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The more one studies silent movie comedians, the more one realizes that their popularity has depended on the availability of their films. The great work of Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd was almost forgotten in the late 1940s when critic James Agee championed them as masters of a lost art. The pictures were shown mainly in museums and specialized theaters hidden in New York and Los Angeles. Buster Keaton's features were thought to be lost until collector Raymond Rohauer circulated them in the 1950s, effectively resurrecting the silent comic's career.
All but forgotten yet still screamingly funny are the films of Fatty Arbuckle and Harry Langton Almost as popular was Charley Chase, a former vaudeville performer who had been acting on film for years. By the 1920s he was helping to run Hal Roach's studio, writing and directing fare such as the first Our Gang series. When Roach's top performer Harold Lloyd went independent, Charley stepped in front of the camera again. Cutting a dapper figure in smart clothes and a thin moustache, he played frustrated husbands and confused employees trying to get ahead. His repertoire was situational comedy and light slapstick. His comedies relied on good gags and his optimistic personality.
The Milestone Cinematheque's Cut To The Chase: The Charley Chase Collection gathers 16 two-reel comedies from Chase's Hal Roach period. Although Chase was an accomplished director, the collection reveals the positive impact of the legendary director Leo McCarey. The later Academy Award Winner for The Awful Truth and Going My Way adds little human touches that motivate Charley's adventures and make his character more sympathetic.
Charley Chase now seems the silent comedian most like the fictional silent star "George Valentin" in director Michael Hazanavicius' 2011 Best Picture winner The Artist. Both comedians sport winning smiles, weather romantic problems and escape from tough spots by performing amusing dances. In a couple of shorts Charley even interacts with a canine friend called Buddy the Dog.
The pictures all appear to be filmed on Los Angeles streets, some of which aren't yet paved. The inter-titles contain charming little jokes and plays on words. As not all of the Charley Chase shorts have survived, the collection begins in 1924.
April Fool sees Charley playing a recurring character named Jimmy Jump. The director is Ralph Ceder and the story is simply a string of practical jokes inflicted on Jimmy and others at a newspaper office. Cub reporter likes the editor's daughter but keeps running afoul of rather cruel pranks, such as sitting in a puddle of ink. The April Fools gags get so out of hand that nobody believes a phone call reporting that the editor's house is on fire.
Directed by Charley's brother James G. Parrott, The Fraidy Cat is a distinct improvement. Cowardly Jimmy Jump wants the girl, but even the 'Our Gang'- like neighborhood brats push him around. A punching dummy gets the better of him. Mis-hearing the girl's father, Jimmy believes that he'll die in a week, which enables him to cure his cowardice. He rescues his girl from a bully -- while riding a cow. The malicious gags are nicely worked out in this one.
Then comes Bad Boy, directed by Leo McCarey. The tone of the comedy improves immediately, as the gags are used to develop the characters. When Jimmie's money blows into a café window both Jimmie and the waitress grab for it and fall naturally into a kiss. Jimmie tries to impress the girl by taking a new job in the iron foundry, but his mother makes him play Pan in a garden dance. Seeing him gazelle-ing about, the girl is shocked: "You leaping tuna!" He finally attends a tough dance in disguise and is mistaken for a notorious thug. Charley's dance skills and body language add greatly to the fun.
McCarey continues the good work in The Caretaker's Daughter. Charley's wife doesn't trust him. After a disaster with his old car, he gets involved with gangster's girlfriend, who is playing around with his boss. A detective (James Finlayson) follows the cast to a mountain cabin, where everyone takes turns impersonating the odd, limping waiter. The silly antics in the rough cabin interior will remind viewers of McCarey's later The Awful Truth.
Be Your Age has no director's credit. Charley's bashful clerk falls in love with a widow's secretary, but he's indebted to his boss, who wants him to woo the old widow to secure her fortune. Charley gives it his best shot. Things get straightened out at a gala party where Charley ends up joining some Flamenco dancers. Oliver Hardy plays the widow's grown son, who just wants to make sure he keeps getting his support check!
McCarey and Chase really click in the nicely paced Bromo and Juliet, a catchall show biz comedy that veers from a meeting of "radio missionaries" to a performance of Romeo and Juliet. While trying to bail a drunken actor friend out of trouble with the cops and an unpaid taxi driver (Oliver Hardy), Charley tries bootlegging to make some quick cash. The actor takes a bath in a store's picture window. Forced to perform Shakespeare to please his fianceé, Charlie pads his skinny legs with sponges. After a cop chases him through some lawn sprinklers, he plays the balcony scene with waterlogged legs squirting water in all directions.
McCarey's DogShy floats some great coincidences to allow poor boy Charley, who is deathly afraid of dogs, to compete with a snobby nobleman for the hand of a beautiful society girl. Slickly timed gags enable Charley to enter the girl's home, taking the place of a new butler.
