Monday, April 16, 2012

In Search of Footit and Chocolat

[post 263]

I'm always on the lookout for rare footage of clowns from the early days of film, so I was excited to see an 1899 clip of Footit & Chocolat surface, even if it is only 42 seconds. (Thanks to Pat Cashin for the link!) Here's how I began my section on this legendary clown duo in my book Clowns:

"The popularity that the auguste clown enjoyed by the turn of the century may be attributed primarily to the extraordinary success of the clown-auguste team of Footit (1864-1921) and Chocolat (Raphael Padilla; died 1917). Their performances revealed, as none had before, the character contrasts and comedic potential inherent in the combination of the whiteface clown and the silly auguste."

When Italian film director Federico Fellini produced his semi-documentary, I Clowns (1970), he had some modern clowns play their great predecessors in several classic clown scenes, including this one of Footit & Chocolat. (The old man in the audience is portraying the clown James Guyon, who escaped from his hospital death bed to catch one last performance at the Nouveau Cirque, but the excitement led to a heart attack that killed him — or so the story goes.)

These attempts at historical reenactment did not convince French circus historians L. -R . Dauven and Jacques Garnier:

Is it not a mockery of the public to try to ask some of today's clowns whose talent is not in question to try to recreate the Fratellini trio? The scene — set in an insane asylum, for no particular reason — is unbearable. François, who was grace itself, has become a clumsy lout in the hideous mask of wickedness. Does this serve the truth? Antonet is no more "real," nor is Footit, who plays "Je cherche après Titine," a song composed well after his death, when another was clearly suggested: "A la maison, nous n'irons plus..."
(Cirque dans l'Univers, #81)

So here's the real thing, "Chaise en Bascule" (Rocking Chair), as shot by those pioneers of early film, the Lumière Brothers, in 1899. Presumably this was never seen by Fellini, otherwise he would have used it as is instead of bothering with a re-enactment. Since Footit & Chocolat worked together from 1886 through at least 1910, this clip would be mid-career.

Last and hopefully not least, here's the complete section on Footit & Chocolat from my Clowns book:


The popularity that the auguste clown enjoyed by the turn of the century may be attributed primarily to the extraordinary success of the clown-auguste team of Footit (1864-1921) and Chocolat (died 1917), first at the Hippodrome du Champ de Mars (1894-1898), and subsequently at the Nouveau Cirque. Their performances revealed, as none had before, the character contrasts and comedic potential inherent in the combination of the whiteface clown and the silly auguste.

George Footit was a British equestrian, acrobat, and clown who became a part of the circus world at an early age as an apprentice to his father's Great Footit Allied Circus. He went on to perform with Sanger's Circus (the largest in England), whose route eventually took him to France, where he decided to become a clown after losing his horse in a card game. By the 1880s, he had already become one of the most famous whiteface clowns.

Footit reunited the great twin traditions of the talking and acrobatic clown. He could dazzle audiences either with his somersaults or his way with words — in English or in fractured French. He was particularly noted for his parody, in drag, of the circus equestrienne. He shared Billy Hayden's bizarre sense of humor and, like Hayden, Footit attempted to add new material to the clown's repertoire. According to his memoirs, however, he practically had resigned himself to performing traditional routines because he lacked a partner with whom he could explore new areas of clowning. He was to find the ideal auguste partner in Chocolat, a Cuban black born Raphael Padilla in Havana. Padilla was orphaned at an early age and sold into the service of a rich European, who took young Raphael back with him to Portugal. As a teenager, Padilla ran away to Bilbao, where he was discovered performing feats of strength for his friends in a cabaret by none other than Tony Grice. Grice brought him to Paris, where Padilla was employed both as the family servant and in the ring.

Padilla had no circus experience and was unskilled as an acrobat, but he soon was to become well known for his performance as the victimized auguste in Grice's popular entree, The Train Station. He was to imbue the auguste with his own idiosyncrasies to such a degree that Perrodil felt that Chocolat had created a new type of auguste who might henceforth bear his name — a "chocolat" rather than an "auguste." Later Chocolat left Grice to team up with Footit, with whom he fully developed his concept of the auguste.

Chocolat's auguste was a would-be man of the world, a fool attempting to appear dignified but rarely getting away with it. It was reasoned that if the auguste were meant to be on the receiving end of all the slaps and kicks, then these blows would be more amusing if the auguste were an impeccable gentleman. Accordingly, Chocolat's costume consisted of polished shoes, silk stockings, satin breeches, a red jacket with a flower in the buttonhole, and a stylish hat. Footit, on the other hand, was noted for his ugliness, which he cultivated and exaggerated with his many grimaces. With his conical hat, red lips, and the heavy eyebrows that accentuated his frequent frowns, he became the prototype of the authoritarian whiteface clown. "To think," their biographer wrote of Chocolat, "that this gentleman, who was so chic, was destined to be a victim of the impertinent slaps of the clown in multicolored tights, whitened face, and conical hat!"

