Saturday, January 5, 2008

Keaton Takes On Griffith

I've never seen D.W. Griffith's 1916 epic Intolerance. It's supposedly his best. For all of its technical achievements, The Birth of a Nation is, well, intolerable. Maybe I should have seen Intolerance before watching Buster Keaton's loose spoof of it, Three Ages (1923). Oh well. It's pretty awesome that Keaton did a satire/homage of a film released only 7 years prior, and such a massive film at that. Intolerance is subtitled "Love's Struggle Throughout the Ages." Pretty self-explanatory. I guess it deals with stories in different periods of history to show how little things have changed in regards to humanity. Keaton's Three Ages deals with, you guessed it, three eras: the Stone Age, the height of the Roman Empire, and the modern day. What a brilliant premise. It's a great riff on Griffith's film, and it certainly set the standard for historical spoofing.

What's really ingenious about Three Ages is that the same actors are involved in each of the three storylines. Basically, there's Keaton's character, the honest, average Joe, the girl of his desire (Margaret Leahy), his rival for the girl's affections (Wallace Beery), and the girl's mother and father (Lillian Lawrence and Joe Roberts), who want to choose a suitable companion for their daughter. It's brilliant how he interweaves the stories, instead of just separating them entirely. We spend time in the Stone Age, then spend the equivalent time in the Roman Empire, and then the modern age, and then the cycle starts again, and so on and so on. I also love how parallel things happen in each of the segments. In the first trio of segments, guy sees girl, guy likes girl, bigger, stronger rival sees girl and likes girl, girl's parents need to determine the worth of both suitors. Another later set involves a competition between Keaton and Beery, played out delightfully in all three times. You get the drift. It's great because it's so universal, and it really shows how people haven't changed very much at all.

The sets are just amazing, and the scope is pretty incredible. And the jokes are phenomenal, as usual. It's a hilarious film. Once again, the woman is not just a helpless heroine, and I love that. There are some great gags, like a chariot race in snow-covered Rome with Keaton using a dog sled. The dogs slow down, and he checks the feet of one dog, and then he removes it and replaces it with a spare dog, like a spare tire. It's wonderful. There's also baseball with rocks and a club in the Stone Age. In the modern age, there's a great sequence in a restaurant involving a note calling someone a "boob." It's great. :) And the sight of Keaton dressed as a caveman is just inherently funny.

I think the film lags a little bit at times, but it hardly matters when the rest is so clever. It's not his best, but it's still really great. I've yet to meet a Keaton film I didn't really love. Three Ages, besides displaying the universality and timelessness of love and human behavior, does something else. It proves that film is universal and timeless.

Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5)

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