Sunday 7 December 2014

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh and Fritz Schade
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
His Prehistoric Past sits uncomfortably at the end of Chaplin's year at Keystone Studios, his final short to reach theatre screens. It wasn't the last one that he shot, as it was in the mail to New York two full weeks before Getting Acquainted was begun, but that picture was released two days before this. Neither was it the final chance for audiences to see Chaplin's name in a Keystone title, as Tillie's Punctured Romance, the feature in which he'd shot supporting scenes midway through the year, was still going through post-production and wouldn't hit theatre screens until 21st December. However it's more of an ending to me, because it feels rather like an afterthought. At first glance, it's merely weak, albeit in an oddly interesting way, as a period piece set as far back as the stone age, with the Little Tramp in a loincloth but comically retaining his hat and cane. The catch is that it's less funny than anything else that had carried his name for months, and it runs on for two reels with less material on show than he'd often used to fill one.

It's difficult to look at it as anything other than a contractual obligation, that he knew he was leaving the studio and couldn't be bothered to put as much effort into this last picture as he was into the negotations with competing studios about where he would move to next and for how much money. While he claims in his autobiography that 'it was a wrench leaving Keystone', it wasn't a slow one. 'I finished cutting my film on Saturday night,' he explains, presumably talking about Getting Acquainted, 'and left with Mr Anderson the following Monday for San Francisco.' That's Bronco Billy of the Essanay Company, at which he would spend the next year and a half at the salary of $1,250 a week, on top of a $10,000 signing bonus. Mack Sennett had baulked at $1,000 a week, saying that it was more than he earned as the head of the studio, but midway through 1916, Chaplin moved again, this time to the Mutual Film Corporation, for $150,000 and a salary of $10,000 a week. His Prehistoric Past was surely quickly forgotten.

However, on analysis, there's a little more going on in it than initially meets the eye. For a start, it's not a new concept that Chaplin had conjured up out of thin air; the whole piece is a parody of a two year old D W Griffith picture called Man's Genesis, which appears to be a rather serious fable told by a grandfather to his little ones, but it carries an unwieldy subtitle, A Psychological Comedy Founded on Darwin's Theory of the Genesis of Man, just in case. In this film, Lilywhite, a young cavegirl with a straw outfit that makes her look like Rapunzel, is eagerly sought after by both Weakhands and Bruteforce. She wants the former but gets the latter instead, because the characters are appropriately named. However, while Bruteforce has brawn, Weakhands has a brain. Back in his cave, he apparently puts a doughnut on a stick and thus creates a club, with which he wins the day. It's effectively the Dawn of Man sequence from 2001: A Space Odyssey, phrased as a fable to explain that brain beats brawn, even if it happens to be with a club.
As a serious piece of art, Man's Genesis is rather comedic, which may explain the subtitle, but it certainly explains why Chaplin felt it ripe for parody. Instead of an old man sitting down to stop his grandchildren squabbling, we get the Little Tramp curling up on a park bench and promptly dreaming of the stone age, in the form of 'the kink of 'Wakiki Beach' surrounded by his favorites'. The 'kink' is Mack Swain, wearing a lot less than usual but retaining his full Ambrose moustache, and the reason for the typo in 'king' is that he has a sexy sextet of cavegirls seated around him. Other sources identify him as King Low-Brow, which might explain why he's watching Cleo the bearded medicine man attempt some sort of prehistoric ballet instead of putting those 'favorites' to good use. The blonde is Cecile Arnold, but her sisters in skins don't seem familiar, even if the BFI lists one as Vivian Edwards. His favourite 'favorite' is Gene Marsh, who is either his favourite water maiden or his favourite wife, but Weakchin soon hones in on her anyway.

