According to the scribblings of some bloke from Stratford, there were Seven Ages of Man. It took one stony-faced ex-Vaudevillian one hundred years ago to give a very different spin to things by being one man in three different ages, in a feature-length comedy entitled – appropriately enough – Three Ages.
Whereas Shakespeare chose to detail what he saw as seven different phases to a man’s life, Buster Keaton realised the comic potential in his portraying essentially the same person going through the same basic story – the courtship of a fair young maiden – set against a trio of different eras in human development: the Prehistoric times of cavemen, the days of the Roman Empire, and the then-contemporary period best known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’. The feature would follow Keaton’s travails as a suitor, trying to woo the subject of his affections, whilst fending off the competition, and showing us that no matter what the era, the challenges remain much the same.
A welcome addition to the Eureka! Masters Of Cinema range, Three Ages is a showcase of Keaton’s talents, risking life and limb in pursuit of the big laughs. While Keaton’s first starring role with a feature film had come in 1920’s The Saphead, he was essentially a hired hand there, having very little creative input. With Three Ages, this would be Keaton unleashed, as he stepped away from two-reeler shorts and made his first feature-length comedy in which he would not only star but also write and direct. For its centenary, Three Ages is getting a celebratory Blu-ray release, accompanied by a whole slew of bonus features and value added material.
Three Ages actually features two of Keaton’s better-known pieces of comedic work: the Ford Model T which collapses in a heap of parts when hitting a bump in the road, and the ill-judged attempt to jump between two buildings which sees him miss and then fall into a whole series of consequential mishaps – a feat which saw Keaton injured, due to the jump having gone wrong for real, and briefly pausing production (a similar issue arose with Tom Cruise during the filming of Mission: Impossible – Fallout, only with considerably less hilarious consequences). As such, while you may not know Three Ages, you may still be familiar with two of its standout set pieces.
As well as his physical dexterity plus unbelievable resilience and apparent indestructibility, Three Ages is also a perfect demonstration of Keaton’s comedy genius, with absolutely no stone left unturned in mining the humorous potential of every situation. Take, for example, his use of anachronisms, like the sundial wristwatch Keaton sports in Ancient Rome. Given that this was made during the relative infancy of the motion picture industry, Keaton is also certainly not averse to making the film a partial parody of the 1916 D.W. Griffith release Intolerance (subtitled Love’s Struggle Throughout the Age, which is a theme shared by Keaton’s production) – a brief excerpt of Man’s Genesis, a 1912 Griffith short, is also used as one of the bonus features.
Indeed, as with all of Eureka’s other presentations of various Keaton material, the extras elevate the package, delivering some outstanding content despite the main feature being a century old. Film historian and writer David Kalat provides a commentary track, in which he punctures some of the myths and urban legends surrounding both Keaton and the movie, such as the long-held notion that it had originally been the intention that if the feature had flopped, it could have been recut into three standalone shorts. Kalat also gives us a look at the tragic ending of Clyde Bruckman, one of Keaton’s key collaborators on the writing side, and an important figure in the history of silent comedy, someone whose contributions have been overlooked.
One of the most thought-provoking extras is a video essay from Fiona Watson, in which she posits there is compelling evidence to suggest Keaton was neurodivergent, with signs of ADHD and autism present, using various clips from his work to illustrate her points. While the man himself is long gone, and no firsthand diagnosis is now possible, Watson builds a strong argument in support of her hypothesis. Whether or not you ultimately agree with her findings, Watson’s work in presenting her case is well-constructed, and is a refreshingly different look at Keaton the man, offering a markedly novel examination of him. Having content like this is what makes Eureka’s releases so outstanding.
We also have some archival audio recordings of Keaton, from radio skits to interviews conducted with him over the years, and there is a real no-nonsense candour in his words, as well as the novelty of hearing a predominantly silent comedian speaking. Although the times may have changed, along with the public’s tastes when ‘talkies’ came along, Keaton found a new outlet in the growth of television – appropriately, a big threat to the dominance of Hollywood – and an Alka Seltzer TV advertisement demonstrates that Keaton maintained a certain creative vigour long after the movies left him. David Cairns – whose work has also graced previous Eureka Keaton releases – takes a look over the seemingly impossible stunts which graced Keaton’s output.
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In addition, John Bengtson takes us on a tour of some of the locations used by Keaton during the making of Three Ages, showing us how surprisingly little some places have actually changed during this span of time. There is also a collector’s booklet with essays by Imogen Sara Smith and Philip Kemp, giving us their perspectives on Keaton’s work. As for the film itself, while it is presented in the best possible form, it feels fair to say that time has not been kind to the original nitrate stock, and no amount of restoration works on the surviving materials can repair obvious damage to some of the scenes. However, given the relative paucity of the archives when it comes to productions of this time, it seems a minor miracle that we have Three Ages to enjoy at all.
Yet again, Eureka has managed to do Keaton proud, serving up a package which does Three Ages real justice, and ensuring he can be enjoyed by audiences for many years to come. As Blu-ray releases go, this is certainly one not just for all ages, but also for the Ages.
Three Ages is out on Blu-ray on 21st August from Eureka Entertainment.