Footit's bullying of Chocolat was almost totally arbitrary, a slapstick equivalent of a harsh social order. There was no real reason for the punishment and no need for the master to give a reason. "Monsieur Chocolat, I shall be obliged to slap you!" Footit angrily approaches Chocolat and repeats his message: "I warn you, Monsieur Chocolat, if you took something from me, I shall be obliged to slap you." He searches Chocolat's pockets and, satisfied that nothing is there, nevertheless says, "Monsieur Chocolat, I see that you have not taken anything from me, but I am going to slap you, because I believe that you took something!"

According to one contemporary commentator, their little dramas were open to all sorts of interpretations:

They each have their own character, which the public is familiar with beforehand: Footit is the despotic master, pigheaded, with an intelligence that is narrow-minded on some points, but quite good on others; ill-natured, goading, cowardly toward his superiors, bossy around those below him. Chocolat on the other hand is the hapless Negro scapegoat who obeys without complaining, but who still acts lazy and whose impassive mask leaves the spectator vague as to whether he has before him an absolute fool without a brain in his head, or an intelligent but unfortunate individual who is aware of his moral forfeiture, who understands everything, but says nothing, because . . . he knows it would not do any good! 

Sometimes Chocolat possessed the same naivete that we already have seen in Hayden's auguste partner. Another riddle:
FOOTIT: Listen to this, Chocolat, and try to guess the answer. Do you know anyone who is my mother's and father's child and who isn't my brother and isn't my sister . you can't guess? Someone who isn't my brother or my sister, and yet is the child of my father and mother . it's me!
CHOCOLAT: (Admiring this riddle, lie decides to try it on an equestrian,) It isn't my brother and isn't my sister and yet it is the child of my mother and father — who is it?
CHOCOLAT: Not at all — it's Footit.

Footit and Chocolat were most noted not for these fairly traditional exchanges but for their parodies. Their originality was such that more than one critic maintained that Footit deserved to be taken seriously as a dramatist in his own right. Their repertoire included Grice's The Train Station, but what one writer labeled "a banal satire on the different social classes" took on a whole new dimension in the hands of Footit and Chocolat "because it was expressed with a feeling for irony, oppositions, contrasts, and delicately varied finesses." Footit's parody, "the death of Sarah Bernhardt," came close to being censored by the circus management, until the great lady herself showed up and found it quite hilarious.

Equally popular was their parody of the Montmartre chansonniers, whom we may imagine Footit found somewhat lacking in imagination. Advancing to the center of the ring, Footit solemnly bows and informs the patrons that he is about to sing "La Petite Maison." He then announces "first couplet" and begins his song:

A la maison nous n'irons plus,
A la maison nous n'irons pas,
A la maison nous n'irons jamais pas,
A la maison nous n'irons plus.
A la maison nous n'irons plus,
A la maison nous n'irons pas...

Chocolat approaches, his curiosity aroused, but Footit just keeps singing. Chocolat shows signs of impatience. He strikes Footit on the shoulder. Footit continues singing. Chocolat hits him harder. Footit stops singing long enough to slap Chocolat. Starting over, he again announces the first couplet and goes right on singing:

A la maison nous n'irons plus,
A la maison nous n'irons pas.

Again Chocolat approaches Footit, this time giving him a soft kick. Each successive kick is a bit harder. Ten kicks, 'twenty kicks, a hundred kicks, first with the right leg, then with the left all the while the imperturbable Footit never takes any notice, never for an instant interrupts his musical rendition — until Chocolat finally collapses from sheer exhaustion. Now Footit pauses, notices Chocolat on the ground, and gazes at him disdainfully. After an apologetic gesture to the audience, he again bows and announces the first couplet:

A la maison nous n'irons plus,
A la maison nous n'irons pas,
A la maison nous n'irons jamais pas.

At least two people are needed to carry Footit out of the ring. And still he keeps on singing. 

In order to see just one performance of Footit and Chocolat, in 1911 a very ill James Guyon — the "vrai gugusse" of the 1880s — slipped past his nurse, put on his clothes, sneaked away from the hospital, and ran off to the Nouveau Cirque. He enjoyed their act immensely but, so the story goes, all the excitement led to a heart attack that took his life.

1 comment:

Benjamin said...

if all information should be free in the cyber age, then this film clip of these two is surely an inspiration for modern performers. Now, is there a place for the "talent" to work to develop the skills of this type of performance? How great to see this material.

Kudo's to the presenters.