3 September 2002 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Shaved by the belle
Any film containing Louise Brooks will be of interest to modern viewers, but in "A Social Celebrity" she has much less screen time (and a much less interesting role) than Adolphe Menjou gets. Director Malcolm St Clair is usually considered an untalented hack, but in this film he displays a few interesting visual devices which actually move the story along.
Johann Haber (Chester Conklin), an Austrian immigrant, is a small-town barber in upstate New York. His staff are his son Max (Menjou), whom Johann is grooming to take over the business, and the manicurist Kitty (Brooks). Max is an excellent barber; most of the men in town come to Max for their shaves, and some of the pretty young women come to him too for their stylish bobs. But he's also a social climber: Max doesn't want to end up like his father, growing old while giving shaves and haircuts to "hicks". When Max and Kitty quarrel, she quits the barber shop and goes off to make her way in New York City ... which only fuels Max's envy. He gets his chance at something bigger when snooty Mrs Jackson-Greer offers to set him up with a beauty salon in Manhattan.
In his posh salon, Max intercepts a phone call for a client, reporting that Count de Maxim (the guest of honour at a high-toned dinner party) won't be able to attend after all. Max dudes himself up as the French count, and crashes the party with a phony French accent (conveyed in the silent-film dialogue titles). Unfortunately, the "French" count can't speak French. Mrs Jackson-Greer shows up at the party. She recognises Max, but he tips her the wink and she aids his masquerade. But then the "count" runs into Kitty...
Surprisingly, the best performance in this film is by Chester Conklin. Usually a slapstick comedian, he gives a poignant performance here as the old barber who had hoped to pass his barbershop to his son. Now the son is gone, and the barbershop has lost most of its customers. In the days when most men were still shaved by professional barbers (before the safety razor became widespread), it was commonplace for a man to keep his own personal shaving mug at the barbershop where he got shaved regularly. There is a touching visual device in this film: in the early scenes, we see Johann Haber's barbershop well-stocked with shaving mugs belonging to Max's loyal customers. After Max has been disloyal to his father, and moved on to the big city, we see the shaving rack in Johann's barbershop losing its supply of mugs, one by one, as Max's customers take their business elsewhere. Finally there is only one shaving mug left: old Johann's, which he never uses, because he secretly shaves himself with a safety razor.
"A Social Celebrity" is a well-made comedy, but not an especially good one. The photography and editing are excellent. Louise Brooks is as seductive as usual, but she has very little to do here.