Cheers to Kino and Lobster Films for compiling a good sampling of silent cinema's most undervalued clown, in The Charley Chase Collection, part of their "Slapstick Symposium" series. It's been said that Chase was never fully appreciated because, unlike contemporaries Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon, Charley Chase (1893-1940) never made the transition to starring features. The one feature he is remembered for is Laurel and Hardy's Sons of the Desert (1933), in which he hilariously essayed the role of a brash, obnoxious conventioneer, a role he reportedly hated. Ironically, the half-dozen Three Stooges comedies Chase directed in the late-1930s (Violent is the Word for Curly, Tassels in the Air) are infinitely more accessible than any of Chase's own starring films.
Part Max Linder, part Lloyd "Ham" Hamilton, Chase's screen persona emerged gradually and wasn't refined until well after he went to work for Hal Roach in 1921. He started there strictly as a director and gagman, helming the first Our Gang and Will Rogers comedies. Eventually though, Chase was lured back in front of the camera, though he directed or co-directed all his shorts, and continued supervising the shorts of other comedians until his untimely death.
Once Chase began collaborating with director Leo McCarey (who simultaneously helped shape Laurel & Hardy into a genuine team), and his comedies were expanded to two reels (about 25 minutes), Chase's full potential was at last realized. The Charley character was relatively handsome (slicked-back hair, pencil mustache), dapper, and frequently well off. Like Harold Lloyd's comedies, stories often revolved around Chase's character falling in love, only to find himself in an embarrassing situation he nervously tries to wiggle out of.
This Kino / Lobster Films compilation consists of six shorts, all one- and two-reelers, with a total running time of just under two hours, making this by far the shortest of the three "Slapstick Symposium" titles. By contrast, The Stan Laurel Collection has 16 shorts on two discs, while The Harold Lloyd Collection has seven shorts plus a feature. The first three Charley Chase shorts are just okay, but the latter three are terrific, and come highly recommended.
Mum's the Word (1926) This okay comedy casts Charley as the adult son of widow Virginia Pearson, who remarried into money but never told husband Anders Randolph about her son or previous marriage. To ease Charley into the new family, she orders Charlie to pretend to be her grumpy husband's new valet, with expected results. The best thing about this short is the presence of pretty Martha Sleeper, who appeared in more than a dozen Chase comedies. Like other Roach ingenues, most famously Anita Garvin, Sleeper was attractive yet had a real sense of comic timing and gamely took pratfalls with the best of Roach's stock company of actors.
Long Fliv the King (1926) Amusing short set mostly in the Kingdom of Thermosa. (Hey, where's Harold Lloyd? He became king of the same country in His Royal Slyness four years before.) After Princess Helga (Martha Sleeper) learns that her father has died, she must marry by midnight to ascend the throne and, given the circumstances, opts to wed death row inmate Charley, who to everyone's surprise is pardoned. With Prime Minister Hamir of Uvocado (Fred Malatesta) wanting the throne for himself, he enlists the aid of henchman Oliver Hardy to discredit Charley. This offbeat short looks like it was funnier to make than it is to watch, though Hardy is at his scene-stealing best here.
April Fool (1924) is fairly good, with Charley (as Jimmy [sic] Jump) a newspaperman who's the victim of an endless stream of April Fool's Day pranks. Charley's cub reporter falls for the editor's daughter in this unassuming comedy which offers a variation on the final gag in Helpmates (1932), the classic Laurel & Hardy short.
Mighty Like a Moose (1926) One of Chase's all-time best shorts is this classic two-reeler. Husband to wife Vivien Oakland, Charlie gets his enormous set of horse teeth fixed unbeknownst to Vivien, who does likewise with her giant Romanesque nose, which she has ground to a more appealing size. Post-surgeries they bump into one another and, not realizing who the other is, flirt and eventually end up at a scandalous party. The climax has Charley, in a marvelous bit of pantomime, pretending to be both the suave ladies man Vivien mistook her husband for and, using a duplicates set of false teeth, the outraged Charley.
Crazy Like a Fox (1926) This terrific short finds bachelor Charley preparing to meet for the first time his intended bride in an arranged marriage. Arriving at the station he instantly falls instead for Martha Sleeper, and like Hamlet pretends he's insane hoping to get out of the marriage. In trying to convince everyone he's nuts, Charley runs around dancing little jigs with wide-eyed mania, all quite funny. The short also features an unbilled Oliver Hardy, his head shaved like a cue ball. (This begs the question of production dates: Wasn't Hardy's head shaved for the 1927 comedy The Second Hundred Years? Which came first?) Roach regulars Stanley "Tiny" Sandford, Charlie Hall, and Fred Kelsey (playing -- what else? -- a cop) support this classic comedy.
All Wet (1924) This is a terrific one-reeler, really in the older, Mack Sennett style of slapstick than Chase's best comedies for Roach, but funny and ingenious all the same. Charley, here in his Jimmie Jump character, is trying to meet a train at the station, but his Model T gets stuck in the muddy wastelands and empty lots that once were Culver City. In one of their first collaborations, Chase and McCarey put a new spin on tried-and-true mud puddle gags. The IMDB lists Janet Gaynor as appearing in this short, but this reviewer didn't spot her.
Video & Audio
Obvious care was taken with the presentation of these shorts, from the consideration to transfer them at the appropriate speed to the apparent effort to maximize the frame area (see John Sinnott's excellent review of the Stan Laurel shorts for more about this). In some cases, even a one- or two-shot snippet of film in good condition seems to have been inserted into less-pristine base elements. In the case of All Wet, for instance, the opening titles look awful, but most of the film looks good for its age, though a few individual shots still look poor, all of which suggest these are ongoing restorations. The same holds true for April Fool which starts off in rough shape (based on the size of the reel cues, it looks like a 16mm print was sourced for part of this short) but gets better as it goes along. As with the Lloyd shorts, there is no tinting or toning to the material, and each short has several chapter stops. The original music by Neil Brand is mostly good; Mighty Like a Moose uses a score by Robert Israel. The names of the people responsible for these compilations are modestly shunted to the end of the last shorts, but warrant better billing. Series producers are Eric Lange and Serge Bromberg. Thanks (presumably for assistance with obtaining film elements/images) is given to Stan Taffel, David Shepard, Charles Vesce, Juan Vrijs, and Haghefilm Laboratories.
The only extra, unfortunately, is a pretty good Photo Gallery. Background on individual films would have been a major plus.
The Charley Chase Collection is a good introduction to one of screendom's lost comedians, a talented director-comic long overdue for broader recognition. One hopes this DVD will sell well and inspire the release of more silent shorts, as well as Chase's often terrific sound comedies for Roach and Columbia, all deserving of compilations as good as this one.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.