Sunday 10 August 2014

The Face on the Barroom Floor (1914)

Director: Charles Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Cecile Arnold and Jess Dandy
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
It has to be said that The Face on the Barroom Floor is one of Chaplin's weaker films, but it does carry some interest because of what he tried to achieve. It pays homage to the Keystone formula, but without really following it. Sure, Chaplin plays a drunk for the umpteenth time, but this time he's one with a real story to tell for a change. Things escalate towards the end of the film with some slapstick fighting, but it could hardly be called a standard Keystone ending, with no chase, no cops and no bricks thrown. It's all familiar material but it's presented in a completely different way with a completely different framework. It's a short comedy based on a poem, which is both seriously interpreted and parodied on screen, with the very last line transformed into a gag. It seems tailor made for Chaplin's Little Tramp, but it predates him by decades. Perhaps the fact that Chaplin adapted it to the screen soon into the period at Keystone when he had relative creative freedom suggests that it may have been an inspiration for his character.

The poem is by Hugh Antoine d'Arcy, French by birth, who came to the United States via England, where he studied at Ipswich University and became an actor at Bristol's Theatre Royal and later in London. He gave up acting in the States, becoming instead a business manager, taking care of other stage actors of renown. It was in 1887 that he wrote The Face Upon the Floor, a poem in ballad form which saw its first publication that year in the New York Dispatch. While it's far from great literature, it immediately caught on, becoming the title piece in The Face Upon the Floor and Other Ballads, a 1890 collection of d'Arcy's work, a year after being anthologised in Standard Recitations. Maurice Barrymore, the patriarch of the Barrymore acting dynasty that was stage royalty at the time and is still notable today, regarded it as a favourite recitation of his. It was also promptly adapted into song under its current title, possibly in a cunning attempt to evade d'Arcy's copyright.

The origin of the story is utterly unproved, but d'Arcy claimed that it originated in truth. As he told it, he was at a bar in Manhattan called Joe Smith's when a bum entered and was promptly evicted. Feeling for the man, d'Arcy followed him to give him a drink and some money and, when he asked what the man did for a living, was told that he was an artist. Thus arrived the inspiration for the poem about an artist who turned to drink because he lost Madeline, the love of his life, to a friend who had also modelled for him. Quite why it touched a nerve I have no idea, but it prompted a few films, with or without a hyphen in the title. Certainly at least three were based directly on the poem: the first was by Edwin S Porter at Edison's company in 1908, Chaplin's parody followed in 1914 with a lost hour long feature from John Ford arriving in 1923 at Fox. Later pictures also carried the name, but are less likely to be direct adaptations from the poem than melodramas inspired by it and its ironic adoption by prohibitionists.
Chaplin's take on the poem looks relatively standard to us today, but it was a real departure for him back in 1914. He plays the lead, of course, the drunk staggering into a bar and asking for someone to foot him a drink because he used to do that for others. In return he tells them a story, the story of how he came to be in such a state, the story that's recounted in the poem. What's new is that we see this in flashback, an approach that Chaplin had never used before and, according to Jeffrey Vance, would only use twice more in the future, in 1918's Shoulder Arms and in Limelight, released an entire era later in 1952. Even within the flashback, things look notably different from anything seen in his Keystone films thus far. We're on a static set, of course, but it's designed with far more elegance than was the norm. It's shot from an angle, for a start, and its shape doesn't follow the usual right angles. There's a staircase at the back of the room, at least some of whose stairs are real, and the set decoration is done with a careful eye.

He's a neat painter, retaining the toothbrush moustache but in a much nicer suit with a bow tie, and he's painting his lady love, Madeline, though her pose isn't what's showing up on his canvas. Then again, the addition we watch him make isn't her at all, but an imaginary urn on a stand in front of her that evolves from her curvacious rump. There are a few minor gags here but it's mostly played straight. When we return to the flashback to watch him paint 'a fair haired boy, a friend of mine', the humour comes less from gags and more from the fact that he's played by the rotund and far older Jess Dandy, with precious little hair at all, so that the idea that Madeline might fall for his 'dreamy eyes' is at once ludicrous and far more painful for the artist who can't help but compare himself to his former friend and wonder at how he came off second best. Cecile Arnold, who had debuted as one of the dancers in The Property Man earlier in the month, makes Madeline look like a Hollywood starlet; Jess Dandy looks like a fatter Hercule Poirot.

I have to admit I got a mild kick out of Chaplin's first attempt at parody. The humour is more subtle and sophisticated than anything else Keystone was turning out, pointing the way firmly towards the future. Even though the tramp isn't a tramp for even half the picture, his character is built to ensure at least as much sympathy as laughs from the audience, if not more. While there's always another laugh about to arrive, there's a lot more drama here than we're used to in these Keystone pictures; Chaplin was clearly experimenting to see what other emotions he could draw out of his audience. And while this never aims to be another laugh a minute slapstick riot of the sort that Mack Sennett expected, it is funny in its way. Both the last points are ably highlighted by the scene we see after Madeline leaves with the 'fair haired boy' and the neatly dressed artist turns into the tramp we know in the park we know. Sitting on a bench, he's passed by his friend with Madeline and five children in tow. He clearly thinks Charlie has it better.
And so we reach the title, at which point the parody reaches its peak. Already Chaplin has manipulated the poem for comedic effect and added extra scenes to enforce that take, but here he has a blast. In the poem, the artist takes a piece of chalk 'to sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man' there on the bar-room floor, but adding 'another lock upon that shapely head, with a fearful shriek, he leaped and fell across the picture - dead!' Needless to say that's not how it goes down in Chaplin's version. Finding it difficult to even reach the floor, the staggering drunk draws a face so stunningly generic that his fellow drinkers kick him out of the bar, generating at least an approximation of the riotous final├ęs that Sennett tended to expect at his studio. Of course, he gets back in to finish up his picture and collapse dead upon it, but Chaplin adds a further word to the last line. He's not dead, he's just dead drunk. He was always a particularly acrobatic drunk and he collapses impressively here over his childlike work.

That's about it for Chaplin's film, certainly a more interesting entry in his Keystone filmography than an entertaining one, if one that deserves a better reputation than it's garnered. There is a further episode in the poem's history though that has outlasted Chaplin's parody, even if the story behind it is told in many different ways. An illustrator for the Denver Post by the name of Herndon Davis really did paint a face on the bar-room floor of the Teller House in Central City, CO, in 1936, which became a tourist attraction that in turn inspired a chamber opera by Henry Mollicone. Some versions suggest that he did so to provide a punchline to an itinerant actor's frequent recitation of the poem there, an added joke being that it was the face of his own wife, Juanita, who was a prohibitionist. Others suggest that it was an attempt to leave something of him behind after a heated argument there with a local lady with much influence, before he left Colorado. Whatever the truth, it's sad that more see Davis's painting each year than Chaplin's film.

Important Sources:
Bart Anderson - Whose Face is It?
Martin Gardner (ed) - Famous Poems from Bygone Days (1995)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

The Face on the Barroom Floor can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory, it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone. It omits only Her Friend the Bandit, which is considered a lost film, and half of A Thief Catcher, which was previously thought lost but now recovered. The full version will debut in The Mack Sennett Collection Vol 1 in August.

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