In this feature, I’ll be taking a look at the films of Charlie Chaplin. I’ll be including the shorts (where possible) and will hopefully delve into what makes him such an indomitable social and cultural figure to this very day. As with my Hitchmania feature, my approach will be somewhat haphazard. Things will run chronologically and there may be an essay or two to further discuss a particular period (for example, the Keystone period and so forth). I hope you’ll join me for what should be a lot of fun.
Based on the 1887 poem of the same name by French-born writer Hugh Antoine d’Arcy, The Face on the Bar Room Floor finds Charlie Chaplin truly evolving as an artist. This 1914 silent short eschews most of the usual Keystone Studios slapstick and allows the star and director to display significant growth.
Chaplin’s character goes through an actual evolution over the course of 14 or so minutes. He becomes the renowned Tramp and there is a logical progression from Artist to Ditched Artist to Homeless Nobody. In some respects, this could be seen as an origin story to a wholly realized character.
Chaplin stars as a painter. He’s painting a plump rich guy (Fritz Schade) when dear Madeline (Cecile Arnold) finds herself quite taken with Moneybags. Unfortunately for our painter, dear Madeline is his girlfriend. She runs off with the rich guy, leaving the artist to drown his sorrows at the pub. He tries to draw her picture, but it’s no use.
The poem by d’Arcy describes the enigmatic events at the bar as “the vagabond began/To sketch a face that well might buy the soul of any man” and concludes with the death of the painter “with a fearful shriek.” Whether or not Chaplin’s vagabond croaked upon concluding his chalk outline is up in the air.
But it’s clear that there’s a substantial dramatic arc in The Face on the Bar Room Floor, with the theme of loss resonating heavily. Chaplin’s character loses everything and the audience sees him at the bottom of the barrel. The slapstick violence comes in the form of bar patrons kicking him around, which suggests another departure.
Structurally, Chaplin uses flashbacks to provide insight. It should be noted that the artist didn’t use such recurrences much, so it’s a rare glimpse at a different device in action. It weaves a “how he got there” narrative without wasting time.
The comedy is subtle. Chaplin sits in paint at one point, but this is more sad than uproarious. And the slapstick eruption to tail off The Face on the Bar Room Floor has dark undercurrents if one takes d’Arcy’s conclusion to bear. The protagonist is his own worst enemy and he incites the ire of the sailors, arguably by his mere existence.
It doesn’t seem like The Face on the Bar Room Floor is a parody of the poem. It does seem to be a deliberate reading and considerable sympathy is derived from d’Arcy’s work. Consider that the poem has the bar’s patrons refer to the vagabond as “it,” noting they “wouldn’t touch him with a fork.”
The vagrant wins the crowd with the sentiment of his story and the scope of his loss. Similarly, Chaplin’s picture uses the arrival of the rich guy and Madeline – noted as Itsy-Bitsy in her Dear Charlie letter – and a colossal horde of ankle-biters to hammer the nail in his coffin. Life has literally passed him by.
The Face on the Bar Room Floor is a captivating and rewarding film. It signals sure growth from Chaplin, both in the spirit of his performance and in service of his directorial capacities. It’s a frank tale lacking in explicit comedy, but the sheer expressive scope is well worth a look.