Friday, October 2, 2009

The thrill of the Chase

As I settled in on the official TDOY couch for TCM’s Sunday Silent Nights festival of four classic Charley Chase two-reelers (previously discussed here), I had the unshakable feeling that after watching these comedies my appetite would be whetted for more. This turned out to be quite prescient—I’ve spent the past two days eye-balling VCI/All-Day Entertainment’s Becoming Charley Chase box set, and my appetite has been fully sated watching “the world’s biggest skinny man” in some of his earliest—and in many ways, finest—one- and two-reel comedies.

Because my Thrilling Days of Yesteryear posts also show up on Facebook as part of its NetworkedBlogs feature, the heads-up I wrote regarding the TCM shorts eventually turned up on my profile page (there’s a considerable lull between the posting here and on Facebook, a kink I haven’t quite worked out yet), and Stephen Cooke—best-known for his contributions to If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger...—commented that since he didn’t get TCM he would try to see if he could locate any of the shorts online. “YouTube's no help either,” was his response after his search yielded very little fruit. “Figures there's a porn star with the same name.”

That statement saddened me more than any other I’ve heard recently—and I’ll attest to its truthfulness because many of my stats here at TDOY indicate searches for “Charley Chase” with the appellation “porn actress” following close behind. Far be it from me to come between any individual and his/her porn, but around Rancho Yesteryear we respect and honor an entirely different Chase…who only takes his clothes off when it’s funny.

I’ve said frequently in the past that I regret how often Charley’s contributions to silent and sound comedy go neglected—but in an essay written for a booklet originally scheduled for inclusion in the Becoming Charley Chase collection (the booklet was scrapped when the project was shifted to VCI, but you can access it here), film historian Richard M. Roberts makes the convincing case that Chase is not so much neglected as taken for granted. “His face is arguably more recognizable than that of dozens of other comics, his work praised by comedy buffs and historians,” Roberts writes. “Robert Youngson devoted a whole quarter of his final compilation 4 Clowns (1970) to some of Chase’s finest works.”

He goes on further to say:

In his fifteen years as a comedy star for Hal Roach and Columbia pictures, Chase produced a product so consistent in its fine quality that contemporary critics grew tired of finding new superlatives and simply announced “another typical Charley Chase comedy” to their readers. He wasn’t particularly ambitious. Chase never reached beyond the two-reel form with any seriousness, nor was he ever promoted by Roach with the zeal reserved for Laurel and Hardy, the reigning stars on the lot. Chase was popular with audiences, and they expected and enjoyed his monthly appearance before the feature program. They seemed satisfied with the twenty minutes they spent with him. They never clamored for more, and he never offered.

I consider myself much more fortunate than those movie audiences of yesteryear, because rather than having to wait once a month for Chase’s comedies I’m blessed with the convenience of being able to walk over to a shelf and, after locating one of the comedian’s DVD collections, put the disc in my DVD player for a twenty-minute sit-down of fun. But it’s also made me more than a little spoiled—I enjoy his work so much that I’m constantly clamoring for more, and unfortunately a combination of neglect and indifference has kept many of his cinematic treasures away from DVD.

Becoming Charley Chase is a remedy—not a cure, mind you—for this. The collection is every bit as good as All-Day’s earlier Harry Langdon: Lost and Found release, crammed with enough treasures to develop a deeper appreciation for the “taken-for-granted” comedian. The set is designed to emulate in similar fashion Laughsmith Entertainment/Mackinac Media’s 2005 release The Forgotten Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle; on disc one of Chase, the comedian’s early one-reel shorts for Keystone are featured; discs two and three feature his one- and two-reelers made for Hal Roach; and disc four contains a smattering of comedy shorts directed by Chase as Charles Parrott.

The Keystone comedies that feature Charley are frequently knockabout, pedestrian affairs (some of the combined commentary on Peanuts and Bullets [1915] describes the Keystone acting style as “They would pantomime what they were gonna do…they’d do it…and they’d tell you what they did again”) but they also provide a necessary blueprint for the foundation of Chase’s familiar screen persona. Film historian Brent Walker explains in the commentary track for Love in Armor (1915) that the company had six production units working at the time; the top unit featured (of course) Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, with the bottom-of-the-rung unit (sixth) employing Chase (the twenty-one year old was considered “the juvenile” because of his normal appearance) and other performers like partner Fritz Schade, Frank Opperman and—as the Great One himself once put it—“the ever popular” Mae Busch. Still, there are some nuggets to be found in this Keystone panning: The Rent Jumpers (1915) is an interesting effort that sort of foreshadows the later Chase style, and Love, Loot and Crash (1915) is a wacky outing featuring Charley (sans moustache!) as a would-be suitor who comes to the rescue of his paramour (Dora Rogers) and her father, who are besieged by a pair of crooks…one of them (Schade) with a penchant for cross-dressing! (This short has also earned a little recognition because of an extra who plays a fruit vendor who keeps getting knocked down during the short’s chase climax—an actor who answered to “Harold Lloyd.”)

