Saturday, November 19, 2011

Disability Humor

Possibly the most tasteless comedy of early film history was a 1905 Pathé Frères comedy called L'Automobile et le cul-de-jatte, the English translation of which is The Motorcar and the Cripple.  At least the comedy is tasteless if you believe Richard Abel, who wrote The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema, 1896-1914.  Abel described plot details as well as camera shots after he had reportedly viewed the film.  The plot, as described by Abel, is simple.  Four well-dressed men coming out of a cafe are approached by a legless beggar, who is traveling around on a pushcart.  The men refuse to drop a coin in the beggar's outstretched palm.  Moments later, when they realize that their car won't start, the men hitch the legless beggar to the car like a draft horse and have him drag them to the nearest garage.  However, entirely different plot details were provided by the Pathé Frères catalog that was distributed to exhibitors at the time of the film's release.  The plot, as described in the catalog, is more involved and more reasonable.  The well-dressed men do give the beggar a coin and even offer to give the man a ride in their car.  The beggar turns down their offer, boastful of the efficiency of his pushcart.  It is partly out of gratitude and partly out of a desire to demonstrate his pushcart's versatility that the beggar later volunteers to be hitched up to the car and haul it to the garage.  This version of the story manages, with a few slight differences, to depict the beggar as capable and even heroic.  This is a film history Rashomon that I cannot figure out.

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