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Saturday, February 9, 2013

THREE AGES (1923)

It’s been decades since anyone had to argue for Buster Keaton’s place in cinema's pantheon. The most recent SIGHT AND SOUND Film Poll, the one that swapped Hitchcock’s VERTIGO/’58 and Welles’ CITIZEN KANE/’41 for first position, lists THE GENERAL/’26 higher than any other comedy. But with all the acclaim, and deep-think analysis, it’s easy to lose sight of just how flat-out funny he can be. Rarely more so than in this first feature-length tale of Love³ Thru the Ages, which inter-cuts the same basic story as played out in The Stone Age (Buster enters on a dinosaur); Ancient Rome (Buster enters on mule-driven chariot); and a Modern Story of 1923 (Buster enters via Model T ‘flivver’). In each, Buster loves The Girl (Margaret Leahy), but her parents opt for The Brute (Wallace Beery). The sheer comic invention needed to produce three gags for every story spot, the technical command on the triple-pronged acceleration of climaxes, it all looks utterly natural. Even the production design is unexpectedly handsome. (Keaton actually came up with the triple-play format as insurance in case the public didn’t accept him in features. Just cut ‘em up into three individual comedy shorts.) The whole film puts a perpetual grin on your face, at least when you’re not erupting with laughs or gasping at some astonishing stunt work. The climax of the modern story is particularly dazzling though a throwaway gag with a ‘spare tire’ during the snow-bound chariot race is tough to beat. (And look for the board that lists the football line-up. It’s the whole Cast & Crew of the film.)

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY: Included on the KINO-DVD is an excerpt from D. W. Griffith’s 1912 short, MAN’S GENESIS. This clever little film, a Stone Age dramedy with the same love triangle angle looks fabulous, beautifully preserved. Ten years older than THREE AGES, the print condition looks thirty years fresher. Happily, this is the only Keaton feature that only survives in such poor shape. But the real kick to the Griffith short comes in seeing how it anticipates Stanley Kubrick’s 2001/’68 when caveman Robert Harron invents the first lethal weapon!

DOUBLE-BILL: Speaking of Griffith, INTOLERANCE/’16, his mammoth foursome of inter-cut stories, was the model for Keaton’s parody. But that mighty film makes a big Double-Bill all on its own. Why not try Harold Lloyd’s HOT WATER/’24 which is another comedy feature made of three short subjects. Only Lloyd plays the interlocked stories sequentially.

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