More McCarey magic follows in the relatively romantic Charley My Boy. Unemployed Charley ruins the only suit he owns yet snags a job that asks for "a well groomed applicant". The best gags seem unforced. Charley sits on a fire hydrant to hide it from a cop, so his girl's car won't receive a ticket. He rotates as the cop circles, until the hydrant unscrews and shoots water into the air. Later, Charley scrambles to hide his boss's cases of illicit booze. Says another cop about to raid a private home in violation of the Volstead act: "Bring out the reserves -- and a lotta glasses!" Charley My Boy makes its home video debut on this collection.
Disc two of the set begins with another title exclusive to this release, 1925's The Uneasy Three, a parody title riffing on Lon Chaney's The Unholy Three. Charley, his girlfriend (Katherine Grant) and her pea-brained brother (Bull Montana) are jewel thieves after a dowager's fabulous diamond brooch; opposing them is a stubborn detective (Hitler-mustached Fred Kelsey, the personality parodied in Tex Avery's cartoon Who Killed Who?) Impersonating high class entertainers on the way to a party, they do great considering that they can't play their instruments. The situation resembles Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise.
Another top Chase-McCarey collaboration is Innocent Husbands. Chase plays Melvin, another guy with a suspicious wife. She catches him faking a suicide attempt to get her attention. The last half of the show is a rapid-fire series of gags in which Melvin tries to keep his wife from discovering that he's got a woman in his hotel room. One joke is particularly inspired. Melvin is told to whistle three times beneath a hotel window, to signal his lover to throw down his key. He complies, and a rain of keys falls on him.
The most elaborate film in the set is Isn't Life Terrible?, a bizarre comedy about a vacation in Hell. The husband is fed up throwing chickens over his back yard fence (don't ask) and tries to sell housewife Fay Wray a fountain pen that douses him in ink. He wins an ocean cruise, but his lazy brother-in-law (Oliver Hardy) invites himself along. The ship is a condemned wreck named the SS Davy Jones, with lifeboats that fall apart and life preservers that sink. Charley accidentally walks on board with a tiny black kid in tow, and then wonders why that little girl left on the dock looks so much like his own daughter.
What Price Goofy? is another matrimonial mix-up, when Charley invites a college professor to his house not realizing she's an attractive woman. The wife shows up just as the professor is taking a shower. Fay Wray appears in a small bit part to accidentally douse our hero in perfume. Charley meets Buddy the Dog but soon regrets his choice -- the dog keeps 'fetching' the professor's silk slip in the middle of dinner, etc.
Leo McCarey's Long Fliv the King is a parody of costume epics. The princess of Thermosa marries Charley, a man on death row, in order to keep her throne and fortune. Charley is pardoned and takes his place in her kingdom, only to be challenged to a duel by a villainous nobleman. Oliver Hardy has a small part but the most notable character is a Jewish friend who becomes Charley's food taster - and is served a thick slice of ham. Surprisingly, the ethnic jokes don't come off as mean-spirited. The nervy guy calls himself the "Pope of Palestine" and eagerly calculates his percentage of Charley's $50,000 royal crown.
Mama Behave addresses the Charleston dance fad. To avoid going out with his dance-mad wife, Charley pretends that he doesn't know how. Of course, he's busted when she catches him showing his skill. More farce mix-ups ensue, with Charley passing as his rakish twin brother.
McCarey's odd Mighty Like a Moose is like a De Maupassant short story gone totally wrong. It's also a big picture for Buddy the dog. Mr. and Mrs. Moose are tired of being the ugliest people in town: he has bad teeth and she has an enormous nose. Each gets worked on and becomes 'beautiful'; when they accidentally meet on the street they don't recognize each other. Great switcheroo gags ensue, post-haste.
The last short is 1926's Mum's the Word. A woman marries a rich but jealous new husband. She doesn't tell him that she has a grown son, Charley. Coming home on the train, he meets a nervous girl en route. As it turns out she is his parents' new maid, so he pretends to be the new butler. The father misconstrues Charley's visits to his mother's room, while the new maid has secrets of her own.
Charley uses a number of leading ladies, among them Martha Sleeper (The Bells of St. Mary's), Blanche Mehaffey and Beth Darlington. The recurring name is Katherine Grant, who is particularly good at playing innocent or troublesome as the storyline dictates. Sadly, Grant dropped out of acting early and died of tuberculosis at age 32. Hers wasn't the only sad finish to the Charley Chase story. His younger brother died around the same time, and Charley didn't make it through 1940. None of them lived long enough to see their films rediscovered by new generations of filmgoers.
The Milestone Cinematheque 2-DVD set Cut to the Chase: The Charley Chase Collection will entertain and enlighten any fan of silent comedy. Charley made almost a hundred Hal Roach shorts during this period, and these sixteen may represent most of the surviving titles. Some are in excellent condition, transferred from 35mm prints, while others are from lesser 16mm copies. A few are incomplete, although none appear to be badly compromised.
Adding immensely to the enjoyment are new music tracks by a number of composers. Accompaniment is heard from Rodney Sauer, Donald Sosin, Dave Knutsen, Dave Drazin, Ben Model and the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.