“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. Love is the unchanging axis on which the world revolves.”
So begins Buster Keaton's Three Ages, a cheerful comic romp through three different time periods: The Stone Era, The Roman Era and The Modern Era. In each of these, Keaton plays the sort of character he usually plays: a perpetually bewildered, unlucky chap who encounters many obstacles on his quest for love. On the flip side of the coin we have Wallace Beery (Grand Hotel), playing a primitive brute and Keaton's chief romantic rival in all three eras. Finally, there's Margaret Leahy (making her only credited screen appearance), playing the ever-conflicted object of affection. These characters are credited simply as The Boy, The Villain and The Girl, which is a pretty solid indication of the simplistic types we're getting.
Structurally, Three Ages feels like the cinematic equivalent of a classical symphony. It's divided into several chapters, and in each of those chapters we're treated to a scene from each of the three eras. In every instance, all three scenes will tackle the same subject from a slightly different angle. For instance, in the first chapter, Keaton makes an effort to woo Leahy but ultimately finds himself rejected by the girl's parents. In The Stone Era, Keaton is rejected due to his lack of physical strength. In the Roman Era, he's rejected because of his low social status. In the Modern Era, he is turned away due to his lack of wealth. Meanwhile, the parents heartily embrace Beery's character, who is respectively strong, high-ranking and rich.
As a meditation on the nature of romance, Three Ages isn't much deeper than a Bugs Bunny short (in fact, it's probably much less complex when you factor in Bugs' omnipresent gender fluidity), but none of this is really meant to be taken seriously. Like a number of Keaton films, this one's basically a live-action cartoon that does its best to churn up as many silly laughs as it can over the course of its running time. More than anything, it feels like a precursor to Mel Brooks' History of the World: Part I, stuffing loads of enjoyably anachronistic gags into its portrait of the ancient past (including a delightfully silly scene in which a Stone Age mystic uses a live turtle as a “Wee-Gee Board”).
The basic idea is so simple (and follows such a predictable path) that Three Ages feels a little bloated even at a mere 63 minutes, but Keaton delivers his share of memorably entertaining moments. There's a gloriously funny Roman Era sequence in which Keaton attempts to befriend a hungry lion (played by a man in a lion suit), and a Modern Era football sequence which foreshadows some similarly entertaining material in Keaton's College. The actor/director's knack for graceful physical comedy is once again on full display, as well, and there's one rather astonishing Stone Era moment in which Beery smacks Keaton with a club and the latter flips over backwards like a feather tossed by the wind.
Given the film's age (it was made nearly a century ago), it's not particularly surprising that the central female character is treated as little more than an object of conquest. Across all three eras, Leahy isn't really given any say in the matter of who she'll spend her life with, instead forced to sit quietly as two men and her parents determine her fate. It has been strongly suggested that the inexperienced Leahy (who won the role in a contest, and was never given the opportunity to appear in another film afterwards) couldn't really act, which may have been a factor in the way her character is presented. Still, were the film to be remade today, one suspects that the Modern Era segment would differ from the other two a good deal more sharply. Elsewhere, there's a racist, groan-inducing gag involving a group of dark-skinned slaves, though this is also the sort of cheerful, stereotype-driven joke that might have felt at home in a Looney Tunes short once upon a time.
Three Ages is an ambitious film in terms of production design (I mean, there's a stop-motion dinosaur in the opening scene!), but in retrospect it mostly feels like a good-natured warm-up for the silent comedy classics Keaton would churn out throughout the mid-to-late 1920s. It leans a little too heavily on the basic premise for laughs (“See, the joke is that the same thing is happening across all three eras!”), but it's undeniably charming during its strongest moments. Keaton's considerable gifts are worth savoring in any era.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 63 minutes
Release Year: 1923