Released: 7 December 1914, Keystone
Director: Charles Chaplin
Writer: Charles Chaplin
Duration: approx. 22 mins
With: Mack Swain, Sydney Chaplin, Fitz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Gene Marsh
Story: In the Stone Age, Charlie is still the Tramp…
Production: Spurred by the 1912 discovery of ‘Piltdown Man’ (early human remains later revealed to be a hoax), a host of films, comedic and more serious, dealt with the topic of ancient man and prehistory. For Biograph, D.W. Griffith had produced Man’s Genesis (1912). Buster Keaton included prehistory as one of his Three Ages (1923, spoofing Griffith’s Intolerance, 1916). Much later, in 1928 Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared individually (before they were teamed up) as cavemen in Flying Elephants for Hal Roach. His Prehistoric Past—the last of his shorts released by Keystone—was Chaplin’s idiosyncratic take on the same subject matter.
Chaplin uses dreams as a way in to telling his story, with the Tramp falling asleep on a park bench and imagining his prehistoric adventure. This neatly explains the brilliant comic conceit of having Chaplin’s prehistoric figure sporting the same bowler hat, cane and moustache he always does (not that this would have particularly needed explaining, as it is such a brilliant move). His usual well-worn costume is replaced by movie-friendly animal skins. Chaplin’s character, called Weak Chin, comes across another tribe lead by Mack Swain’s King Low-Brow. Weak Chin quickly falls in love with the King’s favourite of his many wives, and then replaces the King when it is thought he’s died by falling off a cliff. The return of the King leads to comic violence and a rude awakening for the sleeping Tramp in the park.
The policeman at the short’s climax, whose taps on the head awakens Charlie from his alfresco slumbers, was played by Chaplin’s older half-brother, Sydney. It had long been believed that Syd had started work at Keystone after Charlie left, but in the early 1980s Bo Berglund (of Classic Images) identified Syd as the policeman in His Prehistoric Past. It would have been the first time the brothers worked together on film.
In his autobiography, Chaplin recalled how one simple joke had given rise to a two-reel short comedy: ‘I started with one gag, which was my first entrance. I appeared as a prehistoric man, wearing a bearskin, and, as I scanned the landscape, I began pulling the hair from the bearskin to fill my pipe. This was enough of an idea to stimulate a prehistoric story, introducing love, rivalry, combat, and chase. This was the method by which we all worked at Keystone.’ This may have been enough to get Chaplin started, but it is unfortunate that his final two-reeler is one of the less inventive from his time at Keystone, resembling nothing more than (as James L. Neibaur points out) ‘a disjointed version of a Keystone “park” comedy, with a different setting and costumes.’
In a series of appearances in Chaplin’s late-Keystone works, Mack Swain’s bulk had been effectively contrasted with Chaplin’s own slight frame, and in the previous two shorts with that of Mabel Normand, too. Here, Chaplin has the large man play against type as the King of this prehistoric tribe. Swain seems to have thrown himself enthusiastically into this role, following Chaplin’s acted-out directions fairly closely. This approach to coaching his co-stars to give exactly the performance he needed would follow Chaplin through his work at the next few studios where he set up shop.
The reception of Chaplin’s work was to change over the coming years, with his 12 month stint at Keystone often relegated to a long forgotten past. Even as soon as 1919, a mere five years later, Chaplin’s earlier work was being dismissed in comparison with his films for Essanay, Mutual, and First National. When His Prehistoric Past was revived in 1919, the New York Times dismissed it as ‘an early Keystone product of the time when Chaplin’s mastery of pantomime had not been developed or discovered’. Contrary to that opinion, it is clear that in re-viewing Charlie Chaplin’s first year of work in movies from Keystone in 1914, not only did his art develop dramatically across those 12 months but his ‘mastery of pantomime’ was, in fact, in place early on, even if the material didn’t always allow him to display it.
There may have been other good reasons why this short (made after Tillie’s Punctured Romance, but released before that feature film) was underpowered. Chaplin claimed that he was distracted both by the impending end of his contract at Keystone and by the offers now coming in from rival studios for his services. Chaplin notes in his autobiography that completing his final short was ‘a strain, because it was hard to concentrate with so many business propositions dangling before me.’ The comic had attended a Motion Picture Ball in November 1914, when both this and Getting Acquainted were made, and the offers from other studios seemed to gain new urgency around then. There was nothing Mack Sennett could do to either keep his star name ignorant of the possibilities of work elsewhere nor was there any offer he could make that would keep Chaplin at Keystone. He’d learned all he could within the limiting confines of that studio’s working methods, and while grateful for the education, it was time for him to try something else somewhere new.
Sennett was outbid for Chaplin’s services by Jess Robbins at Essanay who offered the comic star a $10,000 signing bonus and a weekly fee of $1250: that was enough for Chaplin and his business manager, half-brother Sydney, to sign on the dotted line. By the middle of December what the Washington Post described as ‘one of the most popular comedy artists in the motion picture industry’ had a new home. ‘It was a wrench leaving Keystone,’ Chaplin admitted. ‘I had grown fond of Sennett and everyone there. I never said goodbye to anyone; I couldn’t. I finished cutting my film on Saturday night and left the following Monday.’
Slapstick: An arrow in the rump gets the prehistoric Tramp’s attention, then the rocks start flying. Soon, the Tramp’s a (rather violent) jester at King Swain’s prehistoric court. A frolic in the waves with the King’s best gal pal gets the Tramp into trouble. A slap-happy duel follows and the King takes quite a tumble. A rock dropped on his head brings the Tramp back to all-too-modern reality.
Verdict: A soft end to Chaplin’s Keystone capers, 3/5
Next: Tillie’s Punctured Romance (21 December 1914)
CHARLIE CHAPLIN: A CENTENARY CELEBRATION
An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.