In this feature, I’ll be taking a look at the films of Charlie Chaplin. I’ll be including the shorts (where possible) and will hopefully delve into what makes him such an indomitable social and cultural figure to this very day. As with my Hitchmania feature, my approach will be somewhat haphazard. Things will run chronologically and there may be an essay or two to further discuss a particular period (for example, the Keystone period and so forth). I hope you’ll join me for what should be a lot of fun.
Charlie Chaplin says goodbye to Keystone Studios with 1914’s His Prehistoric Past, a silent short film that takes to a Stone Age setting with designs on exacting the usual slapstick blueprint. Chaplin directs, writes and stars in this two-reeler, while Frank D. Williams provides the cinematography.
This is pretty standard fare for Keystone, with many of the usual head-whacking tropes involved. Things seem slightly broader thanks to the costumes and organic setting, with a highlight finding a couple of the stars tossing around in the surf. And it plays with contemporaneous interest in all things prehistoric, what with the discovery of the Piltdown Man still resonating from 1912.
The short opens with Chaplin’s character falling asleep on a park bench in modern times. He’s transported via dream to the Stone Age, where he finds himself still clad in his hat but wearing a bearskin getup that makes for good pipe filler. He also comes across a king (Mack Swain), who has a harem of sexy girls.
Chaplin’s character gets into the good graces of the king by defending him from attack, but he also finds himself falling for the queen (May Wallace). This requires the overthrow of the king, which requires a cliff and a little quick thinking. Chaplin does the deed and takes over the harem, only to suffer a rude awakening.
Chaplin structures His Prehistoric Past along the lines of Fred Karno’s music hall sketch Jimmy the Fearless, which makes use of the dream sequence as the conduit to another reality. It’s interesting to note the relatively cavalier attitude he has with the setting, like he’s almost bored by his surroundings and attends to every matter with certain conceit.
Of course, the informality is effective because Chaplin has already become such a refined comic. He plays off Swain with modest elegance and the movements are as effortless as they are funny. Little swings of the club find unintentional targets, while a pipe still makes an appearance so as to represent a link to the modern era.
It’s all very coy, very naïve, very loose. Chaplin only nudges at notions of social hierarchy, showcasing a fleet of attractive women as mere objects for the king’s pleasure. But there’s no real weight to it; it’s just a device, just a discerning objective for Chaplin’s man to assume over the course of two reels.
His Prehistoric Past is entertaining, but it’s not exactly earth-shattering. It was made with Chaplin distracted by offers from other studios. Filmed weeks ahead of Getting Acquainted and around the time he was being courted by Essanay Studios and Jess Robbins, there’s a sense that this picture is a little lost in the shuffle.
Nevertheless, the slapstick runs as characteristic formula and the costumes add another layer of humour. The casual nature of the picture helps, as nobody plays it too seriously and nothing is too self-important. But nothing’s too special either and His Prehistoric Past lies contentedly in the middle of Chaplin’s Keystone Studios oeuvre.