THREE AGES has two distinct disadvantages in my eyes, one being it is parodying INTOLERANCE, which I find to be one the great masterpieces of film, silent or otherwise, and it also is a reluctant transitional feature film that is simply not as good as the films that follow. I do try keeping these things in mind, because for what it is, an hour of entertainment, versus what it's not, INTOLERANCE or THE GENERAL, THREE AGES is a good film.
I'll start out with INTOLERANCE comparisons. Yes it's true if THREE AGES wasn't to Keaton's liking, he would have split the three different time periods into three shorts. With INTOLERANCE, Griffith started making a film called THE MOTHER AND THE LAW, basically the modern era of INTOLERANCE, and then got more adventurous with what became INTOLERANCE. Interestingly enough, Griffith actually did release the two more developed time periods into separate films, the aforementioned THE MOTHER AND THE LAW, as well as THE FALL OF BABYLON. Keaton did not follow through with the three shorts idea. Also, the three time periods Keaton uses are very evenly placed and almost workmanlike while Griffith develops some stories more than others based on inspiration, yet manages to successfully weave the theme of intolerance through each time period. INTOLERANCE also has that brilliant ending where the editing gets quicker and all four stories build into their climax together where the climax of each Keaton story ends on a relative whimper separately. I also like the way each era gets a different colored tinting in INTOLERANCE and wish THREE AGES would have done the same.
OK, now that we've established THREE AGES is not high art... so what? THREE AGES is a funny film, and that's the ultimate reason why I watch Keaton. A laugh I got was that I.D. card Keaton had in the Stone Age where his face was carved on a rock. I would love to have that prop. That turtle on the ouija board also makes me laugh, as does Keaton falling into the river (dig that camera angle and Keaton blowing a kiss as he falls), the domino effect he makes when he flips later in the film whilst knocking down a few soldiers, the car falling apart earlier in the film on the middle of the road and Keaton's stone faced reaction, and also when he's down on the football field....Curly's chicken with its head cut off routine... in 1923! Of course, the best gag in the film is the chase towards the end of the modern era where Keaton misses the ledge of the building, falls down through three awnings, catches a pipe or some contraption, said contraption falls, catapaults Keaton through a window, sliding him on the floor until he hits a fireman's pole, causing him to slide on it to the floor below. A brilliant gag, and I've read Keaton was supposed to actually catch the ledge of the building but lost his grip. Instead of doing another take, they built this brilliant new gag based on Keaton's initial mistake. A very improvisational way of film making, something that would not be done at say, MGM.
One other point I'd like to make is the majority of Keaton's great silent features, and even some shorts, have brilliant climatic chases. Here, due to the nature of the episodic different eras and the more restrained length than Griffith was allotted, there is no great chase here. Just a relatively mini one with that one awesome gag. Flaws aside, and not living up to decidedly more a,bilious films, THREE AGES is still a fine film.