Three Ages Program Notes

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Three Ages


Directed by Buster Keaton

USA 63 mins U

Three Ages is the first feature-length film that Buster Keaton wrote, directed, produced and starred. The film contains three different stories set in three different time periods of human history: the Stone Age, ancient Rome, and modern times (the Jazz Age). The film was shot in this manner as a kind of insurance for the studio. If it failed, the film could easily be broken up into individual shorts.  The film also works as a satire of D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), which was a film that told four different stories over the span of 2,500 years. Three Ages was made in 1923, and starred Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, and Wallace Beery.

The three time periods that are depicted in the film have characters portrayed by the same actors. In the Stone Age, Keaton is a caveman who competes in a show of strength with another bigger, brawnier caveman (Wallace Beery) for the attentions of a cavewoman (Margaret Beery). In Ancient Rome, Keaton is shown in a rivalry to gain the affections of a Roman noblewoman. Keaton participates in a chariot race and is thrown into a lion’s den. In the modern age (Jazz Age), Leahy is to marry another man, but Keaton discovers that he has been charged with forgery and bigamy.

Three Ages was the first feature-length film where Keaton wore so many hats, but Buster Keaton’s first starring role in a feature-length film was in The Saphead (1920). He was recommended for the role in The Saphead by Douglas Fairbanks. Fairbanks had played the role onstage but had other commitments and, as the film was to have a more comedic slant, put Keaton’s name forward for the role.

This was the only film that Margaret Leahy made. She was discovered in a beauty pageant in England that was seeking new film stars. The stars were then flown out to Hollywood to make a film. Her first attempt was not a success and she was dropped from the film. She ended up making Three Ages, but never acted again after this film. Instead of moving back to England, Leahy chose to remain in California.

Wallace Beery was at one point the world’s highest paid actor. He started out in silent films at the Essanay Studios portraying a Swedish maid in drag named Sweedie. Beery made several of these films including one with his wife, Gloria Swanson. His most notable silent films include: The Lost World (1925), Robin Hood (with Douglas Fairbanks – 1922), The Last of the Mohicans (1920), and Beggars of Life (with Louise Brooks – 1928). He was fired from the studio with the advent of sound, but was contracted by Irving Thalberg to MGM as a character actor. Beery was nominated twice for the Best Actor Academy Award, winning one of them.

Introduction by Peter Lord. Piano accompaniment by Daan van den Hurk.

Keaton: The MGM Years Program Notes


Directed by Kevin Brownlow

UK 38 mins U

Buster Keaton is currently the most popular comedian of the silent era.  But in the late 20s, he was giving anxiety to his producer, Joseph M. Schenck.

Schenck decided that since his releases for United Artists were not as successful as he had hoped, he would pass him over to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, owned by his brother Nicholas.  Here he could be sure his comedies would have stronger support, both in production and release.  And so it turned out – to begin with.

Despite his string of brilliant comedies, MGM insisted that he worked from a script, something he had not done before, Buster dutifully made The Cameraman just as MGM wanted.  It was a tremendous success.  Spite Marriage was another.  But thereafter, problems assailed him.  Sound became a fact of life.  Coming from vaudeville, Keaton had no fear of talk, but MGM did not yet know how to handle it.   The front office arranged his subjects, and the writers to work on them, and Buster was less and less involved.  Gone was his free and easy picture-making style when he could make it up as he went along, stop if he got stuck and play baseball, spend as much as the project required.

He was given a supervisor.  At least one MGM director had left after having that indignity forced upon him.  And it wasn’t as if the supervisor knew anything about Keaton’s style of comedy.  Lawrence Weingarten specialised in sophisticated, light comedy.  The company kept borrowing the co-workers he depended upon and not giving them back.  On top of which Buster was experiencing marital trouble, was being denied access to his sons, and was drinking heavily.

During Prohibition drink swept through Hollywood like a tidal wave.  Keaton was one of those alcoholics who only needed a couple of drinks to make him incapable.  His state is all too apparent in some of his later MGM pictures, where this once athletic actor had to play sitting down.  He also gambled for high stakes – often with the very producers who were crippling his career.  Of course, it was all done with his best interests at heart.  Having made one film he didn’t care for, he was obliged to repeat it three or four times for foreign versions.  In an attempt to increase his popularity, he was given a partner – the silent Buster was teamed up with the garrulous Jimmy ‘Schnozzle’ Durante.  But his popularity didn’t need increasing – even his bad films were huge box office successes, something which him all the more depressed.

