Adapted from my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
When Charley Chase (born this day in 1893) arrived at the Hal Roach studios to become one the top Hollywood comedians of the 1920s, he already boasted an impressive resume. Chase had begun performing in vaudeville when still a teenager in his native Baltimore, doing Irish monologues, songs and dances. His travels then took him west, and he broke into movies at Universal Studios before moving to Mack Sennett’s Keystone in 1914. You can see the 21 year old (then still billed as Charles Parrott) in films like His New Profession, Fatty’s Suitless Day, and Love, Loot and Crash. Unlike, say, Harold Lloyd who played similar young man roles at Keystone around the same time, Chase makes an impression in his early films. He’s funny and you notice him. He was also in a hurry. The ambitious young man quickly moved up to assistant directing; by 1916 he was already helming his own movies for Sennett. Throughout the late teens and the beginning of the twenties he was building a reputation as a director, working with the likes of Billy West, Lloyd Hamilton and Carter de Haven.
During a hitch at Fox in 1917 he got his younger brother James employment there as an actor. James went to work for Roach before Charley did, joining the company in 1918 to play supporting roles for Harold Lloyd, Hank Mann, and others. By 1922, he was beginning to star in his own shorts under the name Paul Parrott. While James (Paul) was turning out a series of solid comedies, Charley had been hired by the studio in 1921 to direct a series of shorts starring Snub Pollard. The following he oversaw the creation of the long-running Our Gang series.
In 1923 and 1924, the Parrott Brothers’ roles began to be reversed, with James spending more time behind the camera, and Charley relinquishing his role as Roach’s comedy supervisor to go in front of the camera as a star. And Chase was that: one of the most beloved stars of comedy shorts clear through the 1930s.
Even more than Lloyd (who left Roach in 1924 to star in features) Chase was to personify what the Roach aesthetic was all about. If Mack Sennett’s humor had been all about grotesque clowning, fake mustaches, and battered top hats, the Roach lot brought a new aesthetic of realism. And if Lloyd’s “Boy with the Glasses” had seemed normal compared to those antics, Chase’s character was even more recognizable as a real-life human being, lacking even the bookworm’s horn-rims and mock-heroic climaxes. His comedies have more in common with modern sit-coms than with knockabout or pantomime.
Granted, he was blessed with good comedy “equipment”. With his ram-rod posture and prissy face he stood out; that’s what had made him memorable even in small Keystone roles. But he also wore a basic business suit and combed his hair in a fashionable cut like a lot of people in his audience. The Twenties were a boom time in America; the new middle class was exploding. Chase represented a different slice of the public than Sennett’s blue collar buffoons. Though he had come from straitened circumstances himself (his father died when he was 16, leaving the family penniless) Chase almost never played farmers, plumbers or fry cooks. His characters tend to be bank clerks, office assistants and middle managers. As such, he generally had a stake in the community. Rather than going around causing trouble, his comedy was about trying to prevent it. In a Charley Chase film life often seems like a stream of unfortunate coincidences designed primarily to embarrass, incriminate, or otherwise inconvenience Chase in his bid to be a good solid citizen. Sometimes he gets humor from trying to put on a brave face and maintain appearances while this happens; other times he makes us laugh by blowing his stack. He was a little uptight; it could go either way — forced cheer or a blowing of the gasket. But what made him interesting was his contradictions. He possessed an unusual mix of grace, polish and awkwardness. Often he seems a “good time Charley”, striving to be the convivial life of the party (indeed that’s what he plays in his best remembered role, the drunken Shriner in Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert). But only to the extent that such behavior would make him popular around the office.
What Price Goofy (1925) is typical of the “embarrassment” formula. Charley’s jealous wife (Katherine Grant) thinks he is cheating. He is most definitely not doing so but keeps coincidentally winding up in compromising positions with other women, being seen with them at just the right (wrong) moment. Forgotten Sweeties (1927) kind of flips that idea. He and his wife move into the same building where his old flame and her new husband now reside. Again, he keeps accidentally winding up in incriminating positions with the old girlfriend (and having to avoid her new husband so he won’t get the hell beat out of him).
Sometimes his compulsion to preserve “normality” seems less forgivable. In His Wooden Wedding (1925) a series of freak coincidences combine to convince him that his fiancé has a wooden leg. In a state of shock, he jilts her at the altar. We dislike him for this at first, but he redeems himself later by getting drunk and suicidal and declaring that she is “the greatest little woman in the world”.
Chase is all about appearances. Mighty Like a Moose (1926) is a sort of cross between The Gift of the Magi and Nip and Tuck. Both spouses get their turn to be mortified. Charley is a husband with a hilariously prominent pair of choppers—he looks kind of like Walt Disney’s “Goofy”. His wife (Vivien Oakland) has a nose as big as Lassie’s. Unbeknownst to each other, they each go out and get reconstructive surgery. Whereupon they meet each other and start flirting, not realizing that each is their actual spouse. It’s kind of like a cartoon. So what, if in the real world you have bruises and bandages after rhinoplasty and would most certainly recognize your own spouse whatever minor alterations have been made? Chase’s films are filled with similarly implausible episodes. You just have to go with it. For example, Limousine Love (1928) treats us to the deliciously far-fetched situation of a naked woman stepping into the backseat of Charley’s car to hide out while her clothes are drying. He doesn’t see her back there, and he is on the way to his wedding…
The universe depicted is one in which each next event will always be the thing Charley least wants to happen. The natural extension of that is to create gags that are not only unwelcome to Charley’s character but are so very unexpected they call attention to themselves purely for the entertainment of the audience. Chase’s films are often noted for such moments, which stretch believability past the breaking point and get us laughing at the refreshing audacity of their vision.
One of the most famous of these is in All Wet (1925), in which his car gets stuck in a mud puddle so deep that Chase has to dive under the water like a frogman to repair the damage. (He would later revive this scene in the 1933 talkie Fallen Arches.) Bromo and Juliet (1926) has the unforgettable scene where he is on his way to his girlfriend’s amateur theatrical dressed as Romeo. His tights are stuffed with sponges to make him look muscular, and he accidentally walks through a field of active lawn sprinklers, making his legs swell up into a pair of lumpy corn dogs. In Fluttering Hearts (1927) he pretends a department store mannequin is his drunken date so he can access to a speakeasy. Later the girl he is wooing shows up and puts on the mannequin’s clothes, and Charley carries her out of the joint instead of the dummy, never noticing that she’s human.
Roach had started Chase off in a series one-reelers wherein he was usually billed as “Jimmy Jump”. A few months into the series, Leo McCarey (who, like Frank Capra had gotten his start with Roach writing gags for Our Gang) began directing many of Chase’s films. They expanded to two-reelers and that’s when the series really began to take off. You can see his distinctive mark in a film like Sittin’ Pretty (1924) which is famous for containing an early version of the “mirror scene” McCarey would later revive for the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup.
Chase made out just as well in the sound era as he had in silents, his mellifluous voice suiting his comedy style perfectly. Apart from Modern Love, a half-silent/ half talkie he made for Universal in 1929, he never did properly crack features. But he continued to star in and direct comedy shorts for Roach and Columbia throughout the 1930s. Many made use of his pleasant singing voice and burgeoning songwriting talents. Not only did he star in such minor classics as Southern Exposure (1935) and Teachers Pest (1938), but he also was to direct some of the best films starring The Three Stooges. Sadly, he succumbed to a heart attack in 1940, one year after the drug related death of his brother.
For more on silent and slapstick comedy including the great Charley Chase, see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc