty-four year film career – Three Ages was Keaton's parody of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance: Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages and it is one of the few Keaton features that truly hang on the strength of its gags. This appears to be the effect of the film's narrative structure in which each time frame cycles through variations on the same plot turns: boy wants girl, villain impresses the parents and bullies the boy, boy attempts to make girl jealous, villain challenges boy, boy triumphs through his wits and some luck. Each story taken on its own just plods would make an unspectacular short with some good gags. Intercut here as they are, it plods along as the viewer becomes aware of the repetition; as such, it becomes a matter of one gag in one period being funnier than an equivalent gag in another period.

The Stone Age sequence features some ambitious combinations of live action and animation to depict The Boy riding a dinosaur – although not as refined as the work of Willis O'Brien to come in The Lost World – and a humorous bit in which The Boy attempts to make The Girl jealous by dragging another girl by the hair; however, that girl turns out to be six-foot-four Blanche Payson – while the Ancient Rome episode has The Boy sporting a sundial "wristwatch", revealing that his helmet doubles as a wheel lock for his chariot, beating The Villain in the snowy chariot race with sled dogs (even changing one with another like a tire), and the Present Day version features a duel on the football field. The Stone Age tale makes use of the same California locations familiar from so many other stone age and western shorts of the period but the Ancient Rome tale makes impressive use of miniatures, glass mattes, and some neoclassical Los Angeles architecture to realize its setting on a budget. Keaton's next film Our Hospitality is almost a quantum leap in storytelling and gag staging in comparison.


Like much of Keaton's silent filmography, Three Ages was hard to see after its release, eventually circulating in a print from collector Raymond Rohauer derived from the negative which was in badly-deteriorated condition by the time of its rediscovery. This material was worked on by restoration expert David Shepard for Kino on Video's 1994 VHS release and Image Entertainment's 1995 three disc The Art of Buster Keaton Vol. 1, and the tape master was repurposed for Kino on Video's Image Entertainment-distributed 1990 DVD as well as Cinema Club's UK 2006 DVD. Stateside, Kino International released the film on Blu-ray in 2010 in a double bill with Sherlock Jr. from an HD master licensed from materials from Douris Corp. who had acquired the Rohauer library. Kino as Kino Lorber reissued the film on Blu-ray in 2017 in a double bill with The General from a 2K scan by French company Lobster Films which utilized a better-condition 35mm print of the film's European version which was struck from a negative shot concurrently and composed of many alternate angles and takes.

Eureka's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.37:1 pillarboxed fullscreen transfer comes from a 2022 4K restoration licensed from Cohen Media Group from the best material of five dupe negatives and prints (among them, Rohauer material acquired from Douris). The transfer is clean for the most part with varying contrasts due to different negative and positive materials utilized; however, there is a stretch where the deterioration of the negative is painfully evident with the emulsion having been torn away as the film sat on the reel in storage. More of a concern is the frame rate utilized for this restoration (or, at least, for the HD master) as the film runs 70:38 (plus fifty-four seconds of restoration text) compared to the sixty-four minute timing at eighteen-frames-per-second seen on the earlier transfers of the American and European versions. The newer master offers no new footage, and the slower frame rate does make the film a slog once the viewer realizes that each age will follow a similar narrative structure. Keaton fans will want it just for being yet another restoration which has its pluses and minuses like the others.


While the earlier Shepard restoration featured a Robert Israel score, the 2010 Kino Blu-ray carried over that score but also offered an organ score by Lee Erwin as well as an anonymous piano score, and the Kino 2017 Blu-ray could offer none of those and instead featured two new options by The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and Carl Davis, Eureka features a single new score by Rodney Sauer in uncompressed LPCM 2.0 stereo that attempts to keep things lively with the slower frame rate. The intertitles printed over live action and still image backgrounds have been retained from the original materials while the credits and intertitles on black have been recreated based on the designs of the film's Keaton contemporaries.