He moved out of his bungalow into a land yacht which, parked on the backlot, became notorious for wild parties.  Finally, Louis B Mayer confronted Keaton and ordered him off the lot.  ‘You studio people warp my character’ said Buster.

Keaton eventually returned, on a far lower salary, as a gag-writer, helping to create some of the funniest sequences in film history.

So Funny It Hurt is the story of Keaton’s years at MGM.  It includes rare footage, such as a home-movie shot in New York in 1928 of The Cameraman in production, and it is presented from the old MGM studios by the actor James Karen, a close friend of Buster’s from the 1950s.

Program notes from Kevin Brownlow.

Kevin Brownlow will be in discussion with David Robinson.

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Spite Marriage Program Notes


Directed by Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton

USA 76 mins PG

Spite Marriage is the tale of a tailor who is madly in love with an actress… so in love, that he’s gone to see her play countless times! He is given the chance to marry the woman of his dreams, but what he does not know, is that she is only marrying him to make her old flame jealous!

The film was made in 1929 and stars Buster Keaton, Dorothy Sebastian, and Edward Earle. Spite Marriage was directed by Edward Sedgewick and Buster Keaton. It was written by Lew Lipton, Ernest Pagano, Richard Schayer, and Robert E. Hopkins.

Dorothy Sebastian’s most famous films were in the late 1920s. She was contracted to MGM, and when her contract was over she was relegated to smaller parts. Her other well-known films include A Woman of Affairs (1928) and Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Sebastian and Keaton were romantically linked during the production of Spite Marriage. Edward Earle was a leading man during the early 1920s with roles in East Lynne (1921), False Fronts (1922), and A Dangerous Flirtation (1924).

Edward Sedgwick directed most of Keaton’s films during their time at MGM. They had a shared love of baseball and shared an office on MGM’s backlot. Sedgwick also directed Laurel and Hardy and is credited as discovering Lucille Ball.

This film has the distinction of being Buster Keaton’s last silent film. It is also the second film that he made for MGM after becoming a contract player. The previous film was The Cameraman, also directed by Edward Sedgwick. The Cameraman was a financial success for MGM. In addition to being his last silent, Spite Marriage was also the last film where Keaton was allowed any creative control. When MGM signed Buster Keaton, one of their concerns was over the budgets of his films. In crafting his films, Keaton often used a lengthy improvised approach. MGM wanted Keaton to stick to a shooting script.

Keaton’s original idea for the film was to make a sound comic western. Keaton realised that the success of The Jazz Singer in 1927 was a signal that the age of silent film was about to end. At the time, MGM only had one stage that was used for making sound films. Sound was being reserved for other types of films. It was felt by MGM that comedies that used physical humour where much better made as silent films. Buster Keaton wanted to use sound effects in his films, but keep the dialogue to a minimum.

One of the film’s funniest scenes involves Buster Keaton putting his drunk wife to bed. This scene was recreated with much lesser comedic effect by Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday (1953). Buster Keaton would go on to recreate the scene himself on stage in the 1950s with his wife, Eleanor Keaton.

Accompanied live by Günter A. Buchwald, Frank Bockius, and Romano Todesco performing as The European Silent Screen Virtuosi.

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Pordenone Diaries – Day 1

Pordenone Diaries – Day 1

Some of the Slapstick team have just returned from an amazing weekend in Italy and Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto, which is currently running there until Saturday. For those that don’t know, this is an international festival of silent film held annually in Pordenone, Italy. We spent the weekend immersed in a wonderful atmosphere celebrating silent film and its continued importance and I thought I would dedicate the next few blog posts to this extraordinary event.

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We arrived on Saturday afternoon. The first screening that we attended was entitled, “Flights and Fashion”, newsreel footage of female aviators, followed by L’Autre Aile, a melodrama about a woman who overcomes the grief of losing her lover (a pilot) in a plane crash by becoming a pilot herself. We all agreed that this film was quite interesting in how it portrayed women as taking charge and not letting romantic interests take centre stage in their pursuits. One of my favourite scenes involved the female lead rebuking the advances of a would-be suitor. There is a close-up of him gently placing his hand on hers and she slowly removes her hand from underneath. The films were accompanied by the lovely music of John Sweeney – one of Slapstick’s regular musicians.

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After a lovely meal, we attended the gala screening of King Vidor’s The Crowd. This was my favourite event of the festival. The film was accompanied by a sixty-piece orchestra performing a score composed by Carl Davis (and conducted by the man himself). The film depicts the life and love of an ordinary man in the city and the accompanying ups and downs. The Crowd is a powerful film with some amazing shots. I don’t want to ruin the film by writing any more about it… as it is worth seeking out and viewing! The film looked amazing on the screen and the score sounded superb! The film was preceded by the Roscoe Arbuckle short, The Butcher Boy. This short is notable as it contains the first screen appearance of Buster Keaton, and was jauntily accompanied by Donald Sosin and Romano Todesco.

