Three Ages

Three Buster Keaton screenings in one month: I’m not sure if my town is being overly generous or trying to distract me from finishing up the semester strong. Either way, like a moth to a flame, merrily will I go see Buster’s lovely face projected onto a screen.

The Cinefamily hosts a monthly silent film series called “The Silent Treatment,” and while checking back on their calendar, I was delighted to find Keaton’s Three Ages (1923) listed as this month’s screening. It was another lazy weekend afternoon when I made my way down to “Southern California’s living room,” and settled in my usual spot towards the back. An old cartoon was playing onscreen, and scattered bouts of people were still trickling in.

Like clockwork, two guest programmers walked up to the front to briefly introduce the film. Three Ages is Buster’s first directed feature, which is broken down into three parts (interchanging between the Stone Age, Ancient Rome, and the Jazz Age) that share a story about love. Keaton’s reasoning for this structure was to ensure that he could redistribute the film as three separate shorts in case the feature film business didn’t work out in his favor. Our programmers also mentioned that the film recently underwent a 2K restoration, which was clearly evident during the screening. Even from where I was sitting, the details looked as stunning as a newly-polished jewel.

The score we heard is built-in, and I felt like it complemented the film nicely, especially with how it emulated the “sound” of the Jazz Age. Further adding to that soundtrack is the laughter that bloomed around me like a garden of flowers. I took down a few notes on some of the parts that got more than a puff of air through the nose, just for my own amusement:

  • Stone Age: stop motion dinosaur, prehistoric calling card, “wee-gee” turtle, the wacky way Buster depicts sunrises in his films, etc.
  • Roman Empire: chariot license plate (I don’t think I’ve ever noticed this detail before), sundial watch, manicuring the lion (which elicited the most belly-laughter from the audience), etc.
  • Jazz Age: Buster being so cutely awkward, the entire football scene (relatable), Last National Bank (also relatable), etc.

I couldn’t think of ending this post without going across town and visiting the once-famed Iverson Movie Ranch, which almost looks like another world of its own. Keaton filmed some parts of Three Ages here, and it also provided location for a few scenes in one of his shorts—The Paleface (1922).

Specifically, I wanted to try and find the “Bathtub Rock” that Buster takes a prehistoric rinse in during Three Ages. I already spent two separate occasions looking for it last summer, but hesitated to fully climb the rock due to its super-close proximity to someone’s backyard. This time, however, I decided to give it a go, and it was totally worth the inevitable foot cramp I got mid-climb.

In the photo on the right, Keaton’s back would have been facing me.

While quickly scrolling through my phone for more locations to scout, I came across a still featuring a distinct mountain range in the background. It didn’t take very long to spot a similar-looking formation, and sure enough, it turned out to be a perfect match.

There are clusters of houses built all around the area now, but despite these changes, I’m grateful for the elements that are still intact and accessible. They serve as pleasant reminders that seem to occasionally “break” the illusions of film, and allow us to connect to film history on a more personal level. Plus, who can resist the opportunity of getting to walk around in Buster’s footsteps for a while?

6 thoughts on “Three Ages

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