Three Ages (1923) Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Three Ages is Buster Keaton’s first feature length picture (1 hour+) and it offers an amusing spoof of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916). In particular, the three different parallel epochs portray love throughout the ages, rather than intolerance. Apparently, the studio Metro Pictures did not have a tremendous amount of faith in Buster Keaton with this film and thus the three different stories acted as a kind of insurance for the company. If the project flopped, the studio would simply divide each short film into three separately released pictures.
An elderly “father time” figure opens the book of “Three Ages” as he reminds us of the constancy of love across three different ages: The Stone Age, The Roman Age, and Our Modern Age of “Speed, Need, and Greed.” In each epoch, a mediocre Buster Keaton falls in love with Margaret Leahy only to face the wrath of Wallace Beery. The Stone Age gives us the caveman archetype as Buster Keaton plays golf and rides atop a dinosaur in a memorably unique special effects scene. The stop-motion effects predate The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933)! In The Roman Age, Keaton finds himself in an amusing chariot race scene, albeit in a tiny sled, which I’m inclined to interpret as a satirical prelude to Ben-Hur. Lastly in The Modern Age, we are offered the funniest of the three. It features a highly memorable stunt scene of Buster Keaton jumping across a rooftop, through windows, and into an accidental car chase sequence. Always serving as his own stuntman, Buster Keaton actually quite seriously injured himself while leaping across from roof to roof. The incident forced the production back a bit and also allowed for some trademark improvising on-set. The shot of his injury was actually the clip used in the final cut which we see today. These are the kinds of impressive precedents Buster Keaton set with his movies. Today, action stars who complete their own stunts clearly owe a debt of gratitude to Buster Keaton (I am thinking here of the physical comedy of Jackie Chan or the infamous rooftop injury of Tom Cruise on the set of Mission Impossible). There are many other hilarious moments in The Modern Age, such as a scene in which Buster rides his car over a bump only for the car to spontaneously disintegrate beneath him. In the end of all three ages Buster finds love. In The Sone Age, he has lots of children, In The Roman Age, he has fewer children, and in The Modern Age, he has a dog.
Three Ages is great, though not among my personal favorites of Buster Keaton’s corpus. It launched Buster Keaton’s extraordinary string of 10 films he created under his own production company, Buster Keaton Productions, while distribution was handled by Metro Pictures. This was Buster’s golden age, and it only ended when he signed his fateful MGM deal, an act he would later dub “the worst mistake of my life.”