This short film stars Lon Chaney early in his career, and even shows of a little of his talents with makeup, for which he would later become famous. I was able to attend a rare screening at Cinecon, and so can now review the film, long thought lost and rediscovered in 2008. Note, as always in these cases, that the plot summary is based on my memory of a single viewing, and may be flawed.
The movie is a metaphorical statement on human relationships, using cavemen to represent the instinctive drives. It opens by showing a classic love-triangle in caveman form. Lon Chaney is “The Lion,” a brute who shoos off “the Lamb” (Gus Inglis) and claims “the Woman” (Pauline Bush) by brute force. Now, a new character, named “the Fox” (Millard K. Wilson) sneaks through the bushes and fires an arrow from a bow, killing the Lion, and claiming the woman for himself. This is followed by a transition to modern times.
It begins by establishing Chaney once again as the Lion, showing him in a brawl with another man, winning by brute force. At the riverside, we see a sequence in which the modern Lion takes the Woman away from the Lamb through force and the Fox attempts to defeat the Lion through ingenuity (this time setting a trap by attaching a string to a rifle). During this, there are superimposed images of the cavemen characters to drive home the point. When the Lion fails to trip the trap, the Fox runs away with the Lion in pursuit, leaving the Woman (who seems rather relieved) to her own devices. She takes off her stockings and begins to wade into the water, but accidentally drops one. She tries to reach it before it floats away, and winds up falling into the river herself. Now we see the Man (William C. Dowlan), who is fishing downstream. He feels a tug at his line and reels it in, discovering the stocking. Now the Woman appears behind the rock he is sitting on, and she tries to stealthily swipe the stocking, but the Man sees her. They playfully flirt and leave together.
The final sequence shows the outcome of the various paths. The Lamb, now an elderly minister, sits among a group of spinsters sipping tea. The Fox and the Lion are together, living in poverty with a very ugly Indian woman (with a mustache) as their mutual companion. The Man and the Woman live in middle-class wedded bliss, their child running about happily as another minister comes over to visit.
Lon Chaney, sans makeup, in 1919.
This was a pretty basic little movie, rather simple for 1914, but interesting in terms of effects and the ambition of the storytelling. Essentially, it appears to argue that where brute strength and cunning were enough in the struggle for survival in “nature,” civilization benefits the person capable of empathy and understanding. It seems to me that this case would have been stronger if the Man had jumped in to save the Woman from drowning, especially if it was made clear that none of the other characters would risk their lives for her, but possibly this was beyond the capacity (or budget) of the filmmakers, or maybe I’m reading it wrong somehow. Chaney is impressive in his makeup (the woman presenting the next film commented “Wow, who knew Lon Chaney was so buff?”), and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also made up the other actors in their caveman and aged appearances (and maybe drew the mustache on the Indian). The use of multiple exposures to remind the audience of the caveman metaphor is typical of the period, but works well.
Very little of Chaney’s work from the 1910s survives today, which is one reason we’ve only seen him once before on this blog, even though he was working from at least 1914 on and made over 100 films before 1920. Most of these movies are lost, and this one was thought lost until recently, when it was discovered in the UK and sent to the Museum of Modern Art for duplication, and it was their print that I was able to see at Cinecon, apparently in the first audience to view the film for over 100 years. This is largely to the credit of Jon Mirsalis, who many of us know as an accompanist to silent movies and is also a collector and preservationist in his own right. I hope that the day will come when everyone can see it, along with the rest of our public domain film heritage, freely and easily from home.
Director: Joseph De Grasse
Starring: Lon Chaney, Pauline Bush, Millard K. Wilson, William C. Dowlan, Gus Inglis
Run Time: 25 Min
This movie is not yet available on the Internet.