A century ago, both Los Angeles and the new movie industry within its borders were growing, and evolving, at breakneck speed. In 1923, after making nineteen independently-made short films for producer Joseph M. Schenck, Buster Keaton released his first comedy feature, Three Ages, a parody of D.W. Griffith’s 1916 epic of love’s struggle throughout the ages, Intolerance. While Griffith depicted his tale in four interwoven stories, Keaton efficiently traced love through three eras: the Stone Age, the Roman Age, and the Modern Age (Los Angeles in the Roaring Twenties, described in an intertitle as “The Present Age Of Speed, Need, and Greed”). The three sequences that unfold in parallel episodes are essentially three two-reel comedies, which minimized the risk if it failed to capture an audience as a feature. As Keaton described in a 1958 interview: “Cut the film apart and then splice up the three periods, each one separately, and you will have three complete two-reel films.”
In each episode, Keaton repeats the basic narrative of rival suitors (Keaton and Wallace Beery) vying for the affection of a pretty young lady (Margaret Leahy), hopping back and forth from epoch to epoch. Beery, who became a great film star in the 1930s in his own right, was a well-known character actor when Keaton hired him for Three Ages. Beery had worked for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company and Mack Sennett in the 1910s, and critics had praised his depiction of King Richard the Lion-Hearted in Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922). For the leading role of “The Girl,” Keaton wanted his sister-in-law Constance Talmadge, who had played Intolerance’s Mountain Girl. However, Joseph Schenck (producer of both Keaton’s and Talmadge’s films) would not allow it, believing two stars together in one film was a waste. Instead, Schenck cast Margaret Leahy as Keaton’s heroine. Incredibly, Leahy, a twenty-one-year-old imported beauty, was selected because she had won a “New British Film Star” competition, in which the prize was to appear in one of Schenck’s films in a prominent role. Leahy was blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and pretty but, unfortunately, those turned out to be her only qualifying attributes. She had neither the training, the talent, nor the temperament for acting. Keaton suffered through many difficulties with her during the production of the film. Easy scenes had to be shot over and over again. However, true to his nickname, the “Great Stone Face” never complained and tried to make the best of the situation. Three Ages turned out to be Leahy’s only film role. She later became bitter about her disappointing Hollywood experience and grew to loathe the film industry, eventually burning the scrapbooks she had kept from that time. However, she remained in Los Angeles, married and divorced twice, and was employed as an interior decorator by Bullock’s department store before committing suicide in 1967 at the age of sixty-four.
Work on Three Ages began in January 1923 and required nearly five months to complete. Keaton structured the Modern Age story first, and the ensuing rivalry between Keaton and Beery for the affection of Leahy as the cornerstone for the Prehistoric and Roman segments. The Stone Age sequence, which was filmed on location in the “Garden of the Gods” section of the Iverson Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, California, provided a memorable backdrop of boulders and mountains. Keaton remembered (and was inspired by) D.W. Griffith’s Man’s Genesis (1912), a Stone Age love triangle Chaplin had parodied in His Prehistoric Past (1914). However, he conceived a truly inspired moment of his own for this sequence, introducing himself atop the back of a giant brontosaurus. Keaton had seen Windsor McCay’s animated film Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and wanted something similar for his Prehistoric plot. Max Fleischer, the creator of the popular Out of the Inkwell series of cartoons, made a miniature Buster surveying the landscape from the back of a miniature dinosaur. Fleischer brought the beast to life using the clay figures and stop-motion animation.
Technical director Fred Gabourie designed some large sets for the film’s Roman episode, but they were not as elaborate or as expensive as they appear. The Colosseum set for the chariot race was built up only to the first two tiers with the rest of the iconic amphitheater depicted on a glass shot. (Glass shots, a well-known technique in the 1920s before rear projection and modern digital special effects, were elaborate backgrounds painted on glass and positioned precisely before the camera to achieve the desired effect). The newly-built Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum appears in the film to suggest ancient Rome as well. Keaton filled this episode with silly gags, the most memorable perhaps being his encounter with a ridiculously fake lion in need of a pedicure. The tale of Androcles—a slave saved by the mercy of a lion—had been popularized a decade before in playwright George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play, Androcles and the Lion.
During the filming of the Modern Age episode, a mishap occurred that Keaton cleverly worked into the film. One scene required Keaton to leap from the roof of one building to another. A set was constructed on the former Hill Street Tunnel in downtown Los Angeles, giving the illusion that Keaton was twelve stories up but, in reality, it was only a (relatively) less dangerous thirty-five-foot drop. Keaton used the lid of a skylight as a springboard for his eighteen-foot jump from one rooftop to another. However, he misjudged the spring of the board and failed to make the leap, hitting the wall of the other side and falling into the waiting safety net below. The usually indestructible Keaton bruised his knees and was in bed for three days. When the crew ran the footage of the accident, codirector Edward F. “Eddie” Cline suggested rather than trying to repeat the stunt they should expand the sequence to work the fall into the film. Buster lands instead in the local fire station, where, bewildered, he finds himself on the rear platform of a fire truck as it speeds off to a fire. According to Keaton, this altered sequence consistently provided the biggest audience laugh of any gag in the finished film.
Three Ages enjoyed its world premiere in Britain in June 1923 with an American release in September 1923. Any fears that Three Ages, with its interwoven storyline, hysterical visual comedy, and Keaton’s bravura performance would not stand on its own as a feature film was short-lived. The movie not only was a commercial success, but it also launched Buster Keaton into feature films. Although Three Ages is ultimately a transitional film, filled with the farcical fun that more appropriately belonged to the period of his short comedies, it was the precursor to a string of superb features. His next film, Our Hospitality (1923), was the first of Keaton’s comic masterworks, followed by Sherlock Jr. (1924), The Navigator (1924), and The General (1926).
Presented at SFSFF 2023 with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (Rodney Sauer, Britt Swenson, David Short, Brian Collins, and Dawn Kramer)