Sunday, June 11, 2006

THE VILLAGE BARBER (1930)

Why the hell would you want five razor blades running across your skin at one time? Is this just another example of "Bigger Is Better" American advertising convincing us that if two blades will do a decent job, then four blades will do it twice as well? I personally use the Sensor Excel two-blade system, though I have no idea whether or not it does the job any better or smoother than a single blade. I also sincerely doubt that the little gel strip at the top of the blade does a damn bit of good in the "ease of shaving" department; in fact, I don't think it actually does anything at all. I've had the same razor for about 15 years, and I only bought it because I liked the handle. Every once in a while, the razor company sees fit to screw with the packaging and add a "freebie" (though actually they are just screwing me out of a blade that I actually want), where they put in a three-or-four bladed upgrade, in an attempt to let me see what I am missing.

Fear. Fear is what I am missing. Invariably, because I am unused to the dimensions of the new blade, I will come close to lopping off an ear. The shave is uncomfortable, I get nervous, nations fall, and the stock market crashes. I apply a heavy gauze to the gushing torrent of blood just beneath my nose, click the new three-or-four bladed monstrosity into the trash, calculate the money wasted on screwing me out of both a blade that I wanted and a new supply of medical tape and gauze, and switch back to the blades that I am used to using.

For a while, I have considered getting a real straight razor just like the barbers use. Again, fear keeps me in check, for I am certain that far more than an ear will go flinging through the air once I try one, but I have had an interest. Perhaps it is the scenes in old movies where manly men shave the way that manly men do: with a real straight razor. Now, I poo-poo most of what manly men do, even to the point of using the phrase "poo-poo". But, only once did I ever get a shave from an actual razor like that, and though discrection does not allow me to discuss the circumstances, I will say that it was the most comfortable shave in my life, and it came at a time when I was really not good at shaving.

I didn't take up a razor regularly until I was actually out of high school and living in my own place with my pals Tony and Wayne. Before then, I kept a little peachfuzz on my chin through the latter part of high school, and on my lip I bore a wispy mustache, and I knew that at some point I would have to start shaving as a routine, but I put it off. Once in a while I would try the disposable cheapie blades, and the going was torturous for a couple of years, until I finally decided to take some of my comic-and-baseball card money and invest in a halfway decent razor. The change was noticeable almost overnight, and in time, a strange thing happened. While the shaving industry seems to spend untold amounts of dinero trying to convince the public that shaving is a horror for men and that they have to buy giant razors of mass destruction to get the job done comfortably, when I switched to a higher-grade two-blade system, I soon developed a great fondness for shaving. The ritual suited me: I stopped dreading the ritual, and turned it into a relaxation technique.

Yes, I wore a full beard for a couple of years -- that was mainly out of boredom and/or laziness -- and there have been times where I adopted either a goatee or a soulpatch, but now that these things are prevalent amongst the young, I have gone with the clean-shaven look for the last ten years or so. (Plus, I came to the point where I felt that goatees look incredibly stupid, almost as bad as porn star mustaches, but without the ironic "cool" factor.) Part of this is due to the fact that Jen hates facial hair, and if anyone out there knows how sensitive and ticklish the girl is, they can understand this. So, to placate my honey, and mainly because I got tired of the painful ingrown hairs and acne breakout that came with the facial hair, I evolved into one of the facially hairless. And to do so, I stick to my nice, safe shaving system, where I practically never do myself any sort of damage.

But every now and then, I think about hitting a barber shop for another "real" shave. Even after years of seeing, listening and loving the tale of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, where he would slash his victims' throats and dump them via trapdoor into his basement to be made into meat pies, I still feel the urge to remove a couple days of scruff in the "manly" fashion. But then I see a barber like Flip the Frog in his cartoon short, The Village Barber from Ub Iwerks in 1930, and I have second thoughts. Flip has a hard enough time maintaining his pole, ahem, "barber pole", outside his shop; how is he going to give me a decent shave? In what looks to the post-modern world to be nothing more than fifty seconds of phallic buffoonery, Flip the Frog marches a brand new barber pole to the boardwalk outside of his barber shop, all the while whistling and dancing cheerfully. Setting the pole down, he procures an oil can from his pants (!) and knocks a couple of drops towards the already turning pole. But how is it turning? Opening up a door at its base, we see four sweating, tired beetlebugs cranking the pole around and around. Flip obligingly oils each of the beetles, and they immediately perk up and start toiling in a far happier manner. (I didn't know beetles ran on oil...) Flip takes out a cloth, wraps it around the pole and starts polishing the thing up and down, up and down. Finally, in time with the music, he snaps the red stripe on the pole a couple of times.

Down the boardwalk skips a childish but large boar with a lollipop. Spying the large peppermint-striped barber pole, the pig understandably wants nothing more to do with his now substandard lollipop, so he throws it away. He steals the pole out of the base, starts to lick it hungrily, and skips away again. Flip panics and cries, but he sees a cat with a striped tail sleeping at the base of a nearby tree. Flip just so happens to have a pail full of starch (and marked in such a way as to let us know this) and he pours it on the tail of the cat. The tail stiffens up right away, pointing high into the air, so Flip kicks the cat hard in the rear. The cat yowls and runs off, and fortunately for Flip but not so for the cat, the tail snaps right off. Flip places the new pole into the base and spins it to get it going.

