Friday, June 19, 2009

Teenage Caveman (Malibu Productions/American International, 1958)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I ended up watching a movie, though a considerably less exalted one than Food, Inc.: I had intended to run the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 presentation of a film called Mighty Jack — wondering whether that would be a science-fiction space opera or a juvenile delinquency film (it turns out from its listing that it’s really a spy movie spliced together from several episodes of a Japanese TV series) but it was missing from the disc Charles downloaded and instead what came up was a film called Teenage Caveman (its page lists the title as Teenage Cave Man — three words — but the main title on the print we were watching shows it as two), a 1958 American International production directed by Roger Corman from a script by R. Wright Campbell.

Some years ago I actually watched and made a VHS recording of this movie, which for all its risible aspects — including the perfectly coiffed and pomaded hair on the central character and his absolutely smooth-shaven face — actually moved me and, I think, ends up on that short list of films (like Rocketship X-M, This Island Earth, Revenge of the Creature, I Was a Teenage Werewolf and The Space Children) that MST3K ought to have left alone. For much of its running time it appears to have been an uncredited adaptation of Ayn Rand’s 1937 novella Anthem, with its individualistic hero, “The Symbol Maker’s Teenage Son” — nobody in this movie actually has a name — rebelling against the strictly enforced rules of his “clan” that prevent them from hunting and gathering beyond a strictly prescribed area on their side of the river.

This character — played by Robert Vaughn, best known as Napoleon Solo in the hit mid-1960’s TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (and looking here like Napoleon Solo was searching for THRUSH agents among a group of particularly dedicated caveman-life re-enactors) — and his father, “The Symbol Maker” (Leslie Bradley), are responsible for ensuring the success of the “clan”’s hunts by drawing pictures of the animals they’re hunting on the cave walls. The plot turns around Our Hero’s continued insistence that there is life beyond the river and abundant hunting grounds to sustain them — and in his own explorations there he meets dinosaurs (mostly shots recycled from Hal Roach’s 1940 production One Million B.C. — when the Roach studio fell on hard times this proved a major source of stock dinosaur footage for independent producers that wanted it but didn’t have the money to stage it themselves) and a couple of beings that look like char-broiled versions of American International’s usual ambulatory monsters (though he’s not credited, it’s Paul Blaisdell’s all-purpose AIP monster suit redressed) — until the final twist, in which one of the monsters dies and the other, also in his death throes, gives Robert Vaughn a copy of a book.

Yes, a book — a picture book called The Atomic Age — and as he’s dying the monster, who’s actually a human who lived through the nuclear apocalypse because he was wearing an anti-radiation suit that only gave him the appearance of a monster, explains that humankind developed an elaborate civilization and then blew itself up with nuclear weapons, leaving only a few scattered remnants of humanity who quickly regressed to a caveman lifestyle. The radiation from all those atomic blasts also caused mutations that brought the dinosaurs back to life after they had long since died out. Thus a film that started out as a Randian rant about the power of the individual and the need to stand up against the collective (though Charles argued that the film also proclaimed the superiority of first-hand experience over tradition and ideology, which didn’t seem to him to be an especially Randian notion) ended up as a progressive warning about the dangers of nuclear war, quite possibly inspired by Albert Einstein’s famous comment that he didn’t know what weapons World War III would be fought with, “but I can tell you what weapons World War IV will be fought with — stone axes and spears!

The duality in this movie’s politics reflected Robert Corman’s own ideological schizophrenia, his ability to make a Right-wing propagandist piece like It Conquered the World and then a progressive civil-rights drama like The Intruder, and certainly the fact that this film has a political message — however muddled it might be — sets it far above the norm for MST3K’s targets. (The surprise ending also seems to me to anticipate the one added to Planet of the Apes — it wasn’t in the original novel — 10 years later.) It’s also worth noting that Corman shot the film under the title Prehistoric Earth and hated AIP’s title change so much that later in life, when he was asked about it, said, “I never directed a movie called Teenage Caveman.” MST3K did a pretty good job parodying and ridiculing a film that really didn’t deserve their parody and ridicule, throwing in the inevitable Man from U.N.C.L.E. references (including at least two calls to “open Channel D,” the radio frequency by which U.N.C.L.E. agents communicated with their home base) as well as quite a few references to popular songs.

Along with Teenage Caveman the MST3K crew included a couple of shorts which fit their format a good deal better , a 1950’s short from Castle Films called Aquatic Wizardry about people training to be water skiers (most of them reasonably attractive young women who looked like they were auditioning for an Esther Williams chorus line), and a piece that looked like it was from the 1930’s, with an outrageously inappropriate piece of intro music that sounded better suited to a Hal Roach comedy, about a man (actually two men, but one of them was an Indian wearing a skirt and was so demeaned in both the footage and the narration that compared to this the treatment of Tonto in The Lone Ranger was a model of racial sensitivity) named Ross trapping live animals in the Florida Everglades — a piece so outrageously boorish that not only did the MST3K crew joke, “Where is PETA when you need them?,” but afterwards they did an outrageously funny spoof of it with Joel Hodgson cast as a hunter who seeks to trap the human “hero” of that movie with the same blatantly inhumane techniques he was using on the animals.