Posted by Susan Doll on September 9, 2013
The second episode of The Story of Film, a 15-hour documentary series on cinema history by historian Mark Cousins, airs tonight on TCM. This week’s episode is subtitled “The Triumph of American Film and the First of Its Rebels.” TCM is supporting this ambitious documentary series with programming tailored to each episode. Tonight, a selection of silent comedies attests to “the triumph of American film.” Tomorrow, films by Robert Flaherty, Erich von Stroheim, and Theodor Dryer represent the “first of the rebels” who didn’t readily conform to the classic narrative style, the star system, and other conventions that still define Hollywood. I saw most of Cousins’s documentary series at the 2012 Palm Springs International Film Festival. A filmmaker himself, Cousins is passionate about cinema; he believes it is a force capable of bringing people together. He talked with excitement about watching movies from all eras and from all over the world. At the PSIFF, he introduced each episode of the series, which ran over the course of several days, and he stayed for the Q&A’s until the theater managers made him leave.
Likable and charismatic, Cousins spoke with me after one of the Q&As. We talked for several minutes about his sources (including Bordwell & Thompson and Sklar), and how he conceived the series after writing the book The Story of Film. As much as I liked Cousins and as much as I admire and recommend the series, there is no mistaking a tinge of animosity toward the Hollywood industry, the classic narrative style, the star system, and genre filmmaking. His perspective is not unlike other European cinema scholars whose national film industries do not include formula filmmaking and a star system. Nonetheless, the series is a remarkable overview of world film, including a look at the cinemas of countries too often ignored.
“The triumph of American film” during the 1920s refers to the emergence of Hollywood as the most successful and influential film industry in the world, a position it has never really relinquished. The most universally engaging example of 1920s movie-making is silent comedy, which remains relevant and influential to this day. Tonight’s programming includes One Week, The General, The Kid, City Lights, Never Weaken, and Safety Last. Airing at 8:30pm EST is a lesser known film by Buster Keaton, The Three Ages, which was the comedian’s segue from short films to features.
The Three Ages takes place in three different historical eras—the Stone Age, Ancient Rome, and the Modern Age. The plot is the same in each: Buster Keaton courts the girl of his dreams, but he is thwarted by a rival, played by Wallace Beery. The interwoven stories are structured around four plot actions. The characters from each era are introduced and the rivalry between Keaton and Beery is set up; then, in each story, Keaton attempts to make the girl jealous, followed by a contest between the two male rivals. Each story concludes in a happy ending in which Keaton gets the girl.
The film opens with Father Time reading a book titled Three Ages, which notes, “Love is the unchanging axis on which the world revolves.” If this Victorian-style figure and the florid quote seem reminiscent of something from a D.W. Griffith film, the similarity is intentional. The Three Ages is a send-up of Griffith’s Intolerance, which was infamous at the time for it pretentions and its losses at the box office. Father Time is equivalent to the Lillian Gish character in Intolerance—the eternal mother figure who endlessly rocks the cradle.
Like most directors and producers in the industry, Keaton knew more about Griffith than just his box-office miscalculation with Intolerance, and his references to “the father of American filmmaking” go much farther. The Stone Age segment of The Three Ages spoofs a 1912 short by Griffith called Man’s Genesis, a dramatic interpretation of the prehistoric era. In Man’s Genesis, a caveman dubbed Bruteforce becomes jealous when another man shows interest in a cave girl called Lilywhite. In anger, Bruteforce creates a lethal weapon by embedding a rock inside a club. In The Three Ages, Stone Age Buster, who is dubbed The Faithful Worshipper of Beauty, does the same to defeat Wallace Beery, called The Villain, during a contest in which they vie for the hand of Beauty.
