Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline
Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell
Starring: Buster Keaton, Margaret Leahy, Wallace Beery, Joe Roberts, Blanche Payson, Kewpie Morgan, George Davis
Country: USA
Running Time: 71 min
Year: 1923
BBFC Certificate: U

The legend goes that Buster Keaton, or the studio executives funding his latest venture, were worried about him transitioning into directing feature films, but nevertheless wanted to make that move. So, for Three Ages, his directorial debut feature, Keaton decided the best course of action would be to work with a story that’s split into 3 distinct sections that could work on their own as shorts, should the feature-length end product prove to be a disaster. Doug Kent shoots down this myth, claiming there’s no evidence this is true and it doesn’t make sense, the more you think about it. However, it makes for a nice introduction to my review of Eureka’s forthcoming Blu-ray release of Three Ages.

Despite being Keaton’s directorial debut feature, the film is the last of his silent films to make it to Blu-ray in the UK. Eureka, for whatever reason, have been releasing his oeuvre in a fairly random fashion, often in three-film sets, but have finally completed the collection with Three Ages (with Criterion filling a couple of gaps too).

The film is somewhat of a spoof of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, taking its concept of intercutting between thematically-linked stories set in markedly different time periods. In Three Ages, Keaton tells three classic love-triangle stories across the ages, each starring the same actors in similar roles.

There’s a stone age section where Keaton plays a man with his heart set on a girl played by Margaret Leahy. She’s currently the squeeze of Wallace Beery though, who has won over her parents (Joe Roberts and Lillian Lawrence) by demonstrating his brute strength. Then we have a section set in ancient Rome, where Keaton’s lowly soldier is downtrodden by the higher-ranking Beery, who plans to marry Leahy, much to the displeasure of Keaton. Finally, there’s a ‘modern age’ thread, which sees Keaton’s character failing to impress Leahy’s parents once again, as they’re keen for her to marry the wealthy Beery.

In each of the eras, Keaton’s character attempts to win the affection of his sweetheart, usually unsuccessfully.

The story (there’s just one really, despite the multiple settings, as they all repeat the same formula) is much flimsier than in his later films but they succeed in providing a skeleton for a series of enjoyable skits. Keaton indeed puts the ‘three settings sharing the same story’ concept to good use, putting unique spins on gags as they’re echoed in subsequent eras.

The film takes a little while to get off the ground though, with a lot of the earlier gags, particularly in the weaker stone age section, only eliciting the odd chuckle. However, once it finds its feet, Three Ages becomes quite a charming romp.

As with the rest of Keaton’s great silent work, there are a number of gobsmacking physical feats that provide some of the best gags. One sees Keaton invent baseball, by using a club to hit back a rock thrown at him. In one single take, the rock is hurled and Keaton hits it right back at the assailant, knocking him over. Reports vary, but some claim it took 76 takes to get it right. Another stunt sees Keaton leap across two rooftops, only to not quite make it, plummeting through a couple of canvas awnings before grasping onto a drainpipe that breaks off, sending him on a slip, slide and fall down onto a fire engine just on its way out of the station. Legend has it that the gag was adapted to this after Keaton accidentally missed the initial jump but, once again, Kent has his doubts about the truth behind this story.

There’s also a wonderfully devised and executed skit where Keaton’s car literally falls to pieces whilst driving it over a bump in the road.

I loved some of the less extravagant jokes too. I found the scenes with the Roman Keaton cast in a dungeon with a lion particularly amusing, even if the lion is clearly just a man in a suit (which was required for what the animal does).

There’s one regrettable gag that suggests black people have always been obsessed with gambling but, otherwise, the film has aged well. The final gag with the ‘modern age’s little lapdog replacing the hoards of children in the earlier eras even feels quite modern, despite being 100 years old.

There’s a little early stop motion in the film too, which was lovely to see, even if it’s quite rudimentary. This was designed by the animator Max Fleischer, a legendary figure who would later be best known for producing the first Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons.

Keaton and Beery were pros at this time, albeit largely with shorts in the former’s case, so it’s business as usual for them and the experienced Lillian Lawrence gets a couple of fun scenes too, alongside Joe Roberts, who was a regular in Keaton’s shorts. However, the leading lady here, Margaret Leahy, was a competition winner from the UK and had no on-screen experience. This would prove to be her one and only role. She was supposed to debut with a starring role in Within The Law but the director, Frank Lloyd, was so unhappy with her acting skills that he threatened to quit if she wasn’t taken off the production. This failed acting career troubled Leahy throughout her life, possibly fuelling her tragic suicide at the age of 64. Keaton reportedly had to work hard to eke out a decent performance from her though, whilst hardly standing out as a great actress, she works here in an underwritten love-interest role.

So, whilst Keaton would go on to make more substantial and perfectly-formed feature films, Three Ages proved to be a strong start. With many gags that still hit the mark 100 years later and some wonderful examples of Keaton’s fearless stuntwork and great physicality, it’s a pleasure to watch.


Three Ages is out on 21st August on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. Due to the state of the remaining film sources of this hundred-year-old film (see below) you shouldn’t expect a pristine transfer but, away from the damaged portions, the print looks decent, with well-balanced contrast and fairly crisp details.

Philip Kemp on the transfer: “For some years Three Ages was thought lost. In 1954 a negative was found, but in such an advanced state of decomposition that the laboratories initially rejected it as unsalvageable. But by then Keaton’s reputation was reviving and, after extensive treatment, most of the nitrate negative was saved, though still showing traces of emulsion damage here and there – and the film could be restored to its rightful place in the Keaton canon.”

The score comes through nicely too. It’s a traditional affair, using a piano backbone with solo instruments often playing a melody over this.

– Limited Edition Slipcase [2000 Copies]
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a new restoration by the Cohen Film Collection
– Reconstructed original intertitles
– Brand new audio commentary by film historian and writer David Kalat
– This Side of Impossible – brand new video essay by David Cairns
– Under the Flat Hat – brand new video essay by Fiona Watson
– The Six Ages of Comedy – brand new featurette based on an essay by Keaton
– Brand new interview with Ian Lavender
– Man’s Genesis – 1912 short by D.W. Griffith that is parodied in Three Ages
– Video essay on the film’s locations by John Bengtson
– Archival recordings of Keaton
– A collectors booklet featuring new writing by Philip Kemp and Imogen Sara Smith

Doug Kalat’s excellent commentary provides an incredibly well-researched journey through the history of the film and those involved. A particularly interesting topic he discusses is the myth that it was shot in this 3 storyline structure so that it could be split into 3 shorts, as execs were nervous Keaton couldn’t sell a feature. I also appreciated hearing about the ‘borrowing’ of gags throughout the silent era and into the first talkies. It’s a fascinating story that Kalat tells with much enthusiasm.

In his essay, David Cairns provides a relatively brief summary of the history of the film. He repeats a fair amount of information Kalat delivered in his commentary, though Cairns sticks to the myths about the film being devised in such a way as to work as 3 shorts, as well as with regards to the roof jump stunt.

‘Under the Flat Hat’ sees Fiona Watson take a self-described neurological approach to looking at what made Keaton tick. She believes he may have been on the autistic spectrum, as well as possibly having ADHD. She makes a fascinating and convincing argument.

In his interview, Ian Lavender discusses his love of Keaton’s films. He played the actor in a play about the filmmaker’s life. His interview is not going to teach you anything new about Keaton but it’s a sweet, affectionate piece.

The locations featurette is well-researched and interesting. I appreciated some of the facts that were dug out, such as how one of the locations was also used in Stagecoach/em> and that the stone age ‘bathtub’ is still there.

There’s also an excerpt from D.W. Griffith’s Man’s Genesis. This nicely restored short is unintentionally silly in places and hardly Griffith’s finest hour, but worth a look.

‘The Six Ages of Comedy’ sees Keaton himself briefly, sardonically running through the silent comedy trends over amusing clips from his films.

The archival pieces listed include a slightly corny commercial, a mildly amusing radio skit and a couple of brief radio interviews. None are revelatory but seeing Keaton himself in action is always welcome.

Finally, the booklet contains a couple of valuable essays. The first, written by Imogen Sara Smith, sees the author describe the enjoyable “silliness” of Three Ages and how it bridged the gap between Keaton’s more cartoonish shorts and his features which, though still loaded with gags, would be more grounded in reality with their jokes always serving the narrative.

Philip Kemp’s essay provides a strong overview and analysis of the film. Once again, many of the facts are repeated from elsewhere in the set but it’s nice to have them detailed on paper.

Overall, Eureka have done another great job in bringing one of Keaton’s classics into the Blu-ray age. There’s a fair bit of crossover between the extras but there’s some wonderful material here, particularly Kalat’s commentary. As such, it’s an easy recommendation.


Where to watch Three Ages
Three Ages - Eureka
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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