Thirty years after its release, Buster Keaton admitted that his first feature film was essentially three two-reel comedies strung together. Perhaps this was a way for the comic filmmaker to play it safe; he had achieved success for his short films and if Three Ages wasn't going very well, its trio of storylines could have been chopped up into separate films. The picture was a send-up of D.W. Griffith's 1916 masterpiece Intolerance. But instead of following greed and hatred through the ages, Keaton focused on love. His settings were the Stone Age, the Roman era and 1920s America, with Margaret Leahy as the girl and Wallace Beery as the villain in each segment. The stories are intercut, but they're basically the same: the villain uses either brutish or dishonest means to get the girl and Buster must somehow overcome him. Although they're the most crude-looking, the Stone Age scenes often offer the funniest moments: Buster flirts with a cavewoman who turns out to be twice his size; when a foe throws a rock at him, Buster hits the rock with a club, baseball-style, and squarely knocks out his opponent. The modern era offers the most thrilling scene -- Buster tries to jump between two tall buildings, but misses and falls. The fall was unintended, but instead of retaking the shot, he used it to create a series of events that led his character to the back of a moving fire truck.
While this picture ultimately didn't rate among Keaton's most classic work, it was a solid success when it first came out. Keaton did exactly what he'd set out to do, which was establish himself as a feature filmmaker. But it hadn't been all smooth going -- Margaret Leahy was pretty but had no talent for acting whatsoever. The girl was an English beauty-contest winner, and the prize was supposed to be a role in a Norma Talmadge film. She was so bad that Talmadge's director threatened to quit. So the star's producer/husband, Joseph Schenck (who was also Keaton's producer) put her in Three Ages instead. Keaton couldn't really complain -- because of his marriage to Natalie Talmadge, he was Norma's brother-in-law. So he made the best of it, although he later complained that Leahy caused him to throw away many scenes. Leahy eventually left the movie business and found a happier career working as an interior designer.