Archive for the Charley Chase Category

Charley Chase: The Comedy of Embarrassment

Posted in Charley Chase, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2016 by travsd

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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.

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Sons of the Desert

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)

What Price Goofy? (1925)

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”.

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Mighty Like a Moose (1926) 

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.

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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.

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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, 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

Tonight on TCM: More Silent Slapstick Classics

Posted in Buster Keaton, Charley Chase, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 7, 2016 by travsd

Every Tuesday and Wednesday in September, Turner Classic Movies will be showing some of the finest silent comedy and slapstick classics (and documentaries thereon). Here’s what’s on the menu tonight:

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8:00pm (EST): The Birth of the Tramp (2014)

A documentary on the evolution of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, released on the 100th anniversary of his debut.

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9:15pm (EST): A Dog’s Life (1918)

A Dog’s Life is a longer, more ambitious film than any he had made previously, in some ways a sort of dry run for his later The Kid. For my money, the six scenes of A Dog’s Life are as funny and clever as any of his earlier shorts stacked together, with the additional bump of an emotional journey.

Chaplin plays his Little Tramp in the film. His co-stars are a pooch named Scraps, and Edna Purviance as a forlorn dance hall girl. All three of them are living “a dog’s life” in that they each are getting the short end of the stick. They meet, pass through several trials together, and in the end find happiness by exchanging their solitude for cooperative domesticity.

But along the way, we get to experience several of Chaplin’s most hilarious routines ever. And they’re all physical bits. In the first, after stealing a hot dog the tramp evades a policeman, over, under and around the wooden fence where he was sleeping. In the second, he applies for a job, but each time he advances toward the clerk’s window, someone else steps up to it just a split second before. In a later scene, Charlie keeps stealing muffins from a food vendor played by his brother Sydney, each time snatching one just as Syd’s back is turned. Try as he may Syd can’t catch him at it. In the end, Charlie has swallowed the whole plate of treats. And then there’s a funny bit with Charlie walking across a dance floor with a dog’s tail sticking out of his pants, and the other one (much imitated) in which Charlie supplies the gesturing hands of the man he has just knocked out so it will seem to the guy’s partner that he is still awake. In the coda, one of Chaplin’s occasional happy endings, man, woman, dog (and puppies) all one one big, happy family.

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10:00pm (EST): The Circus (1928)

Despite being an estimable hit in its day (the 7th most successful film financially of the silent era), today The Circus is the least well known of Chaplin’s silent comedy features. Why might that be? Possibly because it is more “thinky” than “feely”.  The film (which may have been inspired by Max Linder’s 1925 swan song The King of the Circus) begins with the Tramp fleeing a cop on a circus lot after being framed for a theft. His flight accidentally takes him into the middle of the circus ring where the audience, thinking he’s part of the show, greets him with gales of laughter and storms of applause. He is hired as a clown and turns out to be terrible at it. Meanwhile he falls in love with an equestrienne (Merna KennedyLita Grey’s best friend) who makes the mistake of being nice to him. In due course she falls in love with Rex, a tightrope walker (Harry Crocker), a plot point that is not only reminiscent of The Tramp  but anticipates Todd Browning’s Freaks (1932). In the end, the circus blows town, but the Tramp elects to string along alone. The image of him sitting on a log as the show (and his girl) leave without him is at once striking, moving and, well, kitschy, in a black velvet painting kind of way.

So, this can work on a couple of levels. At its most accessible, it’s set in a circus, and children love the circus. It’s possible to enjoy this film without having a contemplative brain in your head. After all, in one scene Charlie is walking a tightrope with his pants down, with monkeys crawling all over him (see above. It’s one of the highlights of the film). At another remove, however, The Circus is terribly self-conscious. This is a movie about a lonely clown who is having trouble being funny. That’s a formula that may be thought provoking but is probably intrinsically unworkable, despite having been tried many times. Others who’ve given the “accidental comedian” motif a go with varying success included Mabel Normand (The Extra Girl, 1923), Harold Lloyd (Movie Crazy, 1932), Red Skelton (Merton of the Movies, 1947), and Jerry Lewis (The Patsy, 1964). As a comedy premise the deck is stacked against you. The idea of an unintentionally funny comedian is too overwrought, too convoluted to be completely funny. The moments in the film that work best are the ones that are at a remove from that idea, such as when the Tramp poses as part of an animatronic Noah’s Ark display on the midway in order to evade the cop.

And, given that Chaplin is the clown in question in The Circus, what’s he really about here? Is he frustrated with the fact that the process of creating funny comedy (or any effective art) is not conscious, that it is (as we have pointed out a few times), completely instinctive? It can’t just be summoned at will. And Chaplin is famous for having made entire crews and casts wait around for hours, days and even weeks as he tried to do just that.