No guesses as to who Weakchin is, but he gets a memorable enough entry for Chaplin to remember it in his autobiography. They do say the clothes make the man and he's a fetching sight in his bearskin, with the usual bowler and bamboo cane retained for laughs, however anachronistic they clearly are. He has a pipe too, which he fills with hairs that he plucks from the bearskin and lights with a rock he strikes on his leg instead of a match. Leapfrogging the majority of the plot of Man's Genesis, he also arrives complete with a spiked club in hand. Gene Marsh isn't as ethereal a girl as her namesake Mae Marsh was in Man's Genesis, but the outfit is too close to be accidental. She cosies up with Weakchin, but the battle is soon commenced when Cleo spies them together and shoots the newcomer in the back end with an arrow. For a while, it's painful, with Weakchin, Cleo and Low-Brow improvising gags around a huge boulder like they invented the first pantomime, but it does get better.

Many of the laughs come from attempts to apply modern day concepts to the stone age like they're in a town called Bedrock and they're a modern stone age family. This is Meet the Keystones, right? I did get a mild chuckle out of swapping cards or mixing cocktails, but the king's cave is quite obviously a bundle of tarps and never rings remotely true. Of course, Weakchin soon finds himself alone on the beach with the bevy of beauties because this is a Chaplin movie, and when another suitor attempts to steal them away, he has his club ready to steal them back. Showing a little restraint, he hones back in on Gene Marsh, who is clearly uncomfortable, not so much to be stolen away by Chaplin but because her outfit apparently has a habit of falling off. As they frolic in the ocean, she spends a conspicuous amount of time trying to keep it on and, at one point, apparently fails. There definitely seems to be a wardrobe malfunction going on as they try to clamber back out of the water, suggesting that body parts are on display that shouldn't be.
What leaps out here most is that His Prehistoric Past is a lot slower than it has any reason to be. It makes little sense to see something like His Musical Career notably crammed into a single reel, while this picture benefits from a second for no reason at all. There are moments of note, not only Weakchin's entrance but Gene Marsh's come hither looks on the road and Mack Swain literally getting kicked off a cliff, but they're few and far between. Instead we have to settle for Fritz Schade's ballet dancing, Al St John being used as a footstool and that cringeworthy chase round the boulder. Mostly we're stuck with a lack of imagination, a lack of energy and a lack of sophistication. Chaplin had been learning so much at Keystone, especially during the second half of 1914 when he had more creative control, and watching these pictures on their centennials has ably highlighted just how much, not just in acting, but use of character, emotion, pacing, composition, editing, choreography, you name it. Almost none of that is on show here.

And, of course, the obvious reason is that he really didn't care any more. He was about to take his talent and his newfound knowledge of the cinematic arts to Essanay Studios, not only for the increased salary but to serve as the next step in his growth. It's so easy to dismiss this as a half-assed last effort to finish up and get gone, but there's one massive reason why I can't buy it. That's because, when we get to the very end where Weakchin has occupied the kink's cave with his favourite girl, when King Low-Brow shows back up and drops a large rock on his head, when we leap back into the present day to see that become a Keystone Kop's truncheon waking up the Little Tramp from his slumber, we can't ignore the final scene. That's not just any Keystone Kop smiling at Charlie, that's Chaplin's half-brother Syd, four years his elder, who had finally joined him in the movie business. It was Syd who had introduced Charlie to Fred Karno in 1908 and now Charlie had returned the favour and introduced him to Mack Sennett.

Oddly, Syd's contract was earning him $200 a week, $25 more than his now very well established brother was getting, but Chaplin had a good idea what he was worth and his salary was about to leap forward. He held no grudges and even offered Syd a partnership in their own company, but the latter felt that it was a risky proposition, especially as he was earning more money than he'd ever earned in his life. So Syd held back at Keystone for another year, where he made a number of films including A Submarine Pirate which, after Tillie's Punctured Romance, was the highest earning picture that Keystone ever made. After leaving Keystone, Syd would become Charlie's manager, securing him record contract after record contract. They would work together for years. Given how close they were, I can't help but see this final scene as acutely deliberate: Charlie's last moment in a Keystone short but Syd's first in a Chaplin picture, a passing of the torch scene. It's a good moment, but it really deserved to be in a much better picture.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

His Prehistoric Past can be viewed for free on YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered; the full version debuted in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1.

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