The Last Man on Earth

USA, 1924 • Directed by J.G. Blystone,
Earle Foxe, Grace Cunard, and Derelys Perdue Production Fox Film Corp.
Print Source Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Presented at 2017 A Day of Silents
Live musical accompaniment by Philip Carli

Essay by Kyle Westphal

When looking back on the silent films released by Fox Film Corporation, we tend to gravitate toward the early efforts of directors who went on to long and prominent careers: John Ford (The Iron Horse, Four Sons), Frank Borzage (7th Heaven, Street Angel), Howard Hawks (Fazil, A Girl in Every Port), or Raoul Walsh (What Price Glory?). All these men made important contributions to the studio, but the typical Fox release was generally cheaper, less ambitious, and destined for obscurity.

Consider the studio’s 1924–1925 release schedule. It’s headlined by prestigious literary adaptations like Dante’s Inferno and The Man Who Came Back, but the bread-and-butter product offers a very different impression: suggestively titled fare like Troubles of a Bride and Everyman’s Wife, a horse-racing picture called Golden Heels, and no less than seven westerns apiece from Tom Mix and Buck Jones. Scarcely remembered today, Fox’s silent comedy output was also a prominent part of the studio’s brand. “They please the majority!” Fox boasted (with a smidgen of shame?) in Moving Picture World, paraphrasing the unnamed exhibitors who had begged the studio to keep sending more product like the Monkey Comedies, a series of short films featuring trained chimpanzees Max, Moritz, and Pep. (These were not to be confused with Darwin Was Right, a feature-length comedy about natural selection that Fox also released that season, which also starred monkeys.)

When placed beside the run-of-the-mill Fox comedy of the mid-1920s, The Last Man on Earth stood out. Most every contemporary review in the trade press concentrated on the picture’s novelty and predicted that the premise alone would be sufficient to hook the audience and overcome the film’s occasionally pedestrian execution. Almost a century later, the outlandish setup—a planet without men, victims of the deadly “masculinitis” epidemic—remains more than enough.

The Last Man on Earth was not the first film to imagine a distinctly feminine polity. Alice Guy’s 1912 Solax short In the Year 2000 (sadly, presumed lost) prophesied women running society in the new millennium; a similar premise underlay Universal’s 1914 short In the Year 2014 with Louise Fazenda. The 1917 melodrama Mothers of Men envisions the political fallout of the Women’s Party gubernatorial candidate assuming power in a post-suffrage world. But The Last Man on Earth is neither a progressive plea nor a reactionary rebuke; it’s simply a comedy that tries as gamely as it can to imagine a world without gender roles.

The Last Man on Earth was adapted from a short story of the same name by John D. Swain that appeared in the November 1923 issue of Munsey’s Magazine; the film version arrived twelve months later. Swain’s story reads like a science-fiction goof taken a step too far, with the narrative often set aside to ruminate on the surprising dividends and unexpected consequences of a society without men. (Swain’s story has more speculative asides than the film, though the latter does add an extended womano-a-womano boxing match.) Among the effects of masculinitis: the real estate market evaporates and the surviving women have their choice of the poshest mansions; Prohibition remains on the books out of inertia, though alcohol abuse has plummeted in the absence of men; church attendance crumbles despite a new class of “frenzied female evangelists,” for “a manless religion was doomed to atrophy.” Football ceases to be played and literature loses its luster. “With love, fighting, sex jealousy, double-living, bootlegging, bohemianism, villains, missing heirs, and faithless lovers and guardians removed, what was the poor novelist to do?” wondered Swain.

Both the short story and the film solve the problem of matriarchal and narrative stasis by introducing a hitherto forgotten man into the equation, a biological game-changer discovered in a remote forest by a clique of hard-edged femme gangsters. In this credulity-straining moment we are reminded that this female-only planet was thoroughly the product of the limited imaginations of a roster of studio men. As Farran Smith Nehme observes in Film Comment, “If a woman were to create a cinematic world where a mysterious epidemic had killed all but one man on earth, you better believe the leftover would be Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Gilbert Roland—the list goes on, but in any event, it sure wouldn’t be the 1924 film’s Earle Foxe.” A tree-dwelling, emaciated Rip van Winkle blissfully ignorant of the new status quo, Foxe cannot help but present the least compelling justification for his sorry gender.

If The Last Man on Earth never tries to inflate Foxe to the status of a sex symbol, that’s largely because the film is oddly indifferent to sex altogether. Though advertised as “A Fabulous Novelty with 1,000 Beautiful Girls,” the film gives those girls precious little to do. Helmed by Fox comedy specialist John G. Blystone, recently returned from a loan-out codirecting Buster Keaton’s Our Hospitality, The Last Man on Earth never really works through the rich implications of its premise, often content to mine the next gag. Why contemplate what women would do for pleasure in a manless world when the sight of a woman president or a woman street sweeper would be enough to generate a nervous chortle from an audience still coming to the terms with the new social order in the wake of the 19th Amendment? (Even years later, with universal suffrage an established part of the fabric of American life, the idea of a gynocracy proved too fantastic to resist, with Fox remaking the story in 1933 as a pre-Code musical, It’s Great to Be Alive.)

State and local censors followed the story to its logical conclusion, even if the filmmakers did not. In Virginia, the censorship board blanched at “women of various ages contending in the most shameless fashion for the possession of a young man” and complained that “little if any attempt is made to conceal the fact that they are impelled by the sex impulse.” (So much for propagating the species after a near-extinction level event; alas, the film drops Swain’s jab at the evangelical brigade obnoxiously preaching monogamy while the planet is tasked with an industrial-scale repopulation project.) Between the “salacious or smutty titles” and “the lessening of the respect which men should have for the other sex,” The Last Man on Earth was rejected for exhibition in the state. A University of Pennsylvania sociologist even cited the film as an example of the popular fare offered to “our low-brow public” in a 1926 paper published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

The comparatively worldly trade press found The Last Man on Earth rather tame. “With opportunities to be quite risque,” noted Moving Picture World, “there is nothing at all objectionable in the handling of this story.” Variety spent more space lamenting the obvious exploitation opportunities upon which the studio had failed to capitalize: “Suppose there had been a shot of every main street of every main city in the country showing how it would look in the day when there are no men on earth? That would have put in a local touch for every one of the key cities.” As it was, The Last Man on Earth was just another audience-friendly comedy from Fox, buoyed by its premise but not accorded the budget to present a fully fleshed-out slice of science fiction. “In fact,” intoned the industry’s paper of record, “the picture is just a super bathing-girl comedy and would prove a great attraction for the average burlesque houses.”

The Last Man on Earth was preserved by the Museum of Modern Art with support from the National Film Preservation Foundation.