There is also a genuine rarity that closes out the first disc: a 1920 comedy (though made two years earlier) entitled Married to Order, which Charley directed and starred in during his stint as (mostly) director-writer-performer at the King Bee (later known as Reelcraft) studio, guiding the cinematic fortunes of Chaplin imitator Billy West. (I said earlier that Isn't Life Terrible? [1925] marked the first appearance of Oliver Hardy in a Charley Chase short—but since Ollie plays the father of the girl Charley attempts to woo in Married, I obviously didn’t know what I was talking about. Mea maxima culpa.)

Discs two and three of Becoming Charley Chase concentrate on Charley’s output at Hal Roach’s studio for the first two years he appeared in the popular “Jimmy Jump” series. Chase was originally hired to work for Roach in 1921, and his heralded work as a freelance director and writer soon enabled him to move up through the ranks to become Roach’s director-general not long afterward. When Roach’s big star, Harold Lloyd, parted amicably with his old boss in 1923, Chase was given his own series in the hope of replacing Lloyd—the first of a series of one-reel shorts, At First Sight (an aptly-named title that’s included on the BCC set), was introduced to audiences in January 1924.

One of the benefits that I received from watching the shorts in this collection is that I’ve developed a new appreciation for Chase’s one-reel comedies; my preference has always been for Charley’s two-reelers because I must unabashedly confess I don’t usually care for one-reel comedies—or as Chase’s producer, David Kalat, correctly calls them “the ugly stepchildren of silent comedy.” But the one-reel shorts are a revelation; despite the limited amount of time to devote equal attention to both character and plot, Chase succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. There are some first-rate productions presented here: Just a Minute (1924), which features our hero as a car salesman forced to delay his nuptials to his fiancée (Blanche Mehaffey) in order to demonstrate an automobile to perspective customer Noah Young and his family. Publicity Pays (1924) details Chase’s efforts to keep his star-struck wife’s pet monkey out of sight of a cranky hotel manager, and Young Oldfield (1924) pokes fun at the old the-mortgage-is-due-at-the-bank chestnut that would later be spoofed in the Laurel & Hardy outing One Good Turn (1931) and, with a slight variation, an Our Gang comedy released that same year: Helping Grandma.

Several of the Chase one-reelers mirror the mechanics of what would eventually become the modern-day situation comedy: The Poor Fish (1924) allows Charley and Mrs. Chase (Katherine Grant) to trade places for a day…which is an I Love Lucy episode just waiting to happen. Hello Baby! (1924) finds Charley and the missus (Grant again) taking care of an abandoned baby (there are some really first-rate gags in this one), and Should Husbands Be Watched? (1925) grants the Chases the wherewithal to acquire a maid…only they’re not entirely certain how to act around the domestic help! Two other shorts from Becoming Charley Chase are standout comedies: Too Many Mamas (1924)—which may be the best Chase one-reeler in the set—has Charley’s boss dragooning him into being “the beard” for his girlfriend-on-the-side (Olive Borden) at a speakeasy; complications ensue when both Mrs. Boss and Charley’s girlfriend arrive on the scene. Sittin' Pretty (1924) casts Chase as a decent chap who’s forced into impersonating a policeman (using his girlfriend’s father’s uniform) and winds up capturing a psychopath on the loose, played by Charley’s brother James (also known as “Paul”) Parrott. There’s an embryonic version of the famed mirror sequence later used in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933, the director of both just happened to be Leo McCarey) in this short—a situation explained in greater detail by producer Kalat in one of the collection’s bonus features, Evolution of a Gag.

There are only three Chase two-reelers on this set, but all of them are positive gems. Bad Boy (1925) puts Charley in familiar surroundings as a milquetoast whose father wants him to “toughen up” and whose mother likes him the way he is. (This short was shown on TCM Sunday night, and I didn’t record it because it was on this set—but now I wish I had, since the print quality of the Milestone version is a tad better.) Looking for Sally (1925) is an exercise in mistaken identity as Charley confuses a homely girl with the woman (yes, Katherine Grant’s in this one, too) he’s scheduled to marry; he later falls for his intended, unaware of who she is in a funny outing (with some hysterical “flashbacks”) reminiscent of his later two-reeler Crazy Like a Fox (1926) and its sound remake, The Wrong Miss Wright (1937). The final two-reeler is No Father to Guide Him (1925), an enjoyable and interesting Chase effort due to its unusual plot: Charley’s an estranged father who’s being kept away from his son (Mickey Bennett) because of his battleaxe of a mother-in-law (Josephine Crowell). This is odd territory for Charley, whose formula (and I say that in a positive sense) usually consisted of his being placed constantly in embarrassing positions as either a bachelor or henpecked married man. (Richard Roberts allowed this short—from his personal collection, as well as the aforementioned Too Many Mamas—to be included on BCC and silent comedy fans are certainly the richer for it.)

