By the end of 1922 Buster Keaton found himself at a fork in the artistic road. After just three years as a solo star he was already one of the silent screen’s most popular and successful comedians, and he enjoyed relative creative freedom making two-reel short films with his own production company while his bother-in-law, Joseph M. Schenck, handled the finances.
However, many of his contemporaries–including Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd–had already moved on to feature-length films, a leap which Buster had been hesitant to make since his experience on 1920’s The Saphead, a six-reeler in which he replaced Douglas Fairbanks as the lead but didn’t write or direct. The key was finding the right source material for a feature, and the answer came in a rather surprising place.
Following the controversy over the depiction of African-Americans in his groundbreaking Civil War opus The Birth of a Nation the previous year, director D.W. Griffith attempted to answer his critics with 1916’s Intolerance, a sweeping, episodic look at religious and social prejudice in four time periods: Ancient Babylon, the time of Jesus, 16th-century France, and the present day. It was a lavish, influential production that ultimately proved to be a major disaster at the box office, but recalling it several years later gave Keaton and co-writer Eddie Cline the idea of Buster playing the same character in various historical settings. It would also give him an economical way out if it turned out that feature filmmaking was a mistake; the stories could be re-edited and re-released as separate shorts.
“If you let your mind wander back through History you will find that the only thing that has not changed since the World began is–LOVE.” So a bearded, scythe-wielding Father Time reads from a book in the opening scene of Three Ages (1923). To make his point that “Love is the unchanging axis on which the World revolves,” Keaton appears as a hapless would-be Romeo in the Stone Age, Ancient Rome and the 20th Century. In each case the basic story is the same: a pretty girl (Margaret Leahy) is wooed by two seemingly mismatched suitors, a burly and blustering brute (future Oscar-winner Wallace Beery) and an unprepossessing upstart (Buster). After initially losing his intended to his bigger rival each time, Keaton tries to win her back and–after various setbacks–ultimately triumphs.
The prehistoric segment introduces Keaton hitching a ride atop a friendly Brontosaurus, a stop-motion/animation trick that doesn’t necessarily work to our jaded eyes but surely must have impressed 1923 audiences (Willis O’Brien’s The Lost World was still two years away). Unable to withstand a whack on the head from his sweetheart’s father (Keaton regular Joe Roberts) the way Beery did, Buster outdoes the bigger man in a fight with clubs…thanks in no small part to Keaton’s secreting a rock in his weapon. When his trick is found out and he’s dragged away tied to a mastodon, Keaton comes back and manages to sneak off with Leahy, with Berry and his allies in hot pursuit. It takes an all-out battle with rocks, with Buster inventing baseball and the catapult along the way, before he emerges triumphant, dragging a lovestruck Leahy off by her hair.
In Ancient Rome, Beery and Keaton are Imperial soldiers (“Thou rankest high in the Roman army,” Roberts tells Beery, then turns to Keaton and says, “and thou art the rankest!”) who try to settle their mutual pursuit with a chariot race. Thanks to a snowfall the night before, Buster manages to come out on top when he fixes sled runners to his chariot and uses dogs instead of horses. An enraged Beery abducts Leahy and sets a trap that lands Keaton in a lion’s den (with a lion that looks even less real than the previous dinosaur). Buster, though, is able to channel his inner Androcles (or is it Daniel?), befriending the hungry feline with a manicure before he escapes and becomes the first pole vaulter as he rescues his beloved.
“Speed, need and greed” are the defining traits of the Modern Era, where it’s Leahy’s mother (Lillian Lawrence) who–declaring that her daughter’s happiness “hangs in the balance“–selects Beery over Keaton as the groom-to-be based on their bankbooks. The competition here is a football game which Buster wins with a last-minute touchdown, after which Beery manages to get him arrested for possession of alcohol (Prohibition, after all) the day of the wedding. While in police custody, Keaton finds a mugshot of Beery and learns he’s a convicted bigamist, leading to a race against time to get to the church before the ceremony. Said race features a rooftop chase where Keaton, as seen above, was supposed to leap from one building to another. The daredevil comic misjudged his jump, however, and slammed into the wall before landing in a safety net with minor injuries. The sequence as planned was ruined, but the ever-resourceful Keaton devised a revised ending which included his mishap and added new footage. Now Buster falls through awnings and dangles from a drainpipe before he crashes through a window into a fire station, goes down a pole and lands on the back of an exiting fire engine.
Each segment concludes with parallel codas, as we see Stone Age Keaton and Leahy leave their cave with a brood of fur-clad kids, the Roman couple with their own toga-wearing brood, and 1920s Buster with his new wife…and their dog.
As befits its episodic nature, Three Ages works in parts but lacks the cohesive whole of Buster’s later features. There are some memorable sight gags sprinkled throughout (caveman Buster developing golf as well as baseball and attempting to carry off a reclining cavegal who stands up to tower over him; Roman Buster with a sundial wristwatch; modern-day Buster driving along a road, only to have his jalopy break apart after hitting a ditch), but the complimentary stories seem trite even by 1923 standards. Wallace Beery makes a suitably hulking adversary in every era. As far as leading lady Margaret Leahy, she was the winner of a 1922 talent search contest in her native Britain sponsored by Keaton’s producer Schenck and his sisters-in-law, actresses Constance and Norma Talmadge. Brought to Hollywood, the plan was for Leahy to make her screen debut in a drama, Within the Law, but she soon proved to have any sort of serious acting ability. Unwilling to cut his “discovery” loose, Schenck convinced (pressured?) Buster to use her here, but the pretty Brit proved as inept at comedy as she was at drama (a quick IMDb search indicates that this film was Margaret’s first and last screen appearance).
Released in September of 1923, Three Ages was a commercial success, but even Keaton himself was less than thrilled with the final results. It does have its moments, but the time-hopping picture ultimately demonstrates that what might have worked as three short films was less than fully satisfying as one unified feature.