A barber has a unique way of shaving his customers… and it involves fun with a straight razor. This early Biograph comedy plays on established and popular horror tropes for laughs but barbershop murder was serious business.
Home Media Availability: Released for free streaming.
Before we get started, I should tell you that we are going to be dealing with a rather bloody form of murder, so consider this a content warning.
The Maniac Barber is an uncredited early trick film from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company that was shot in 1899 but not copyrighted until 1902. (Film copyrights were not yet established law in the United States.) The central gag of the picture is based on a substitution splice that replaces a live barbershop customer with a dummy with a detachable head.
A gentleman enters a barber’s establishment and seats himself while the proprietor lathers his chin. The barber then detaches the gentleman’s head with a straight razor, carries it to the sink and finishes shaving it. Once he is finished, he reattaches the head, the gentleman casually pays and departs, and the barber looks exceedingly pleased with himself.
Decapitation was a popular way to showcase film special effects and was the subject of the earliest known special effect, which is found in The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895). The substitution is smoother and less obvious in The Maniac Barber but the technique is identical: stop the camera, replace the person with a dummy, carry on truncating their torso. Everything repeated in reverse in order to put the victim back together again.
While The Maniac Barber was clearly created with the intention of entertaining its audience and maybe inviting a guffaw or two, the basic concept of a maniacal barber was one that would have been familiar to both moviemakers and filmgoers in 1899.
Barbershops hold a peculiar place in the history of screen entertainment. They offer a ubiquitous service with a chatty, clubhouse atmosphere in films and on television and are frequented or owned by such popular performers as Ice Cube and Andy Griffith. But there’s that dark flipside with Sweeney Todd, Michael Palin and Uno Henning all taking turns doing their worst with a straight razor.
By the nineteenth century, barbers were pretty much confined to beautifying the male visage but even without surgical or dental procedures in their repertoire, they still dealt with their clients from a position of power. Going to a barber meant that a man was leaning back in a chair, tangled in a sheet, their neck exposed to a wickedly sharp blade. A straight razor shave at a barbershop was an exercise in trust even if the actual risk of attack was small. Violation of that barber’s trust was a story that would make most male audiences reach for their collective throats. There are few horror tropes based in innocent, mundane activities that are so specifically aimed at making men feel vulnerable.
The fictional Sweeney Todd’s 1846 appearance in The String of Pearls by James Malcolm Rymer helped create the barbershop horror tropes we know and love. In the story Todd made use of a trick shaving-chair but was not above cutting throats in the pulpiest manner:
“With his left hand he took one vigorous grasp of the remaining hair upon the head of the usurer, and forced his back against the chair. In another instant there was a sickening gushing sound. Todd, with the razor he held in his right hand, had nearly cut John Mundell’s head off. Then he held him still by the hair. Gasp—gasp—gasp—bubble—gasp—bubble.—Ah! ah! ah!—Goggle—goggle. A slight convulsive movement of the lashes, and the eyes set, and became opaquely dim. The warm blood still bubbled, but John Mundell was dead.”
Whether Sweeney Todd was based on a real murderer or if he was entirely the product of a chilling what-if, he was certainly most influential. Multiple stage adaptations, at least two silent movies, talkies, a ballet and, of course, a musical followed. The combination of a barbershop murder and the victims being baked into pies hit Anglosphere audiences right where it counted.
As is the case with many primal fears, humor went hand-in-hand with the terror. In his book The Gift of Fear, security specialist Gavin de Becker points out multiple cases of people processing their all-too-real danger by telling dark jokes. It’s our way of processing information and clues that seem too fantastic to speak of seriously. Fear of the cut-throat razor found a way to express itself.
