Three Ages (Buster Keaton & Edward F. Cline / U.S., 1923):

Griffith’s "Sun Play of the Ages" is the admitted parodic basis, though the influence of Duchamp’s 3 Standard Stoppages should not be discarded. A romantic triangle is repeated thrice to illustrate the vicissitudes of courtship through the millenniums, and to give Buster Keaton a bigger canvas for his protean inventions. Keaton enters prehistoric times atop a stop-motion dinosaur (McCay’s Girtie, surely), spots the comely cave dweller (Margaret Leahy) and rushes to declare his love, a beefy troglodyte (Wallace Beery) beats him to it. If in the Stone Age the maiden’s father (Joe Roberts) ponders his prospective sons-in-law by applying his club to their skulls, in Roman times it is a matter of military standing: "Thou rankest highest in the Roman army," he tells Beery’s centurion, then to Keaton’s runty foot soldier, "And thou art the rankest." The shift to modern times caps the evolution from brontosaurus to jalopy, the matriarch (Lillian Lawrence) chooses a suitor by comparing bank accounts, as befits the age "of speed, need, and greed." The filmic treatment is fleet and varied: The hero up close at a restaurant, struggling to mime romantic bravado after being emboldened by contraband liquor, then later a zipping figure in the snow-covered coliseum, charging in a chariot-sled and running into Shaw’s affable lion, who appreciates a manicure. The intertwined chases in all three settings already point to Keaton’s knack for comic architecture (rocky crevasses, windows and edifices are integral to the flurry of gags), and there’s at least one magical shot -- when the little caveman tries the Paleolithic drag-the-mate-by-the-hair routine on a disinterested giantess and gets knocked into a pond, Keaton tumbles in slow-motion, blowing her a kiss. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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