The final disc contains some of Charley’s directorial efforts (though he can be spotted in a few of them as an extra, notably A Rolling Stone [1919] and The Dumb-Bell [1922]) and features some outstanding entries as the bizarre Snub Pollard vehicle Courtship of Miles Sandwich (1923—this one has some impossible-not-to-laugh-at anachronistic gags) and an enjoyable Will Rogers outing, Jus' Passin' Through (1922). Partialed out among the four discs are some first-rate extras, including an archival interview with Charley’s daughter June Chase Hargis, and an excerpt from a lost Chase comedy, Accidental Accidents (1924). (This two-minute extract is so hilarious—and in practically pristine condition—that it’s a crime the full one-reeler isn’t available to see today. There are a couple of other incomplete Chase shorts on this set, Don't Forget [1924] and Seeing Nellie Home [1924], that also exist only in extract form.) The jewel among the bonuses, however, is The Parrott Chase—a thoroughly entertaining documentary that covers the highlights of Chase’s career with interviews from the likes of Roberts, Walker, Rob Farr, Yair Solan, Bruce Lawton, Ulrich Ruedel, Chris Seguin and Brian Anthony, co-author of the Chase biography Smile When the Raindrops Fall.

I suppose at this point in the review I should confess that I was fortunate to pick up a copy of Becoming Charley Chase at a bargain basement price after finding it on sale online at and taking advantage of DD’s 25% off summer sale. But truth be told, I’d have been willing to pay more for the set because when you boil it down to the nitty-gritty, it is a must-own item for any silent comedy fan…or for comedy fans in general, come to think of it. (For any comedy aficionado who has not yet experienced the joys of the great and not-so-great silent comics, I offer these sobering but well-spoken words from my friend Ryan: “Silent films are an acquired taste but they're worth the acquiring.”) The caliber of the shorts chosen for this set is very high indeed; even the ones that aren’t perfect have something in them worth recommending. The chief benefit of BCC are the fine commentary tracks included with each short—they come from experts who will forget more about silent comedy than I’ll ever learn and they don’t skimp on the anecdotes and information, either. To illustrate: I was unaware of the large role Charley Chase played in developing Roach’s Our Gang series—partially because, as Roberts points out, Roach “got to rewrite the history, since he outlived everyone else.” I also was unaware of Chase’s appearance in a 1923 serial cranked out by the Roach studio entitled Her Dangerous Path, or of a rare foray into feature films in 1929 entitled Modern Love. The commentators identify most of the bit players in the shorts and give a brief outline of their careers (often mentioning shorts or films that they also appear in), which for a character actor obsessive like myself is a positive boon.

If there are any nitpicks with Becoming Charley Chase, it’s that some of the shorts included here aren’t necessarily the best, quality-wise—but I’m in agreement with producer David Kalat that the rarity of many of these comedies often dictates a need to go with the best possible print, pristine or not. The other gripe I have is…yes, with Kalat himself. I have nothing but the utmost respect for his hard work and dedicated efforts to maintain that these silent comedy classics be accessible via DVD to the disc-buying public (particularly since I concur with his conviction that silent comedy should expand beyond “the big three”)—but his insistence in making his presence known in the shorts’ commentaries is the DVD equivalent of nails on a blackboard. He doesn’t so much comment as lecture; he spends the entire length of He Wouldn't Stay Down (1915) pontificating and prattling on his theory of comedy—Dave, buddy…if I wanted to hear your lecture, I’d audit the class already. (He goes on at great length about how the famed SNL job application sketch with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase is not funny, whereas the Eddie Murphy skit about posing as a white man is…not realizing that it is grammatically incorrect to use the words “Richard Pryor” and “not funny” in the same sentence.) This isn’t to say that Kalat’s input isn’t entirely without value; I thought his contributions to the commentaries on One of the Family (1924)—in which he explains why forces beyond Chase’s control conspired to keep him out of feature films—and A Rolling Stone, in which he details the film history of the Chaplin imitators were quite informative. But a little of Kalat goes a long way—listen to him during the commentary for Soft Pedal (1922) and if you can resist the urge to do an Elvis to his Robert Goulet… you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

I’ll close out this review by mentioning how much I enjoyed watching Charley’s The Uneasy Three (1925) and Mama Behave (1926) on Silent Sunday Nights the other night; both of them were thoroughly enjoyable though in terms of laugh quotient I’d have to give the prize to Three (which does spoof The Unholy Three slightly; Stephen had wondered about that). Three was accompanied by a delightful score by Facebook pal Ben Model (who does a number of the scores for the shorts on the BCC set, as do Andrew Earle Simpson, the Snark Ensemble, the West End Jazz Band and Ben Redwine and the Redwine Jazz Band), and when I sent him a note congratulating him on the first-rate score he informed me that the two-reeler isn’t readily accessible for audiences outside the Museum of Modern Art so he was pleased to see TCM gave it a repeat showcase. It’s not impossible, however, to let that continue being the status quo on these wonderful comedies—a big step in the right direction would be to purchase a copy of Becoming Charley Chase and make it a part of your collection. It will be some of the best money you’ve ever spent.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.