Working on my Alan Reed/ Flintstones post the other day gave me the idea for this little listicle on the history of caveman comedy, for it’s probably not widely known that the genre of caveman comedy pre-dated The Flintstones by at least half a century.
Charlie Chaplin’s last comedy for Keystone was this high concept romp — he went out on a high note by going delightfully low brow. I hesitate to claim Chaplin invented the genre, but I’ve not yet come across an earlier one on film, at any rate. Chaplin establishes one of the key earmarks of the genre: anachronism. Note his usual tramp derby and cane. His character also smokes a pipe in the film, as I recall. Read more on His Prehistoric Past here.
Nearly a decade later, Buster Keaton took his own stab at the genre, by devoting one of the three plotlines in his Intolerance parody The Three Ages to a prehistoric scenario. This was Keaton’s first feature as auteur and his relatively big budget allowed him some terrific frills, like a stop-motion animated dinosaur which he rides — the sort of gag The Flintstones would later revive. More on The Three Ages here.
Flying Elephants (1928)
In this silent comedy Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are a pair of cavemen battling for the hand of a woman (it has been decreed by their king that all men must find a mate). The movie was shot nearly a year prior to its release, prior to the official teaming of Laurel and Hardy — their familiar personalities are not yet in evidence.
Call for Mr. Caveman (1919)
Thus far, two of silent comedy’s “Big Three” have made caveman themed comedies. The third member of the triumvirate, Harold Lloyd did not — but his sidekick (Snub Pollard) and his second leading lady and soon-to-be-wife (Mildred Davis) did. This was the kind of broad clownish comedy that Lloyd was actively trying to get away from at the time, but just the sort of thing Pollard revelled in. It also features Ernest “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison from Our Gang. Don’t expect progressive representation! Like the previous two films, it is currently available to check out on Youtube.
The Prehistoric Man (1924)
The great English music hall comedian George Robey starred in this silent, portions of which survive.
I’m a Monkey’s Uncle (1948)
Caveman comedy tends to be pretty rapey — the principle gag in many comedies (and one panel cartoons in magazines and so forth) has always been that of a caveman seizing a cave-woman, usually dragging her back to his cave by her hair. The Three Stooges (in their Shempian phase) play with this idea, as the boys accidentally steal Aggie, Maggie and Baggie from their husbands.
Stone Age Romeos (1955)
This short recycled footage from the Stooges’ earlier I’m a Monkey’s Uncle.
The Flintstones (1960-66)
Because it was a series, Hanna-Barbera’s animated sitcom The Flintstones got to really stretch its legs and exhaustively mine the comedy possibilities of a “modern stone age family”. Hero Fred Flintstone works at a rock quarry, working atop a dinosaur as a digging machine. The family car (with rock-hewn wheels) is driven “through the courtesy of Fred’s two feet”. The possibilities were endless, to the point where they were getting celebrity guests like Stoney Curtis (Tony Curtis) and Ann-Margrock (Ann-Margret). The franchise has never actually died. There have been countless sequels, specials and reboots, including a dreadful 1994 film starring John Goodman.
It’s About Time (1966-67)
This is Sherwood Schwartz’s forgotten sitcom, launched after Gilligan’s Island but before The Brady Bunch. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a monster hit like the other two, lasting only one season. The premise was that a couple of astronauts crash land in a prehistoric past, where they encounter cave people humorously played by Cliff Norton, Joe E. Ross and Imogene Coca.
Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (1977-1980)
Miraculously, a show in the 1970s about a caveman and three sexualized teenage girls which didn’t go massively awry. The show was a mash-up of Charlie’s Angels, with “teen sleuth” shows of the Scooby Doo variety. Like Scooby Doo, “Cavey” was semi-articulate and primitive; voiced by Mel Blanc, the character reminded me a lot of his earlier Tasmanian Devil voice. To its huge credit, Hanna-Barbera managed to create a new animated cartoon character who was nothing at all like Fred Flintstone or Barney Rubble, whom Blanc also voiced.
We had such high hopes for this movie when it came out. Starring Ringo Starr of The Beatles, it was thrilling to have him back (his last hit song had been six years earlier. While it seemed at the time a crass attempt to capitalize on Ringo’s renewed prominence in the wake of John Lennon’s assassination four months previous, it can’t have been — surely production began months before Lennon was killed. Written and directed by Carl Gottlieb, who had been one of the screenwriters on Steve Martin’s The Jerk (1979), Caveman was a mildly amusing but mostly boring and dumb exercise, resorting to jokes about dinosaur poop and so forth. On the plus side, it co-starred Ringo’s gorgeous wife Barbara Bach, who’d been in the 1977 Bond film The Spy Who Loved Me, as well as Shelley Long, Jack Gifford, and for some reason Dennis Quaid. (A thing one seldom says: wouldn’t Randy have been much better in this film?) At any rate, I was saddened when Caveman didn’t put Ringo back on top. Indeed his next movie, Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984), made Caveman look like Citizen Kane.
History of the World, Part One (1981)
Appropriately, Sid Caesar stars in the slapsticky stone age section of Mel Brooks’s comedy, essentially a sequentially organized series of historically themed blackout sketches. With his long mop of hair, Caesar manages to evoke both Keaton in The Three Ages, and Ringo back in the ’60s. The principal gag of the segment is that Caesar throws rocks on people’s feet until they scream, thus inventing music.
Catching us up to the present: I’ve just discovered that no less than two caveman comedies came out last year (2018): Early Man by Wallace and Gromit creator by Nick Park; and The Missing Link, by Markus Innocenti (about a gay caveman — not to be confused by this year’s film with the same title, which is about Bigfoot). Whether or not they add anything to this well-picked-over sub-genre I’ve yet to discover but will certainly chime in here when I do. There is also a campaign underway to bring Johnny Hart’s comic strip B.C. to the big screen (there had been animated holiday tv specials based on the strip in 1973 and 1981).
For more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.