Saturday, January 31, 2009

1. His Prehistoric Past (1914)

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh

Caveman Quotient:

This movie is non-stop caveman from word go, although it does feature a cop-out ending.


I don’t know if His Prehistoric Past is the very first caveman film ever made, but it’s certainly the earliest on which I could find any information. What’s interesting, therefore, is just how many of the clich├ęs of the genre are already in place right here at the beginning. You see, when it comes to caveman movies there are generally two types. The first consists of those that take place entirely in a distant past, and purport to present a sort of documentary-style “life of the savage” overview of the daily hardships involved in fighting dinosaurs and running for caveman mayor (see: One Million BC and its progeny). The other, arguably more popular approach involves a guy or guys penetrating a lost world or being shipwrecked on a mysterious island, only to find that it is home to a race of (generally female and more often than not rather shapely) cave people. The latter approach is certainly less scientifically accurate, but on the other hand it lets guys in U-boats or Tarzan get in fights with pliosaurs, and that’s hardly something to argue with.

His Prehistoric Past appears to be set way back in caveman times, but it nonetheless follows the Lost World formula pretty squarely, albeit playing it entirely for laughs and satirising the salacious, club-em-and-drag-em-back-to-the-cave mentality captured so well by the Jimmy Castor Bunch's "Troglodyte". The setting is the Solomon Islands, a place “South of 53 – where the man with the biggest club has all the fun”. The inhabitants of the Solomons consist, in finest caveman movie tradition, of a fat old king named Low-Brow who looks alarmingly like Francis Greenslade, a bearded jester named Ku-Ku who spends all his time mincing about like a coked-up chorus girl, a scrawny assistant who does nothing much of anything and a gross of sexy cavewomen who spend their time fawning over the king and looking deeply dissatisfied with their lot. So, right from the outset we have the standard Neolithic sex fantasy – something which has persisted down through the ages and seems to be the principle impetus around most of the genre.

Of course, this being a Chaplin film, the Tramp shows-up to take advantage of the situation, by immediately scheming to take advantage of the women. This translates into things like chatting-up the King’s favourite wife, Sum-Babee, behind his back and then trying to kill Low-Brow by pushing him off of a cliff. If this gives you the impression that the Tramp is kind of a dick, then you’d be right – the king befriends him, invites him into his house, gives him martinis and takes him hunting for turkeys, and all the Tramp can think to do is pretend to shoot him with an arrow and then throw him off his cliff and steal his wife? What a nasty character. And it’s nothing compared to his behaviour after seizing the throne, which consists of using the sexy cave-girls as foot stools and stealing kisses from Sum-Babee.

Of course the Tramp gets his come-uppance when Ku-Ku, who the Tramp had replaced as Low-Brow’s favourite, rescues the king from the canyon into which he’d tumbled, thus allowing the Tramp to get smashed over the head with a rock just as he’s declared how happy he is. This has the peculiar effect of rousing the Tramp from his slumber on a park bench, where he was dreaming until he got hit on the head by a spoil-sport copper.

As entertainment goes this is mildly entertaining, but regrettably a lot of the humour is pretty prehistoric (ahaha). The comedy mostly comes from the idea of the Tramp, a twentieth century wise-ass, wandering about in caveman times doing things like mixing martinis and lighting a rock against the heel of his boot like a match. Admittedly the image of a pipe-smoking caveman in a bowler hat is a pretty neat one, but it’s not really enough to raise this to classic status. The cheerfully misogynistic tone of the humour is another curious aspect (although sexism is par for the course in caveman flicks), and I’m not really sure what to think of a line like “We catch’em young, treat ‘em rough and tell ‘em nothing”. At the same time the Tramp is such a good-natured arsehole that it’s pretty clear we’re not supposed to be taking these things to heart, and it mostly seems to play into the “put-upon woman” style of comedy that was ever so popular back then. It's just more of that "Oh we we're such uncivilised savages" comedy, where it's funny because we haven't changed all that much - something roughly analogous to that TV show where the chimpanzees starred in a soap opera.

Unfortunately while there’s good stuff here, most of the film is just blandly diverting in a sort of flat, vaudeville style. The Tramp is constantly mugging and chattering, and it actually really made me wish that the film could have been shot in sound. As it is, Chaplin wagging his caveman furs like a tail as he chats to Sum-Babee may be a pretty cute concept, but it’s not exactly riotous comedy. Similarly, Mack Swain’s mugging may be truly awe-inspiring, but that doesn’t really make it all that funny. And what am I to make of an exchange like

King: In the Solomon Islands, every man has one thousand wives

The Tramp: I should have brought a bigger club!

Ah yes, dick jokes. The common bond between all peoples across both space and time.

I’m No Scientist, But...

Okay so the idea of critiquing the science in a movie like this is ridiculous. I’m not even sure when the damned thing is supposed to be taking place! I do have a lot of questions about how the society in the Solomon Islands sustains itself, though – namely, despite the king's "one thousand women" line, there are about half a dozen sexy cave women, one old guy, one fat guy, and one guy who is just a little too “Rip Taylor”. There are no children present, and no other men, and no old women either. The only possible explanations for how such a society could arise are either 1) some kind of deadly plague that took all but the most stereotypical of the inhabitants or 2) the king kidnapped a bunch of ladies and then took-off to a new island along with a couple of guys who could never possibly present him with any real competition.

On the other hand, while the cave girls here are of a sexy persuasion it's the sort of sexiness that you might actually encounter in an ordinary woman in your supermarket or place of work. In addition to this, all the cave-girls have awful hair and dress in these lumpen, unappealing fur togas that actually look like something a chilly primitive might wear. This unexpected touch of realism puts His Prehistoric History ahead of practically every single other caveman film ever made.

Other questions which arise include the ever-popular trend of having the cavemen all live in a desert for some reason or other. Why is this always the case (aside from the fact that it’s cheap to shoot footage in Bronson Canyon)? The prehistoric era was just as heavily foliated as our current times, if not more so, and in general people don’t like to live in noxious wastes unless they have to. I suppose this might be a misunderstanding arising from the fact that fossils are often found in what are now barren deserts, but it’s more likely just laziness on the film makers’ parts. In any event, the habitat of the Solomon Islands, rather than sporting lush forests full of cuscuses and wild pigs, seems to consist entirely of one tree with a turkey in it. And given the lack of skill the natives display in catching that turkey, I’m surprised they were alive at all when the Tramp washed-up, let alone that they didn’t conk him on the head and devour him.

Say, that’s an idea – maybe the reason there are so few people is because the king and his brides have been eating them all. After all, Low-Brow did say that everything was permitted.


Two McClures out of five.

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