At the time The Maniac Barber was made, women were not yet dashing off to barber shops to have their hair fashionably bobbed but they were becoming fixtures of the barbering trade. I did find an amusing 1898 item in the New York Tribune with the headline “SHAVED BY A WOMAN.” The subheading states “An experiment in the shop of a newcomer in the business without disastrous results.” The piece details the outraged barbers experienced at the thought of women entering their trade. Further, the power inherent in the act of shaving did not sit well with customers in the throes of fragile masculinity.
This is confirmed in the body of the piece as the reporter details his experiences with a woman at the razor: “He felt he had placed his life in jeopardy by trusting it in the hands of a woman barber, and his fears were not lessened by hearing a diabolical snicker behind him… She rubbed the lather into his beard with her dainty fingers, and then went to a case and picked out a razor. As she gazed at the razor’s edge beads of perspiration gathered on the reporter’s forehead and he reproached himself inwardly for having entered on his desperate experiment without first having made his will.”
The woman barber turned out to be deft, experienced and thoroughly professional but the reporter chose not to sign his name to the piece due to concerns about his wife being jealous. So, as we can see, we have a potential tale of terror that turns into a comedy.
Australian author Banjo Paterson’s 1892 poem The Man from Ironbark also took a more comical approach. Its title character is pranked by a barber who dips a straight razor in hot water to make him believe his throat was cut. The man later embroiders on the escapade, claiming that the barber really meant to kill him but his throat was too tough.
(Incidentally, it’s worth noting that while most modern versions of the Sweeney Todd story include a stretch in an Australian penal colony as background for the character, this element was not added until the mid-twentieth century. In fact, the original book sets its events in 1785, at which time the British government was just forming its plans to send convicts to New South Wales. The first wave arrived in 1788. The extant 1928 silent adaptation kept the 1780s setting, while the 1936 talkie moved things up to the Regency era.)
Another Australian-themed variation was published in numerous American newspapers in 1899 without attribution. Entitled The Mad Barber, it tells of a hunting party in Queensland. The hunters meet an itinerant barber and hire him to shave their beards but they later are horrified to learn that the barber murdered his last customer. When he is captured, he confesses that he was going to kill one of the hunters as well but “it slipped my mind.” People familiar with urban legends will likely recognize this, forgive me, “close-shave” structure from such popular tales as The Hook and Aren’t You Glad You Didn’t Turn On the Light?
It’s possible that The Maniac Barber borrowed the title, if not the plot, from this little horror story in miniature. The decapitation gag was possibly borrowed from the 1898 James Williamson trick film The Clown Barber. In the Williamson film, a clown appears in place of the barber and cuts off a customer’s head as he fidgets. The short concludes with the head being restored to the satisfied customer.
Whether The Maniac Barber borrowed from The Clown Barber or whether both films were borrowing from an older gag found in stage or comic strips, I cannot say. Certainly, filmmakers of the period had zero qualms about lifting entire plots, so The Maniac Barber being a rip-off is highly possible. Whatever the truth of the matter, I was delighted to learn that one of the earliest known Killer Barber picture was also one of the earliest known Killer Clown pictures. Williamson deserves our applause for this innovation. No extant copies of The Clown Barber are known to survive. Some lost films hit harder than others.
The British Isles remained the headquarters of dangerous barbershop visits with the infamous attempted murder scene in A Cottage on Dartmoor being an iconic example. There is no humor to relieve the tension as a jealous Uno Henning slashes the throat of his client and romantic rival. Director Anthony Asquith plays with our fears and leads us to question whether he will or won’t go through with it before answering in the resounding affirmative. Terror is pulled back from comedy, proving that we only laughed in the first place because we were so afraid.
The Maniac Barber is a simple film with a simple theme and is basically a hook upon which to hang a cinematic magic trick but digging into the context of its release and what audiences would have brought with them into the theater is illuminating. Enjoy the picture and be grateful that most of us can now shave ourselves.
Where can I see it?
The Maniac Barber was recovered in Sulphur Springs, Texas and has been made available for free streaming courtesy of the G. William Jones Film and Video Collection, Southern Methodist University.
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