All information about the films can be found on the festival website.

I will be writing a couple of more posts this week about the other events that we attended.



Wow! It’s been a freezing start to January in Bristol. What’s amazing about January? Hopefully, you are reading this post as a festival fan! It’s now less than two weeks until Slapstick Festival 2017! There is such a great line-up of events this year. Make sure to check out the programme!

I thought I’d take the time this week to explore two of our events that are connected: NOTFILM and When Keaton met Beckett. NOTFILM is a documentary exploring the making of the cinematic collaboration of Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett. The two famously (or infamously) collaborated on FILM, a silent chase film made in the 1960s. Ross Lipman is a film archivist who recently restored FILM, and it was this restoration that inspired him to make his own documentary about the film.

I’ve spent this evening reading a few articles about both films and wanted to share some of the more interesting facts that I’ve found. I’ve not watched either film yet, but I’m hoping to join the audience for what will be a fascinating look at this collaboration. The collaboration appeared to be a rocky one, with both Keaton and Beckett not truly understanding each other. Both events at the festival will provide insight into the work this pair put into the production of FILM. I’ll put the links to the articles at the bottom of this post.

FILM is famous for being Samuel Beckett’s only cinematic work. Buster Keaton was not originally the first choice for the role. Such names as Charlie Chaplin, Jack MacGowran, and Zero Mostel were considered. A great fact regarding this is that Buster Keaton WAS originally approached to perform in the US production of one of Beckett’s most famous plays, Waiting for Godot. Keaton turned it down. The original meeting between Keaton and Beckett regarding the film sounds like it was quite an awkward moment. Beckett was made to wait while Keaton finished an imaginary poker game. Once Beckett was invited in, Keaton only gave one word answers to any questions. Buster Keaton did not appear to be an enthusiastic host.

Leonard Maltin, the famous American film critic and historian, met Buster Keaton on the set of this film when he was 12. Apparently, he crashed the set to meet one of his silent film heroes! One other great bit of trivia is that the cinematographer for FILM, was Boris Kaufman. Kaufman was a cinematographer who worked on On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men (to name just two). Kaufman was also the younger brother of director Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera).

NOTFILM, the documentary exploring the making of the film, will be screened at the Watershed on Wednesday the 18th at 11:30. Tickets can be purchased here.

Robin Ince (with special guests) will be presenting a screening of FILM during the event, When Keaton Met Beckett, at Arnolfini on Friday the 20th at 5:40. Tickets for this event can be purchased here.

Two events out of a festival packed full of great ones. It will be such a pleasure to see you at any of the events!


The Guardian, NPR, The New Yorker, Moving Image Archive News, The New York Times

Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925)

Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925)

Performed with new score at the Slapstick Festival Gala!

Accompanied by the Bristol Ensemble who will be performing the word premiere of a newly commissioned score written and conducted by Guenter A. Buchwald, Seven Chances (1925), one of Buster’s greatest onscreen accomplishments, will lead the celebration of silent comedy on Friday 23rd January at Colston Hall in 2015.

One of Buster Keaton’s funniest comedies, the film features Keaton in the almost impossible situation of having less than twenty four hours to marry in order to inherit a fortune! The film follows Keaton on his quest for a bride, with all the unfortunate (but hilarious) bad luck he could expect; the love of his life turns him down, and this is followed by a string of further turn downs! There are many memorable gags including “an extended sequence, created by accident, with Buster chased down a hillside by a number of small to enormous boulders. During a preview showing Buster noted that a gag sequence of him running away from the brides downhill was falling flat, until the audience saw him briefly running away from rolling rocks that he had accidently dislodged from the hillside.”(

The film originally had a Technicolor opening sequence, but unfortunately the negatives for this sequence have been lost. However, they have been rendered “as clear and faithful a representation of the original colour as is possible today”( . Slapstick Festival is lucky enough to be screening the film with the recreation of this colour sequence!

Slapsticks musical Director Guenter A Buchwald has been commissioned to produce a new score for the comedy classic and Bristols very own Bristol Ensemble will be playing the world premiere on Friday 23rd January 2015. More details to follow.

We will or course be screening other and more diverse comedies at the gala as well, so keep an eye on our website, Facebook and Twitter pages for the latest updates!

(Sources: IMDB and Silent Era