In addition to flowery intertitles such as “A troubled heart ever yearns to know the future,” Keaton emulated Griffith’s cinematic techniques, which had become the basis of the classic Hollywood style by 1923 when The Three Ages was released. Hollywood melodramas and action-heavy films tended to conclude with complex sequences of parallel editing in which the protagonist rescues the leading lady. These were known as “Griffith last-minute rescues” during the pioneering days because he had fine-tuned the technique and made it integral to the cinema language. Keaton concludes each story in The Three Ages with a version of the Griffith last-minute rescue. Actually, the plots to most of Keaton’s feature films—in which his character works hard to win the hand of the leading lady—will be comic re-workings of Griffith-styled melodrama.
As the bridge between Keaton’s shorts and features, The Three Ages includes characteristics of both. For example, Stone Age Buster is akin to most of his characters in that he is initially perceived as weak, inept, or lacking some essential quality. He looks downright scrawny in comparison to his rival, the tall, barrel-chested Wallace Beery. However, he eventually wins Beauty’s affections through ingenuity and action—not brute strength or prowess. In the Stone Age story, his character fights off his rival’s cohorts by bombarding them with stones; in the Ancient Rome story, he rescues Beauty from Beery through a series of stunts involving a horse and a spear; in the Modern Age, he embarks on a last-minute rescue to save the girl from marrying the villainous, untruthful Beery. Thinking on his feet with a minimum of fuss and expression is typical of Keaton’s screen persona, the Great Stone Face.
The Three Ages reflects Keaton’s filmmaking style, which he would perfect in his features. The large scale of Keaton’s gags, in which his characters are often at the mercy of nature or interacting with machines, vehicles, or buildings, necessitates the use of long shots, which characterize his visual style. Keaton was also a master at the trajectory gag, which consists of several large-scale stunts in a row propelled forward by a cause-and-effect logic that concludes with a big finish. In the trajectory gag that concludes the Modern Age story, Keaton is pursued by the police as he races to save the girl from marrying Beery. He dashes up the fire escape of a building to the roof. Standing on the ledge, he faces the roof of the adjacent building. Using the fire-escape ladder as a springboard, he leaps across to the other building to catch the ledge, but he misses. He falls down through the cloth awnings of several windows, before catching hold of an awning and grabbing the adjacent drainpipe. He clings to the drainpipe, which comes loose from the building and pivots on its lower end, projecting him into a window two stories down. The building happens to be a fire house: Keaton barrels through the window, grabs the fire pole, and slides down to ground level. He leaps onto the back of a fire truck as it drives out of the garage to a fire. Legend has it that Keaton had not intended to miss the roof on the leap from one building to another, but once he did, he had to change the gag to match this accident. However, given Keaton’s expert calculations, athletic prowess, and intensive planning, this is likely another Hollywood myth.
Keaton’s interest in the mechanics of filmmaking is revealed in the clever Willis O’Brien-style animation in the opening of the Stone Age story. The scene opens with Keaton pacing back and forth laterally, but when the camera cuts to a long shot, it reveals that he is on the back of a dinosaur. The dinosaur is a cartoon, so the shot is a composite of live action and animation. It could also be a tip of Keaton’s porkpie hat to Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur.
Unfortunately, a major weakness is leading lady Margaret Leahy, who landed the role of Beauty as the result of winning a “beauty” contest in England arranged by Keaton’s backer, Joseph Schenck. While Keaton was preparing the film, Schenck, his wife Norma Talmadge, and Keaton’s wife, Natalie Talmadge, journeyed to England to meet Leahy. They arranged for her and her mother to come to Hollywood, where she was supposed to costar in Norma Talmadge’s next movie. Leahy had no training as a performer, and Schenck soon realized she was incapable of handling drama. He begged his brother-in-law to cast Leahy instead, because he thought that comedies could better get away with using a nonprofessional. However, her inexperience was a liability for any genre, necessitating the editing of many of her shots from The Three Ages. Leahy never made another film.
Episodes from The Story of Film will air every Monday and Tuesday through December, with supportive programming by TCM to elaborate and illustrate the various topics. That’s about the length of a semester in college. Think of it as taking a class in film history in the comfort of your own home.
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