Today marks the anniversary of the release date of the Charlie Chaplin comedy His Prehistoric Past. This was Chaplin’s last film for Keystone, so there’s a melancholy aspect to this. This is his last film before he began his true ascension into the stratosphere, becoming the undisputed (benevolent) despot of all his creations. This is the last time he’s just mixing it up with a house company of comedians, many of whom were his near equals in talent and prestige, the last time he was just “one of the fellahs”. Interesting to note how short that earlier period was…seems like we were just marking the beginning of this period, and we were — it was back in February. It’s been instructive to observe this in real time (and will continue to be so as we go forward).
As the title suggests, His Prehistoric Past is a caveman comedy. Very much a Keystone product, and very much the sort of thing many comedians other than Chaplin usually did. Mack Swain plays a caveman king with “1,000 wives”. Charlie is an interloper (who wears his customary derby despite the anachronism) who tries to steal Swain’s favorite wife. They tussle over the girl. Charlie puts Swain out of the way and claims to be the new king. Then another guy Charlie had earlier knocked out helps revive Swain. He sneaks up on Charlie with a large rock and smashes it on his head. The Charlie wakes up. It’s modern day, it was all a dream. (This is typical of Chaplin who normally justifies his more fantastical flights of fancy by making them dreams. Almost every other comedian: Keaton, Lloyd, and just about everyone in the Keystone stable would do broad spoofs from time to time. Chaplin felt the need to make things real.)
And so with Chaplin we say goodbye to the Keystone period. When Chaplin returns three months later, he will be on to Essanay Studios, and a whole new phase.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy, including great Charlie Chaplin classics like “His Prehistoric Past” please see Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube