Wednesday, May 24, 2006

FUNNY FACE (1932)

It is a tale of mad science and of romantic obsession so twisted that it could easily star Peter Lorre (whose amazing Mad Love was filmed in the same year). Or its queasy mid-section regarding facial reconstructive surgery could easily be directed by David Cronenberg, had he any penchant for helming a film in which an eerie wall of detached faces come to life and break into an off-kilter musical number. There is even the possible suggestion of savage and shocking rape lurking in the details of the movie's wrapping plot. And if that's not enough to make you wonder what the hell is going on, I would then tell you that the film is an animated cartoon from 1932, and that it is ostensibly meant to be a comedy.

Ub Iwerks' Funny Face (made in '32 but released in January of the following year) was meant as just another Flip the Frog cartoon, but I wonder if there was any residual effect on Iwerks from the array of horror films hitting the market in the time of its creation. Certainly in the laboratory scenes there is a definite trace of influence, but the entire plot seems configured with a malignance that would have made Tod Browning sick with glee. That the film ends on a note as false as the mask that Flip the Frog wears in it only serves to magnify the horror.

Flip the Frog is in love. Because he is more human than frog in his walk and actions by this point, counting out his unmistakably amphibian head, one wonders if the character is merely a man whose unfortunate looks have gained him the nickname "The Frog". If not, then his romancing of the pretty girl in the film takes on tones of bestiality as well, and I think our plate is full enough at the moment. The enraptured Flip marches joyously down the street, bearing a full bouquet of flowers, and as he practically dances on air, he sings of his impending date. It is clear from his words that he is a lost cause.

We then meet the object of his affections, and no wonder Flip is so smitten: she is more than beautiful (within the borders and limits of the cartoon, people; don't go thinking I'm cranking one out here, and she is far from Red Hot), with a Boop-style flapper's air and style of dress. The girl is fixing her makeup for a date -- but not with Flip. She has two photos on her vanity table: one of a more-than-handsome twerp which she ogles lovingly, and one of Flip, which she eyes impatiently, and then throws harshly in the trashbin. (One wonders how it even made it onto her table in the first place, if she is so disgusted by him.) This rough action done, she kisses the picture of the cute boy (it is interesting to note that when she completes this kiss, her lipstick transfers to his lips in the picture, and he gazes back revealed as the little sissy boy that he is) and goes back to primping herself.

Flip, meanwhile, is still so elated that he dances on top of the girl's picket fence, but when he reaches her gate, his erractic movements cause the gate to wobble, and he slips and falls. The gate swings back to knock him over from behind, causing him to somersault all the way to her porchstep. Unfortunately for Flip, the handsome twerp is already waiting there, and the short-pants wearing slicky lad knocks on the girl's front door. When he leaves with her arm in arm, Flip tries to intercede between the pair, and hands his bouquet to his now seemingly indifferent doll. Her response is to thrown the flowers roughly back at his inferior face, an action that knocks Flip down on his rear. As his lost love wanders off with her new boy, Flip pulls a mirror out of his pocket and looks at his sad reflection, and then imagines himself as nothing more than a monkey. In his anger, he kicks the fence, but the board swings around and smashes him on top of the skull. He can't win for anything.

But, back on the ground again, he spies a piece of paper laying by his side. Picking it up, he sees that it is a flyer for a plastic surgeon named Dr. Skinnum, who shows before and after pictures of one supposedly successful operation, and he promises that he swaps "New Faces for Old", whatever that could mean. He makes his way to Dr. Skinnum's laboratory, which resides in a rather non-descript building across town. Entering the waiting room, he walks up to an entire wall covered with what seem to be masks. However, seeing Flip staring at them, the masks reveal themselves to be alive, and they start singing as one to their visitor:

"Ha-ha Ha-ha Ha-ha, Ha-ha Ha-ha Ha-ha
Oh, look at the guy with the funny face!
(Funny face!) (He's a disgrace!)
Oh, look at the guy with the funny face!
Ha-ha Ha-ha Ha-ha!"

Flip won't take this abuse for long, but he tries to appeal to their sympathetic side, and the masks echo some of his words:

"To laugh at me is sure a shame,
(Such a shame!) (What a shame!)
But not, oh heck, I'm not to blame!
(Who's not to blame?) (He's not to blame!)
Ha-ha Ha-ha Ha-ha!"

The masks continue on:

"Now this is the place to change your face!
(Change your face!) (To change your face!)
To look like that is more than a trick,
So step right up and take your pick!"

The four masks at the bottom each introduce themselves individually for Flip's perusal. The first, a milquetoast sort, and the second, a burly rough-shaven type, are mocked by the other masks in chorus, and lose their composure. The third, the mask of a black face, sings:

"I'se sho handsome,
As you can see!
The gals down south
sho' go fo' me!"

The fourth and last is a most effeminate sort, with blush, lipstick and eyeliner clearly in display on his visage. When he sings, "How would you like to look like me?", the chorus replies, "Look like him? Whoops, my dear!" The mask blushes and resings his line, ending it with an array of kisses. None of them impress Flip at all, and finding them rude, he finishes the song with this couplet:

"Well, my face may look like heck,
But yours looks like a horse's neck!"

A blind rolls up on the far corner of the room, and there on the wall is a handsome face, who sings: "Now wait a second, Mr. Flip! Pay no attention to those dips!" He kindly offers up his face to Flip, and our hero is elated at the discovery. At this point, the doctor finally comes out to greet Flip, but when the doctor clears his throat to announce his arrival, Flip is so taken by surprise that he throws his newly chosen face in the air, and it lands on the doctor's big bearded head. The doctor leads his new victim, er, patient into his laboratory. When the door closes, stars of pain and violence emit from the cracks, as Flip yowls. "There, there," the kindly doctor tells him, "it won't hurt!" The masks on the wall reply in chorus, "Not much!"

Meanwhile, on the street, the object of Flip's obsession is stopped along with her new beau by a mosntrous bruiser, who wastes no time in laying his hands upon the girl. The boyfriend is dispatched quickly with a casual toss into a mud puddle, and the embarassed lad runs frantically from the film, literally yelling for his "Mama". Left alone with the mountainous cretin, who makes an attempt to kiss her, the girl slaps a sheet of flypaper on his face. He pulls the paper off, but his face goes with it, and he has to peel it off the paper and arrange it in place before pursuing the girl again. She runs to a house, and the thug enters after her, and when the door slams, we hear her scream as more stars emit from behind that door, signifying some sort of violence being perpetrated upon her.

Back at the doctor's office, Flip's bandages are being removed, and when the former frogface sees his new reflection, he yells "Hot Dog!" He grabs the doctor and dances with him, but when the doctor spins Flip, he shoots like a tornado through the office door and out on the street. Picking himself up, he starts to strut and whistle, and the now-more-than-handsome Flip is immediately seen by first one swooning girl, and then a whole crowd of girls, who chase him to the same house where's Flip's would-be love is being molested. Flip hears her scream at the top of the stairs before she is pulled back into one of the rooms. Flip flies up the stairs and pulls frantically on the door, but he pulls it off its hinges, and he and the door slide down the stairs and straight through the front door, sending it flipping around and placing the crowd of girls inside the house. Flip dives at the top of the door, and it spins around again, depositing the girls back outside.

After falling out the window once and sliding down a pine tree, stripping it of its foliage, Flip tries to attack again, but the bully knocks him out the window and into the tree a second time. This time, Flip bounces back and starts brawling with the creep. A series of interruptions occur, but Flip keeps ending up on the receiving end of the punches, until a flurry of sharp blows shatters his new face. Flip sees his old face in the reflection of a mirror and goes mad with rage. The girl sees who has been trying to save her, and she shouts Flip's name in joy and surprise. Flip pummels the thug with his rapidly flying fists, and smacks him in the head over and over with a broken board. He finally leaps on the prostrate form of the bully and the pair crash down through several floors, bounce back up through the holes just made and then the roof through the timely intervention of a very springy mattress, Flip ends up next to his intended and the bully ends up rolling down the roof, hanging from it by his suspenders. Flip cuts the straps with some scissors, and the bully ends up face down in a barrel. Flip and the girl are reunited, and she is finally able to see past his frogface, and see the gentleman and hero within. It seems they are about to kiss, but the windowpane slams down on their necks and they struggle to wiggle free as the film irises out.

OK, so maybe at the beginning of this piece, I made this film out to be a little darker than the way in which it actually presents itself. The general tone is actually fairly light and airy, even in the scenes with the girl and the thug. Her minor taunting attitude turns serious, however, and it is hard to understand exactly what Iwerks meant with the house scene, where the door shuts and there is clearly some sort of scuffle going on. Is he slapping or punching her, or is he doing something more? It is certainly a little more advanced than the normal nyah-hah-hah villain tying the girl to the railroad tracks routine. And the Mad Love-style themes of romantic obsession and body alteration are most definitely at play here, and if the plastic surgeon seems more than a little overly happy, his suggestive last name (Skinnum) and his behavior behind closed doors more than betrays his place as a true mad scientist figure. And just what are the singing masks in his office? Perhaps the film is not really on the Browning or Cronenberg levels, but there is most certainly something more than a tad otherworldly going on in Doctor Skinnum's office.

That ending? Would a girl like that finally relent to the affections of such a plain-to-ugly faced creature like poor Flip? She certainly thinks pretty highly of herself, just judging from her behavior in the film, so would she be so quick to submit to his charms, even with his grand heroic gesture. Better-deserving women go out with lameasses all the time, enough for the great Joe Jackson to tell the truth and get considerable mileage out of Is She Really Going Out With Him?, but this usually is in reference to good-looking guys who are undeserving assholes. Rarely is it a case where a total schlub has the hot girl, unless he is named Bill Gates.

The thing that I noticed on this go-around, though, was that the girl might actually be the undeserving one. Near the end of the film, as she roots on the now-heroic Flip, her hands appear to be little misshapen webbed things, though she is clearly quite human. She stands next to Flip, who possesses normal human-like fingers and all, and her hands are these little almost star-shaped monstrosities, as is she were born a youthful victim of thalidomide. The girl is a refugee from a freak show, and yet she has the gall to turn her nose up at our boy Flip?

And now they are together. Flip has his hot girl, and she has a frog-faced boyfriend. Perhaps there is something to this karmic balance thing after all.

Funny Face (Ub Iwerks, 1932) Director: Ub Iwerks
Animation: Shamus Culhane
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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