(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)
If Three Ages looks like three two-reelers rolled into a feature film, that’s exactly what it is. Ostensibly, the movie is Buster Keaton’s spoof of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic Intolerance, in which Griffith examined man’s inhumanity to man in storylines set in three separate eras. But for this, his first “proper” feature (in The Saphead, he was basically a stand-in for the leading man), Keaton hedged his bets. Keaton basically filmed a trio of shorts with similar but separate stories set in The Stone Age, the Roman Empire era, and “modern times” (1923), figuring that if the movie bombed in feature length, he could indeed edit it into three short subjects.
Keaton liked to regard his movie studio as thoroughly independent, and to a certain extent it was. Yet, ironically, Three Ages was the first Keaton movie to show just how much the shots were called by Keaton’s producer and brother-in-law, Joseph Schenck. Keaton’s leading lady in all three stories, Margaret Leahy, had been dumped on Keaton by Schenck. As a prize for winning a beauty contest in London, Leahy had been given a role in a movie starring Keaton and Schenck’s sister-in-law, Norma Talmadge. Unfortunately, Leahy had absolutely no gift for doing the simplest movements on film, and she drove her director, Frank Lloyd, to distraction. When Lloyd threatened to leave if Leahy wasn’t removed, Keaton took her on as a favor to Schenck.
Years later, Keaton echoed Lloyd’s assessment of Leahy’s minimal talent, complaining that he had to preview Three Ages eight times before getting it right. Happily, none of this angst is present in the final film; Leahy really does look wonderful and is passable enough as Buster’s erstwhile love – the result, apparently, of some very judicious editing.
Surprisingly, the rest of Keaton’s efforts at box office “insurance” came from him, not Schenck. Besides the business of making three shorts as a feature, Keaton also relegated his usual heavy, “Big” Joe Roberts, to a supporting role. For the villain, Keaton chose Wallace Beery. Beery had recently scored in a co-starring role in Douglas Fairbanks’ version of Robin Hood, and would have continued success in the talkie era, playing a likable mug in movies such as The Champ and Min and Bill.
It was also with this movie that Keaton added his “gang” of gag men – Joseph Mitchell, Jean Havez, and Clyde Bruckman – to his staff. (An inside joke in the movie is that these men’s names are listed as football players on the roster shown in the “modern era’s” penultimate climax.)
Three Ages was a huge hit in its day and still plays as a better-than-average Keaton comedy; unfortunately, much of it isn’t really “Keatonesque” and is more funny/cute than funny/ha-ha. The movie tries to score many of its laughs simply from ancient-to-modern anachronisms, a route to laughs that has been worn thin by generations of cartoons such as “The Flintstones.” (One of the movie’s funnier anachronisms, because it still rings so true, is of the seer who goes outside to post his weather forecast of “fair and sunny,” only to have to abruptly change it to “snow” when he is hit by a cold front at the front door – proving that weather forecasters weren’t any more reliable 80 years ago than they are now.)
The movie’s main triumph is the way that Keaton takes comedy premises frequently used by other comedians – Chaplin did a caveman comedy, as would Laurel & Hardy a few years later – and makes them uniquely his. One priceless moment occurs when stone-age Buster tries to hit on a very assertive cavewoman (Blanche Payson, a few years before she terrorized Laurel & Hardy in Below Zero and Helpmates). Payson takes a club and knocks Keaton over a cliff with a lake at the bottom. As Keaton goes over, he nonchalantly blows Payson a dainty kiss before hitting the lake.
Conversely, all three of the movie’s plotlines seem a bit more Chaplinesque than the norm, showing how Buster consistently triumphs over a big bully in order to win the girl. But again, Keaton makes the material his own. (When Roman-era Buster is imprisoned with a lion, he vaguely recalls the “Androcles and the Lion” fable, but not quite clearly enough – to win over the lion, he gives him a manicure.) Still, the usually stoic Buster seems to begging for pity here a little more than usual.
Three Ages is enjoyable, but by Keaton’s own lofty standards it was only “all right.” Keaton would soon enough find elaborate ways to stretch his laughs to feature length, and to make cinema history in the process.