Film History Essentials: What Demoralized the Barber Shop (1898)

What it’s about:

A man has just entered a basement barber shop and he settles in to have his shoes shined. Another man is about to get a shave, while a third reads a newspaper. Two women pause at the top of the stairs above the doorway, and begin to show off their legs up to the knee, sending the men below into hysterics.

Why it’s essential:

In 1894, William Heise filmed The Barbershop, one of the very first commercially-available films. Four years later, he revisited the same setting for this updated version. What Demoralized the Barber Shop is a snapshot of how cinema had developed in the interim. (The title, incidentally, is an archaic usage of the word “demoralized.” Today, this movie might be retitled What Corrupted the Barber Shop.)

The Barbershop was notably elaborate for 1894, with a cast of four and a full complement of props to set the scene. However, it was very clearly still filmed within the confines of the Black Maria, and looks as though the titular barber and his customers are inhabiting a featureless void. Here, the joke hinges on there being a particular set layout, and the scene is both more elaborate and more fully realized. (In The Barbershop, of course, there was no “joke,” or even a plot, just a brief glimpse, less than half the length of this film, of some men together in a “barbershop.”)

It is a bit ambiguous whether or not the women are aware of the men below. Is the “demoralization” of the title deliberate, or unintentional? Film historian Charles Musser refers to the women as “presumably prostitutes” in Before the Nickelodeon, but perhaps they are simply oblivious. In a way, the point (as far as the men in the film are concerned) is that it doesn’t actually matter whether the women want to be looked at or not. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the title implies that the men are “demoralized” by something completely external, so they aren’t really responsible for their reactions. Wittingly or unwittingly, the women are assumed to be at fault for the outcome.

Heise (left) relaxes on the set

This principle extends to the (presumably male) audience of the film, as well. The term “male gaze” was coined in the 1970s, but the concept that it named had existed in art long before the beginnings of film. Certainly also by this point there had already been many, many examples of depictions of women on film from a male perspective for the pleasure of a male audience. Many of these were shot by Heise himself, including any number of “dance” films (i.e., Carmencita and Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance) and films like Seminary Girls, but also plenty of others, such as Après le Bal and Duel to the Death.

What Demoralized the Barber Shop exists at one remove from those films, and is more akin to something like Come Along, Do! Rather than simply allowing the male viewer to be the voyeur, enjoying a view of the female form, these films offer the same experience while making male voyeurism the joke. The audience can laugh at the absurd behavior of the man or men who are trying to get a good look, while enjoying the same view themselves. As Musser puts it, this “suggests the superiority of cinematic voyeurism: film spectators can look from the unhumiliating comfort of their seats. In the darkened theater, they can see but not be seen.”

Why you should see it:

This film is basically a single joke, repeated and drawn out well beyond the point where everyone watching would “get it.” But within that thematic structure, there are several individual gags, probably including a few that are not decipherable without some restoration. The quality of the film as it is available currently makes it impossible to read the two signs that are on the wall flanking the stairs, though we know from The Barbershop that these may have been a source of some additional humor.

The performers in the film definitely do not seem to be on the same page regarding the size of their performances. The shoeshiner and the man reading the paper are giving visible but relatively-restrained reactions, while the man getting his shoes shined, and particularly the barber are far more histrionic. The man in the barber’s chair never seems to be afforded any opportunity to see what’s going on. He is just a passive victim of the barber’s laughable (?) lack of self-control.

Note the way the man in the shoeshine chair randomly kicks the man shining his shoes over for no apparent reason. He makes as though to get up, as if he was trying to quickly get the other man out of the way so that he could see better, but then doesn’t move. Moments later, he deliberately throws himself sideways out of the chair. Again, this is ostensibly accidental as he cranes for a better view, but the performer completely fails to sell it.

The barber, though his performance is outrageously broad, is a bit more successful. He squashes and pulls the head of the poor man in the chair as he tries to keep doing his job while still craning his neck for a better view. But pay particular attention to the razor he pulls out to shave the customer with: It is enormous, hilariously so. The entire thing, blade and handle, is almost the size of his arm when unfolded, and it genuinely looks like he’s going to take the customer’s head off with it. In addition to being funnier, a giant, gag razor was probably easier to employ here than the real thing. It allows the barber to be completely unrestrained as he gives the most unhinged performance in the scene.

~ by Jared on April 12, 2023.

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