Archive for December 12, 2020

Dipso Facto

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 12, 2020 by dcairns

This, like many of my Chaplin pieces, was written in bursts WHILE I WATCHED. I’m adding this bit in later. You can see me, in this one, realizing gradually with surprise that the film, THE FACE ON THE BARROOM FLOOR, is genuinely hilarious — a first for Keystone.

Maybe Charlie’s trousers are so baggy because he’s always legless?

OK, so the subject is drink and drinking again — Chaplin the alcoholic’s son finding rough, unsentimental comedy in the pursuit of booze by raddled addicts — but he’s certainly trying something different by incorporating a famous poem. I can’t think of any other examples of Keystone doing anything remotely like that.

Since the poem is sincere, this might count as Chaplinesque pathos, except that he’s burlesquing the verse rather than merely illustrating it. Or is he?

Flashback — the first in a Chaplin film? Not something he’d go in for later, either. Chaplin as celebrated artist, painting in bow tie and dinner jacket rather than a more practical smock because this is CLASS, damnit. They’re going for elegance with the draped lady and the sculptures and whatnot. How very un-Keystone.

We actually see Chaplin do a bit of painting. Somebody with modest skills has started the canvas, but he adds to it. He’s not terribly good. But I slightly prefer this to all those movies where you see an actor daub away with extreme delicacy, desperate not to actually leave a mark on the work.

It’s a really godawful poem, isn’t it? Of course this is a Keystone-mandated bowdlerization of the text by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy, but most of the worst bits are straight out of the original.

Charlie, who still has voluminous pants despite being all classy and everything, steps on his palette. He’s not finding a lot of comedy in this — it’s no FATAL GLASS OF BEER — nor is it as hilariously bathetic as Griffith’s WHAT DRINK DID — but it’s very interesting to see him playing in a different register. This desire to appear sophisticated reached its apogee in A WOMAN OF PARIS, but we’re a ways from there yet.

Ah yes, trip over the bearskin, that’s what its there for. Never let a bearskin or a swing door go to waste. Well, what we have here is comic declension — he’s playing heartbreak in a mock-serious way but with no real comedy, and then he drops down the scale of effects all the way to slapstick. Another classic element of the Chaplinesque is born. His genius lies not in playing pathos and knockabout at the same time, but leaping between them so nimbly that there’s no sense of a gear change. But at present, he’s just discovering that pretending to be serious makes a great set-up for a surprise joke.

Pensively, he sucks on his paintbrush, then BLURGH! Paint doesn’t taste good. Again, the comedy benefits greatly from the mock-serious build-up.

Back to the framing story. Charlie is falling-down drunk on a single shot of whisky so his thoughtful cronies buy him another.

The first full-on laugh created out of actually contrasting the text with the action, rather than merely illustrating it and getting some comic business in at the sides, comes when our friend and humble narrator describes painting “a fair-haired boy” and we fade up on him painting a really fat bald man with jet-black wings of oiled hair adorning his nude scalp, plus a curly moustache. It’s just very funny. It doesn’t score a satiric point off the painting by way of ironic contrast (example: someone is described as handsome but we see them and they’re actually not, and we infer somebody’s lying). It’s just a bit of joyful silliness. Wonderfully stupid.

The painting, and Charlie’s somewhat nauseated reaction to it, are funny too.

Charlie, pensive again, unknowingly disfigures his shirtfront. The paintbrush may be the most productive prop Chaplin’s got his hands on in his entire movie career to date.

The dame runs off with the fat bloke, pinning a note to the painting’s face, something I like particularly since the actress (Cecile Arnold, a new one) doesn’t seem to know there’s anything funny about this.

I don’t know if it really works, having Charlie open the envelope then throw away the letter, then try to read the envelope, then realise it’s the letter he needs, and picking it up again. But I’m glad he tried it.

I was just thinking, funny he hasn’t sat on that paint palette yet, and then, right on cue… Good mock-melodrama destroying his rival’s accursed image.

Actual irony, or an honest attempt at it. The intertitle proclaims that the beloved Madeleine was tarnished and dead in a year, but we see her (in the park, naturally) alive and well and surrounded with her many children, some of whom look substantially older than a year.

Nice to finally get a third camera set-up in this thing.

Now we come to the poem’s climax. The drunk is supposed to sketch the vanished fair one’s face on the floor. You know, I’m not sure I ever knew this phrase came from a poem, and I certainly didn’t know the face was a chalk drawing. I always assumed it was the face of a person who had fallen down drunk. I’ve been missing reams of subtext here.

Anyway, Charlie tries to do the drawing but keeps falling down because he’s so swallied. When he managed to make a few marks, what he’s rendered is an un-smiley face. His fellow boozers throw him out. Outside, unable to process the change of scenery, he continues trying to execute his sketch, with the same ludicrous results. Comic abjection. A passing kop propels him back into the bar. Big fight. Charlie eventually passes out.

Not only the best “falls unconscious” ending to date, but the funniest film Chaplin has made (following two rather nasty ones), a really respectable piece of knockabout, and an early clue to the new direction.