Friday, December 20, 2013

Go Chase yourself!

My earliest memory of watching Charley Chase is in a 1938 Columbia two-reel comedy entitled The Nightshirt Bandit.  Charley’s a college professor who learns to his dismay that the titular burglar is none other than himself, engaging in a bit of kleptomania while walking in his sleep.  His pursuit of an old shoe that contains a sum of money (his wife threw it at a dog to get it to stop barking) leads him to a sorority house, where he encounters slapstick misadventures at the hands of its inhabitants.  One gag I remember so vividly involved a recliner in the girls’ bedroom: if a person was unfortunate to sit down in it, the bottom would drop out and the victim ended up getting a dunking in a fish pond underneath in a separate room.  I thought that was the neatest thing as a kid—in fact, I would have given up desserts for a whole year just to have one in our house.

Columbia would later remake Bandit as an Andy Clyde two-reeler ten years later, Go Chase Yourself (1948), which I think might have been my introduction to the fact that the studio recycled a lot of their material and plots for shorts whenever they got the chance.  (I distinctly recall thinking: “The last time I watched this it had a younger guy.”)  Of course, it’s only through television that you notice that sort of thing…and Andy’s remake is actually a pretty funny comedy (granted, I have a soft spot for it as I do the original).

Nightshirt Bandit is one of a dozen comedies available on the Sony MOD DVD collection Charley Chase Shorts – Volume 2; an earlier set with eight of the comedian’s Columbia shorts (plus a Smith and Dale comedy he directed, 1939’s A Nag in the Bag) was released on January 1 of this year and at the time I was quite hopeful that further collections would follow…which they did—or rather it did, this past November.  All twenty shorts that Chase made at the studio before his death in 1940 are now available on disc for a new generation of fans…including the one remaining Charley Columbia short that has eluded me all these years, From Bad to Worse (1937).

From Bad to Worse isn’t one of Chase’s greatest two-reel comedies, but it does have a few enjoyable moments; it’s your typical Columbia marital mix-up farce, where newlywed Charley’s wife (Peggy Stratford) is threatening to divorce him because he got involved in an innocent entanglement with another woman (Edith Craig) on a train.  (First lesson I ever learned from Columbia comedy shorts: jealousy is rampant in both sexes.)  He’s able to smooth things over with the ball-and-chain until he once again crosses paths with the train woman—but his problems are just beginning, because Train Woman’s husband (Bud Jamison) is the individual with whom Charley’s trying to ink a big business deal.  The highlight of Worse is a poker game where Charley is boasting of his “Casanova” reputation, with Bud egging him on…until he finds out the woman Charley’s talking about is his own precious wifey.  (I also enjoyed a throwaway gag in which Chase pulls off a pair of old shoes that someone has tied to his “Just Married” automobile and he remarks: “They’ll just match my checked suit!”)

Robert Youngson once described Charley's onscreen antics as "one long embarrassing moment."  Here's one from Pie a la Maid (1938), in which he's being "seduced" by Ann Doran's "sister."

Charley Chase Shorts – Volume 2 contains many of the comedian’s finest Columbia efforts.  There’s The Wrong Miss Wright (1937), a remake of Charley’s silent classic Crazy Like a Fox (1926), in which our hero pretends that the cheese has slid off his cracker in order to get out of an engagement that his parents arranged long ago.  (Charley then discovers that the woman he's trying to dump is the same one he's fallen in love with during a recent sea cruise.)  The Big Squirt (1937) is another goody, with Chase as a soda jerk who gets mixed up with a mobster (Eddie Fetherston); the gags in this one are riotous, and it’s one of only two Columbia shorts in which Charley sings (a little ditty called “Drugstore Desperado”), something he did quite frequently in his Roach comedies.  Pie a la Maid (1938) is another favorite, and features Thrilling Days of Yesteryear fave Ann Doran as a girl Charley’s crazy about but she believes him to be a masher (this one features an interesting organ score—background music was not particularly a hallmark of the Columbia comedies).  Many Sappy Returns (1938) is another short that I enjoy tremendously—Ann is Charley’s girl again in this reworking of one of his Roach efforts, Fast Work (1930).

The great thing about Sony’s remastering and releasing of these timeless classics is that while sharper prints don’t necessarily make comedies funnier, they do make them a lot more enjoyable (watching them with a live audience also helps, too).  Below are two screen caps from The Sap Takes a Wrap (1939), the first one obtained from a Mom-and-Pop outfit, the second from the Sony collection:

It’s sort of hard to make out in the first grab but that’s Gloria Blondell, younger sister of Joan—who appeared in a number of movies (she was the voice of Daisy Duck!) but who’s fondly remembered here for her radio (she was gal Friday Jerri Booker on I Love a Mystery) and TV (Honeybee Gillis on The Life of Riley) work.  Sap is an entertaining little Chase effort (Charley mistakenly gives his fiancée a fur coat belonging to some clients); I like the sumptuousness of the set (much of the comedy is set in a nightclub) and the performance of George “Gramps” Cleveland as an inebriate who keeps coming into contact with Charley.  I also enjoyed watching Calling All Doctors (1937)—a two-reeler that may not be one of the comedian’s best (I think Vera Vague’s re-do, 1944’s Doctor, Feel My Pulse is better) but it was the first time I’d seen it with the original Columbia titles (all the copies I’ve ever owned featured opening credits from an Official Films re-release).

There are one or two weak comedies rounding out the gems—I’m not a fan of Teacher’s Pest (1939), a “hillbilly” comedy that really strains for laughs—and some that are not particularly held in high regard by Chase aficionados (I like Time Out for Trouble, a 1938 short panned by my Facebook pals Ed Watz and Ted Okuda in their superb reference work The Columbia Comedy Shorts, and also Charley’s swan song, His Bridal Fright, which gets so-so marks from Jim Neibaur in his first-rate Chase compendium The Charley Chase Talkies: 1929-1940).  If you enjoy Charley Chase as much as I do (and the multiple posts I’ve done over the years seem to bear this out) you’ll want to add this one to your collection.  My thirst has been slaked for the time being…but eventually I’ll get dry again, and a collection of Andy Clyde comedies from Sony would be a good place to start.

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