The Sunday Intertitle: Primitive Man

Was there some kind of rule compelling all great silent comedians to make a film set in the stone age? I’m not aware of a Harold Lloyd variant, but Chaplin had HIS PREHISTORIC PAST as early as 1914 (was he the very first comedian to don furs and act Neanderthal?), Buster Keaton ventured into THE THREE AGES in 1923, and Hal Roach, long before his ONE MILLION BC, made the rather simian comedy FLYING ELEPHANTS in 1928, featuring Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy.

Ollie is kind of hard to look at, half-naked in a fright wig, but the dainty way he plays with his club when flirting, as if it were a necktie, is adorable.

Stan also makes for a vaguely repellant sight in blonde curls. Though this movie emerged after the boys had been paired several times, in this one it takes ages for them to meet, and Stan is playing a flighty and poetic youth fairly distinct from his usual brand of simpleton.

This is probably the worst L&H silent I’ve seen, with some titles writer deciding cavemen should speak in a kind of Shakespearean/biblical/medieval argot, Stan spending fully 10% of the running time pulling cactus thorns from his arse, and actual flying elephants (OK, animated drawings) for no good reason.

We do get James Finlayson with a toothache, and a lot of prehistoric mating rituals (the cavegirl flappers are cute), but there’s such a thing as too dumb, even for the boys. Their separation, and Hal Roach’s story credit, gives the lie to his claim to have forged the team, and making Leo McCarey’s right to that honour seem more believable.

By some kind of magic, the laughs begin not with L&H’s first meeting, but immediately before, when the Finn falls down a cliff (always good value). As if the chemistry had seeped through a few rolls of celluloid from the picture’s first bit of Stan & Ollie shared screen time. Unusually, the movie seems to end with Ollie, Stan, Finn and the girl all dead, variously hurled from a precipice and eaten by a bear.

“Good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.”


6 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Primitive Man”

  1. That one was an open invitation, really, wasn’t it?

  2. bensondonald Says:

    DW Griffith kicked it off with “Man’s Genesis” (1912) in which Weak Hands defeats Brute Force and gets the girl by inventing the club. In the sequel “Brute Force” (1914) Weak Hands has to up his game when a Womenless Tribe attacks. The latter film includes an oddly persuasive dinosaur.

    Willis O’Brien did some stop-motion caveman comedies about the same time, prefiguring the Flintstones:

    I’d guess there were a few more live-action followups besides Chaplin’s, if for no other reason than it would be exotic yet almost as cheap as a western. “Nickelodeon” has a few moments of Burt Reynolds and company as cave folk in a montage of simulated silents.

    “The Lost World” came out in 1925, although strictly speaking it didn’t have cave people — just one apeman. That may have been the excuse for the flying elephants gag (although a lot of Sennett films made use of such fleeting, surreal animation). Down the road Roach would produce “One Million B.C.”, supposedly with some Griffith involvement.

    In “Girl Shy” and elsewhere there are references to the “cave man” approach to romance (Harold Lloyd’s version is playing an impatient adult to a giddy flapper). Wondering if it traces back to a specific pop culture source; maybe a novel or a popular science piece. At some point before Keaton, the idea of the caveman claiming a bride by knocking her on the head and dragging her off by her hair became a cliche; magazine cartoonists would work variations for decades to come (the woman already becoming a back-seat driver, or signaling a stop at a cave-shop, or taking the initiative, etc.)

  3. Flying Elephants features a brief cardboard triceratops who would have made a fine screen partner for Griffith’s T-Rex. I couldn’t get a decent frame-grab of him though, as he’s perpetually enshrouded in dust clouds and undergrowth.

    Yeah, I wonder who originated the caveman mating cliche too…

  4. “An 1886 short story by Andrew Lang” is the partial answer given here.

    So it’s a Scottish invention. Makes sense.

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