His Prehistoric Past (1914)

by popegrutch

This early Charlie Chaplin film came at the end of his short tenure at Keystone Studios, and may by the most “mature” of the movies he made for the company. This post is a part of the Time Travel Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Wide Screen World. Check out the other entries here. I hope everyone was able to safely “time travel” back from Daylight Saving Time!

We see Chaplin in his familiar “Little Tramp” getup, trying to get comfortable for a nap on a park bench. There’s a funny bit of business where he tries to straighten it our despite a broken board. Soon, he’s a asleep, and the real movie begins in the “prehistoric” era. A group of cavemen and -women surrounds the “Kink,” a chieftan-type played by Mack Swain. Another caveman does a rather swishy effeminate dance, which put an odd spin on the “Kink” intertitle for me, but probably wouldn’t have for most audiences in 1914.  We now see Chaplin in a funny variation of his outfit: he still has the hat and cane, but now his traditional too-tight jacket and baggy pants have been replaced by a frayed bearskin. He has a pipe, and fills it with tobacco, then tries striking several rocks against his leg, as if they were matches. One finally lights, and he smokes the pipe. He spots an attractive young cavewoman (I believe this is Gene Marsh), who is fetching water for the “Kink” and goes to speak with her. He does some funny business with the tail of his bearskin. The “Kink” gets tired of waiting and sends the swishy caveman off to find the water girl. He sees Chaplin and fires an arrow into his bottom. Once the cavegirl gets it out, Charlie throws a large rock at the attacker, which misses him and flies over to hit the “Kink.” The caveman chases Charlie around a boulder with a pointed stick, and the “Kink” comes over to investigate, and winds up getting stuck in the bottom by the other caveman, who is clubbed by Charlie in turn.

The “Kink” is now convinced that Charlie is his friend, and he takes him back to the tribe, where everyone bows down. Charlie keeps hitting the “Kink” accidentally (or not) with his club, but manages to smooth it over or blame someone else each time. Charlie is invited in to the “Kink’s cave for a drink, but winds up spilling a lot of it when he tries to shake it like a martini inside two hollow rocks. He throws the rest of it into the face of a servant (Al St. John). The he goes out to meet the girls of the tribe. Of course, the one he met first is the only one he really wants, but he seems to enjoy the attention. Another caveman walks up and distracts them for a while, but Charlie clubs him and takes his girl over to some rocks by the seaside. When the “Kink” comes out, he sees Charlie frolicking in the waves with the girl (who seems quite close to having a wardrobe malfunction in her furs). The “Kink” finally becomes possessive and pulls her away from Charlie. He smooths things over with the “Kink” again and they have more drinks. The whole tribe starts up a dance (several girls dancing with girls here), and Charlie asks his girl to dance. They do a rather wild jitterbug-style dance, while the others look on. The “Kink” catches sight of this and challenges Charlie to prove himself as a hunter. He gives Charlie a bow and arrows, and they go out to the forest. Charlie targets a bird in a tree, but ends up hitting the nest, raining eggs down on the  “Kink” and himself. Charlie finds the girl by a cliff’s edge an starts taking to her, and when the “Kink” comes to object, he trips him over the ledge. The “Kink” falls a long way but seems fine. Charlie returns to the tribe and announces that he is the new “Kink.” Everyone bows down, but the caveman from the first dance finally gets up and helps the “Kink” climb back up the cliff. The “Kink” picks up a large rock and sneaks up behind Charlie, breaking it into fragments over his head. Suddenly we cut back to Charlie on the park bench. A police officer is smacking him with his billy club, telling the Little Tramp that it’s time to move on. The movie seems to set up an opportunity for Charlie to get the upper hand, but on current prints it cuts off before the final gag.

1918 poster that used stills from the movie.

In terms of time travel, this falls very clearly into the “dream sequence” category: the dream is clearly set up by a framing story at the beginning and the end, and the audience is never asked to accept that Charlie has actually traveled back to the Pleistocene era. Still, the majority of the movie takes place in the imagined past, and makes fun of various caveman tropes that audiences today will still recognize. Especially when Charlie deliberately plays with anachronisms like the match-rock, it reminds me of the Flintstones. Charlie has packed an awful lot of gags into this one piece, as evidenced by the length of the summary, above. I think his ambitions were probably straining the budgets, production schedules, and abilities of Keystone to keep up with, at this point, but the result stands out as a pretty impressive comedy.

Apart from time, this movie made me think a lot about space, and how it was handled in the Keystone universe. There are a limited number of locations: the tribal campground, the cave, the forest, the watering hole, the cliff, and the seaside. Each of these is a discrete unit defined by a single camera frame. The camera can zoom in on people and objects within the set, but it never moves to show us different parts of the area, or how they are related to one another. We know that all of these “sets” are near each other, because sometimes someone in one set can see what is happening in another, or even throws a rock or arrow from one to the next (or through it into another one), but when characters exit one area, they are invisible until they enter the next. In this sense, it reminds me of a classic “Interactive Fiction” computer game, like Zork, that was made up of various “rooms” the player could visit that interlocked in sometimes illogical geographies. Younger readers who’ve never experienced this might get some insight from the “Digital Antiquarian” blog, although you really need to play one of these games for yourself to understand. Anyway, this model is descriptive of a lot of Keystone’s output, and even some of the work Chaplin did at Essanay. It’s a style of filmmaking that links the early theatrical “proscenium” frames to the freer, more mobile camera of the late silent period, and I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about it, but it fascinates me.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh, Al St. John, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Sydney Chaplin, Helen Carruthers

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

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