I have an extremely strange film for you.
Loosely based on Mary Shelley’s dystopian 19th-century novel “The Last Man,” the crackpot Jazz Age artifact “The Last Man on Earth” (1924) was released by Fox Studios four years after women got the vote. The movie, remade in 1933 as the musical “It’s Great to Be Alive,” imagines a world in which a plague known as “masculitis” has wiped out the entire male population over the age of 14. (This would be a popular plague today, I think.)
The resulting matriarchy, run by the first female U.S. president — an ineffectual cat lady, as we’re shown in her first scene — is played for laughs and condescending role reversals. Director John G. Blystone’s silent-era mashup of 19th Amendment gender panic and “I Am Legend” futurism has returned in a restored 35 millimeter print. It screens at noon Saturday at the Music Box, co-presented by the intrepid cinephiles of the Chicago Film Society.
“I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on Earth!” So says Hattie (Derelys Perdue), the disinterested object of sad-sack Elmer’s hapless affections. As played by Earle Foxe, Elmer is strictly “Tobacco Road” material. Rebuffed and nursing his lifelong crush on Hattie, Elmer swears off women altogether and flies off to live in a distant forest.
The plague, about which he remains ignorant, signals a change in Elmer’s fortunes. Most of “The Last Man on Earth” takes place in the early 1950s, 30 years ahead of the film’s release. Womenfolk have survived and menfolk have gone the way of the dodo. The technological developments of this near-future include solar-powered heating and cooling. Fashionwise it’s a world of Cotton Club-length skirts and steroidally nutty headgear. “Skirted thugs,” as one title card calls them, gangster it up and pine for the touch of a man. (The movie envisions no other sexual dynamic. Silly movie!)
Once discovered, dodo Elmer becomes a hot commodity and the world’s most (only) eligible bachelor, though he’s in a constant sweat about being pawed and handled like the last sirloin steak on Earth. Ultimately he falls into the hands of the U.S. government, and the climax of “The Last Man on Earth” pits two “senatoresses” against each other in a boxing ring. The winner takes all — all of Elmer. Or will Hattie, his beloved, prevail?
Earlier this year for Film Comment, the ace critic and film historian Farran Smith Nehme wrote about the Museum of Modern Art restoration of “The Last Man on Earth,” noting the portrayal (the first on film, some claim) of a female president. We first see her “feeding a large group of strays on the terrace of a run-down White House,” Nehme describes. "It’s rather sweet, and who knows, maybe a woman in the White House would be a cat person … what’s depressing are the plot circumstances that got her into office. For a woman to be elected president, literally every single man on earth — save one tree-dwelling hermit who presumably wasn’t registered to vote — had to die first.”
In this ice age of Trump and Weinstein, the film looks especially antiquated and yet naggingly up-to-date in the way it patronizes and exploits half the planet.
Chicago Film Society co-founder Kyle Westphal wrote me the other day: “I first saw ‘Last Man’ two years ago, at Cinefest in Syracuse. It definitely stuck out, even when a typical day might include seven or eight other features.” The film, he wrote, remains “imaginative in some ways, and surprisingly status quo in others: Even after a biological catastrophe has wiped out half the world's population, heteronormative gender roles remain firm and lesbianism isn't even hinted as a possibility.
“The patriarchy sustains itself,” Westphal says, “even without a patriarch.”
“The Last Man on Earth” screens at noon Nov. 11, Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.; www.musicboxtheatre.com.
“It’s Great to Be Alive,” the 1933 remake of “The Last Man on Earth,” screens at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 29 at the Chicago Film Society’s home base at Northeastern Illinois University’s E Building Auditorium, 3701 W. Bryn Mawr Ave.; www.chicagofilmsociety.org.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.