Extras start with a new audio commentary by film historian David Kalat – who recorded a commentary for Kino back in 2010 for the film's co-feature – in which he makes a convincing case of debunking the idea that Keaton and the producers were hedging their bets with the film's success by structuring the film as three stories that could be repackaged as shorts, noting that Keaton never mentioned this and it did not enter Keaton scholarship until the 1980s and that this misapprehension may have been due to what happened with Griffith's Intolerance in reissue as an effect of "romanticizing" the transitional period where Keaton moved from shorts to features. He discusses some possible autobiographical elements of the film pertaining to Keaton's experience with his in-laws as well as providing background on the tragic life of Leahy. The Irish girl won a UK beauty contest to appear in a supporting role for the next film by Norma Talmage – wife of Keaton producer Joseph M. Schenck and sister of Keaton's wife Natalie Talmage (Our Hospitality) – titled Within the Law. Director Frank Lloyd (Mutiny on the Bounty) refused to work with her after one day of shooting. Rather than leave themselves vulnerable to a breach of contract shoot, Schenck cooked up the idea reported to the press that they had discovered Leahy had an affinity for comedy and chose to instead make her debut a larger role in Keaton's film. Leahy never made another film, returning to Ireland, refusing to discuss the film further than the correspondence she kept with British tabloid Daily Sketch, and apparently burned her scrapbooks before committing suicide in 1967. Of the film, he reveals that the combination of live action and animation was the work of Max Fleischer (Betty Boop) and was inspired by Windsor McCay's short Gertie the Dinosaur, that the modern story was conceived first and the story beats of the Stone Age and Ancient Rome stories derived from it, describes how the scope of the Ancient Rome settings was realized, and gives context to certain elements like the comic baseball sequence and other comedians who used the sport for comedic exploitation around the same time.

"This Side of Impossible" (16:04) is a video essay by David Cairns who repeats the myth of the film being conceived with the option of turning it into three shorts but also provides some context for the Stone Age tropes of man co-existing with dinsoaurs and dragging women by their hair, as well as the re-enacted vocal recollections of Keaton's co-director Eddie Cline and gag writer Clyde Bruckman.

"Under the Flat Hat" (14:38) is a video essay by Fiona Watson is a somewhat stimulating, somewhat testing speculative essay in which Watson makes the case that Keaton might have been neuro-divergent as a means of explaining his "unfathomable" personality, and that the "stone face" might have been a survival adaptation to his childhood.

"The Six Ages of Comedy" (3:41) is a visual essay based on an essay dictated by Keaton about the comedic trends of the silent era.

"Lavender Talking Keaton" (15:09) is an interview with actor Ian Lavender (Dad's Army) who recalls discovering Keaton in college, getting to play him in a stage show, and recalling how forgotten Keaton was by the time he got to visit the actor's grave in California.

"Man's Genesis" (9:11) is a 1912 short by Griffith that was parodied in Keaton's film, derived from materials provided by Kino Lorber.

"The Locations of Three Ages" (7:59) is a video essay John Bengtson recorded in 2010 for the Kino International Blu-ray.

The disc closes with Keaton archival appearances in a Vintage Alka Seltzer Commercial (1:04) from 1958, the 1936 radio appearance "Buster Keaton at Shell Chateau" (5:28) in which Keaton does a comic routing around a recital of Henry Wadsworth Longellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus", the 1960 radio interview "Buster Keaton on Art Finley" (11:15) in which he discusses Arbuckle, along with the brief Buster Keaton French Radio Interview Excerpt (0:56).


Packed with the disc is a collectors booklet featuring "All You Need is Love: Three Ages, of The World According to Buster Keaton" by Imogen Sara Smith – who discusses Keaton's admiration for Griffith despite the parody, his fascination with the past and cutting-edge modernity, and the tragedy of Margaret Leahy – as well as Philip Kemp's "Three Ages: Keaton's Cautious Step into Features" does not so much "romanticize" the transition an instead focuses on the film's structure, the gags, and Keaton's directing style.

The first 2,000 copies include a limited edition slipcase.


Although Buster Keaton's next film Our Hospitality is almost a quantum leap in storytelling and gag staging in comparison, Three Ages is an audacious and ambitious feature debut.


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