A Brief History of the Mustache in Cinema

by Daedalus Howell on October 29, 2012

in FICTION, FILM, IDEAS

Sad to report that our documentary film, A Brief History of the Mustache in Cinema, has been shaved from the development slate of upstart cabler The Hair Channel.

Collaborator Cary Carpe and I had been tapped to track the mustache through cinema for the new channel (a sort of E! for all things follicular) after producers had seen my short mumblecore fest flick Beardo, which I shot entirely using Instagram and took atop Cupcake at the Park Slope Hootenanny + Regatta.

After inking the development agreement last month, I Photoshopped a one-sheet from Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s famed first fit of anti-art – the graffitied mustache on a Mona Lisa postcard (merci, Marcel!) and began querying potential interviews. Right off, our initial research yielded a plucky tale of cinema, facial hair and entrepreneurship we instantly slotted as the foundation of our film.

In the late 19th century, two of the strongest mafia gangs in New York were controlled by Joe Masseria and Salvatore Maranzano, who, perhaps fittingly, were also two of the city’s firstfilm producers. They were known as the “Mustache Petes.” Moreover they insisted their silent-era flicks prominently feature mustachioed actors…and sometimes actresses.

Unfortunately, our uppity production assistant squealed to the Italian-American Anti-Defamation League, a group always at-the-ready to put the finire on any suggestion that those of Italian-descent are involved in organized crime (what a jibone!). They interceded with a letter decrying the film’s offensive position on the Mustache Petes and encouraged the perception that Masseria and Maranzano weren’t in fact mobsters but entrepreneurs in a world that demanded an expansive notion of business acumen.

The letter came in a black envelope and suggested in strong terms that it would not be in the interest of our film, our careers and our loved ones should we proceed. It was signed with a black hand-print. Our Mustache Pete sequence soon found itself on the barbershop floor.

It was no great loss, seeing as mustache consciousness in cinema really came with Charlie Chaplin’s introduction of the Little Tramp character in 1914.

The abbreviated push broom Chaplin wore endeared his creation to a legion of fans –most notably Adolf Hitler. It was, I surmise, on the occasion of their mutual mustache, that Chaplin began percolating his World War II satire, The Great Dictator.We attempted to interview Chaplin’s offspring but were surprised to find they took offense at our suggestion the renowned poly-hyphenate might have been inspired by a shared facial hairstyle rather than heeding the call of humanity. Of course, we did not contest this possibility but come on! I mean, it’s pretty convenient that Chaplin already had a Hitler mustache. Anyway, we were categorically denied permission to use Chaplin’s likeness or even mention his name in association with our project. Tramp. Crestfallen? Yes. But at least we still had Hitler. To our chagrin, however, footage archives were not interested in us digitally removing Hitler’s mustache for a sequence in which we would attempt to draw an analogy between his mustache and rise to power. The footage people said they needed to preserve the “historic integrity” of their stock.

Among the bounty of trivia yielded from our research was an interesting item on the origination of Groucho Marx’ famous greasepaint mustache. Apparently, late for a matinee performance of he and his brothers’ vaudeville act, the young Groucho forsook his usual horsehair and spirit gum for a hastily-drawn greasepaint mustache. It became an icon.

Groucho’s people were far more gracious than the Tramp’s and the Nazis. We did, however, have to sign a dozen releases waiving any claim to the right to “exploit” Groucho’s mustache for financial gain. When I asked why, estate historian Isaac Branch, the doleful steward of all things Marxian, quietly said “Follow me.”

He led us through the corridor and through a small passage that opened into a warehouse. There, Branch reached into a shipping crate and extracted a pair of novelty nose-mustache-eyebrow glasses that resembled the erstwhile comedian.

“They called them Beagle Puss Glasses but they’re clearly Groucho,” he said with a catch in his throat. “They made millions and saturated the market before we could get ours out of R&D. Their concept was genius really. An all-in-one solution. While we were still fiddling with grease paint applicators, they had developed a polymer mustache and eyebrows combination that attached directly to the spectacles component. Like all great novelty items, it was ruthlessly efficient and brilliant.”

When word of our endeavor got out in the gift market, we received a solicitation to speak with a publicist for Wooly Willy, the kids game that uses iron shavings and a “magic magnetic wand” stylus to draw “whiskers” upon Willy’s face.

A recent dearth in comic book characters available for film franchises had recently garnered Wooly Willy a franchise movie deal. We agreed to meet at the Wooly Willy ComicCon booth in the San Diego Convention Center.

“W2 is like a man of a thousand faces or even more. Maybe even more – my intern’s still running the numbers. W2 is like a traveling disguise kit. Clean shaven, full beard, unibrow, whatever,” the goateed brand manager explained. “It’s really all about identity, man. Who is Wooly Willy. You know? Hey, who the fuck am I? It’s now and it’s males 14 to 34 and it’s three pix of merchandise!”

My partner suggested we could fulfill the “interactive content” portion of our contract by creating a virtual Wooly Willy app where one could paint facial hair on Willy on an iPad. He mentioned this offhand to the brand manager who immediately went ashen and explained how their lawyers had just gunned down an adult site for a similar sounding x-rated “Polly Pudendum” app. Then he
threatened to sue us for even thinking about such a thing.

By early August, A Brief History of the Mustache in Cinema was foundering. We had shot a grand total of three minutes of tape consisting largely of Carpe adjusting a fake “fashion” beard in a mirror to The Doors, “The End.” Finally, we received an email brimming with a bunch of legalese and brief note from our Hair Channel producer:

“Dear Sirs:  The Hair Channel? What the fuck were we thinking, right? Closing shop. Keep the advance. – Chad.”

The advance, after paying out our agents, manager and lawyer and then splitting it left me about two bits. Enough for a shave and a haircut they say.

Daedalus Howell

Daedalus Howell is an itinerant newspaperman and media maker. He writes books and blogs at DHowell.com. Subscribe to the Sunday Edition, Howell's weekly dispatch of original and curated curios, emailed to you for free. You'll also receive The Tea Cup Whale: How to Find Your Creative Niche as a Thank You for subscribing. Click here to subscribe now!

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