November 2, 2019
Three Ages (1923)
Grade: 62/100

Director: Buster Keaton
Stars: Buster Keaton, Wallace Beery, Margaret Leahy

What it's about. True, Buster Keaton had a leading role in the 1920 feature The Saphead. But as a filmmaker, Three Ages was his feature debut. The comedy is a loose parody of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, without all the deaths and handwringing. The advantage of such a format is that he could follow Griffith's lead and break the feature into three shorts at a later date.

Keaton is once again attempting to marry a pretty girl. In this film, she is Margaret Leahy. Keaton pursues her in three different time eras: the stone age, the Roman Empire, and the modern (1923) American city. In each case, Keaton faces stiff competition from big and burly Wallace Beery. Leahy's parents invariably favor Beery, but ultimately Keaton wins the girl.

Three Ages was the one and only film for Leahy. Keaton collaborator and brother-in-law Joseph Schenck sponsored a beauty contest in England. Some 80,000 women submitted photographs, and ultimately Leahy became the winner. First prize was a film role, but Leahy proved untrainable as an actress, was fired from the production of Within the Law (1923), and her screen career ended abruptly.

How others will see it. Keaton's reputation is built on his 1920s features, which are loaded with gags and stunts. By far the best-known stunt is Keaton's jump between two buildings falling short. Keaton plunges through awnings, and slides down a drainpipe and a fireman's pole. Keaton, who seldom if ever used a stuntman double, was injured in the fall, and missed three days of shooting.

The most amusing gag takes place in a restaurant. Keaton is alone at a table, forlornly watching Beery successfully romance Leahy. Keaton mistakes water for wine, and passes out drunk. Beery passes a note via a waiter to a jealous husband, setting up Keaton for a sucker punch.

Although nobody regards Three Ages as Keaton's best feature, it is regarded favorably. Today at, it has 3.7K user votes, and a creditable user rating of 7.1 out of 10. The user reviews note the love and rival formula but regard Keaton as the master of the genre, due to his novel and amusing gags. The most popular gag has Keaton giving a lion a pedicure to avoid getting eaten, a parody of the Androcles fable. Also beloved is the gag of a car hitting a speed bump, and promptly falling into pieces.

How I felt about it. In Keaton's 1920s features, he overcomes physically superior opponents to get the girl, showing courage and ingenuity. As the film progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Leahy favors Keaton over Beery. By the end, she smiles blissfully while caveman Keaton is dragging her by her hair. But Keaton will have to endure much hardship and humiliation before his ultimate triumph, at the hands of the much bigger Beery.

Despite the film's many entertaining moments, one has to endure gags that fall flat, such as the No Parking sign in the Roman segment, or the bee in the flower, or the vase dropped on Keaton's head while playing the lute, or Keaton getting pinned by a female wrestler. In addition, Three Ages lacks the moments of transcendent brilliance seen in Keaton's two best features, The General and Sherlock, Jr..