Another figure comes tromping down the boardwalk, and this time it is a tremendously hairy dog, with shaggy black fur covering every inch of his face and body, and the only clothing that we can see are his shoes with spats, his top hat, and the white gloves that cover his paws. He stops at a mirror, realizes he is need of a shave, and heads straight into Flip's barber shop. The barber chair does much of the set-up, with its armrests turning into hands that remove the dog's hat, tie a towel too tightly around his neck, and then pumps itself up to an appropriate height. Flip starts to comb the dog's hair, but the hair is so thick that the dog howls in pain. Flip takes an electric razor and starts to shear through the shaggy fur of the dog's back (which is a process some of my friends could stand to have happen); the razor comes to life, showing a face that happily munches and swallows the vast amounts of fur. A flea family living in the dog's neck panics and grabs it luggage to move out to better accommodations. Flip finishes shaving the dog's whole body, including flipping the canine about to get a better shot at his tail, and the dog is left sitting completely naked in the chair.

All that is left to do is the shave. With the music, Flip stirs up some shaving cream and applies it to the dog's shaggy face. The dog slips his tongue out and cleans the cream from his eyes in one dramatic slurp. Flip runs his nicked and worn razor against a strop harshly until he is satisfied. The strop, however, playfully slaps Flip in the rear, an action for which Flip admonishes the strop. Flip starts to eagerly shave the dog, perhaps a little too eagerly, and when he hits the chin, he pulls more and more chin to give it another once-over. Like an decent barber shop, there are regulars who just like to loll about the place, and this one is no exception. While another cat sleeps on a bench, an elderly goat rocks a nickel into a player piano, out of which springs a spider that starts to pound out a tune on the keys, all while hanging from some webbing. The dog's process continues, with a lady duck providing the canine with a good manicure, and an overalls-wearing cat giving the dog's shoes a solid shine. A fly buzzes in and lands on the keys opposite the spider, whereupon he starts to play along with the arachnid. Eventually, the spider stops playing to watch the fly, and he Mysterious Moses his way across the keys and clobbers the bug. He tosses the fly up to catch it in his mouth, but the fly buzzes off, and the spider starts to play again, but in a decidedly perturbed style.

Flip continues to shave the dog, but clangs his razor and comb along his bottles and jars as he does so, every once in a while turning about and swiping the blade across the dog's face. Four flowers leap out of their flowerpots and do a little dance to the music; likewise, the stove in the corner picks up the tune and tapdances across the room, only stopping to feed his mouth with a large quantity of coal. When he dances post-feeding, his stomping causes all of his fuel to drop out of his coal bin. Flip the Frog, the shaved dog, the manicurist duck and the shoeshine cat form a barbershop quartet, though each creature sings in the manner of his species, rather than taking up actual human voice. (This adds a lot to the fun.) They croak, bark, quack and meow out Oh Where Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone? with the cat taking lead and the dog provided the bass. At the song's close, the dog hits lower and lower notes, until he gets so low that he sends the quartet crashing through the floorboards. They each pop up one by one and finish the song in "harmony". The End.

What more to add? A simple cartoon, from start to finish cute and basic, with marvelous side details in the backgrounds and prop design. (I especially like the boardwalk scenes and the variety of spittoons available in the shop.) The cartoon has a lived-in feeling to it; it doesn't feel just like a collection of animals who happen to be doing this in this cartoon. They actually seem to inhabit this particular world. The early Flip's personality is pretty strong in this one, too, which adds greatly to my overall appreciation of it. It's like my support of On Her Majesty's Secret Service as one of the best of the James Bond films; it might be the best in the series if the lead role were played by somebody far more charismatic than the bland George Lazenby. Having the lead role filled by the personable character in a cartoon does wonders for the film in whole; often in the past, Flip doesn't quite measure up to the world built around him, but here he is in fine form. And thus, so is the cartoon.

I doubt that I can ever go to a shop for a shave again; after seeing the careless glee with which Flip attacks the face, I fear that the residual echoes left over from Sweeney Todd will forever play in my head each time that I sit down (hell, they do just when I get my hair cut), so I guess it is self-shaving from here on out. Just across the screen on my television I saw a commerical for Gillette's new and ridiculous Fusion Shaving System, with its five blades on the front of the razor, a smaller blade on its back (for what? knuckle hair while you hold the razor?), battery-powered micropulses, low battery light indicators, HydraSoothe Gels and After-Shave Balms, the sink in which to actually shave (though one for the bathroom, and not the kitchen) and the cure for the common cold. Oh, you didn't know that razors could cure the common cold? Yeah, I understand your confusion.

I remember when you just scraped a single razor across your face, the hair went away, and that was called a shave...

The Village Barber (Ub Iwerks, 1930)
Director: Ub Iwerks
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

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