Or does Chaplin want to tell us that, like the Tramp, he is actually really a serious person (the kind of person whose voice is more like A Woman of Paris) and that he’s just been sort of railroaded into being a comedian? Another intriguing element in the film is the group of hack professional clowns who work at the circus and whom the audience hates. If the Tramp is Chaplin, who are they supposed to represent? The Keystone comedians? It certainly seems germane to his actual attitude towards them during the early part of 1914. It’s as though he were saying, “It’s not MY fault the world thinks I’m better than those people. Don’t blame me. I was born this way!”

Then there is the metaphor of getting the Tramp left behind by that circus. On the one hand he seems to be saying “I can take or leave this comedy thing.” But, on the other hand, perhaps he is expressing the fear that history will pass him by. The Circus was released a few scant months after The Jazz Singer. Was he beginning to have doubts that he could keep up with passing trends?

The self-doubt extends into the romantic realm in this picture, as well, a continuation of a theme he introduces in The Gold Rush. When Edna Purviance had been his leading lady, sometimes the Little Fellow would get the girl, sometimes he wouldn’t. Most of his films of the late silent era follow the model set by The Tramp and The Vagabond, generating pathos out of how the Tramp could never get the girl. (In The Gold Rush he had to buy the girl.). The Circus continued that theme.

Production on The Circus was apparently jinxed. Set-backs during filming included a scratched negative, a fire which set the production back for weeks, and personal woes for Chaplin including the death of his mother, his divorce from Lita Grey, and hassles with the I.R.S. In light of all that, we may fortunate that this film emerged as a comedy at all!

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11:30pm (EST): One Week (1920)

This film (the first of Buster Keaton‘s solo shorts to get a public release) was based on Home Made, an actual promotional film for do-it-yourself house construction released by the Ford Motor Company. In Buster’s version, just before his character starts to build his pre-fab dream house for himself and his bride (Sybil Seeley), his rival sabotages the effort by switching the numbers on the constituent pieces. The result is a make-work monstrosity out of a cubist nightmare: doors, walls, roofs, and windows all mismatched and not a single right angle in the construction. Later, when a storm strikes, the whole dealybob spins around and around on its foundation like a crank-fueled carousel. (Twisters are a frequent bête noir in Keaton’s Kansas-bred consciousness.)

When Buster learns that he has built his house on the wrong lot, he has to tow it to the correct spot. Unfortunately on the way, his car stalls on some railroad tracks. Seeing an onrushing train, we brace for disaster, then breathe a sigh of relief when it turns out that the locomotive is on an adjoining track. It passes, leaving the couple unharmed. A beat—and then the money shot: a train heading in the other direction comes from out of nowhere and smashes the house to splinters.

What sets Keaton apart is his famously tight story telling and the attention to character. Despite all the craziness, he never lets us forget this is about a couple of newlyweds working toward a very specific goal. We’re rooting for them to finish this house so they can begin their life together, even as comical events keep intruding to impede them.

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12:00am (EST): Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Steamboat Bill Jr. was Buster Keaton’s final independent film, and one of his best. The story: dandified college boy Buster tries to prove himself to his riverboat captain dad, and win the heart of the daughter of his dad’s rival. The Mississippi setting unavoidably evokes Mark Twain.  The climax contains Buster’s most famous film sequence…the brilliantly staged hurricane, culminating in his most well known single shot, with the building facade falling down around him, while the real life Buster stands there frozen praying to God they measured the window right. A movie as beautiful as it is funny.

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1:15am (EST): Harold Lloyd’s World of Comedy (1962)

Inspired by the success of Robert Youngson’s The Golden Age of Comedy (1957), Harold Lloyd made this compilation film containing clips of his own “greatest hits”. For many of us born far too late to have experienced his films in their own day, this film was our first introduction to the work of silent comedy’s “Third Genius”.

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3:00am (EST) Number Please (1920)

While the climax to this short is one of the film’s best parts, the set-up is convoluted. Harold and a rival (Roy Brooks) vie for the attentions of a girl (Mildred Davis) at an amusement park. When her dog gets lost, she wants to go up in a hot air balloon operated by her uncle. The balloon will only hold two. The girl announces she will go up with whichever beau gets her mother’s permission first. The rival heads for the mother’s house in a car. Harold runs to a telephone so he can call the mother for permission. This would seem easy…but it’s a public phone in a hotel. The hilarious part is the succession of obstacles which prevent him from doing this simple thing. Then he winds up with a lost purse, which he finally gives to a goat to eat so he won’t be arrested for stealing. But it turns out to have been the girl’s purse, complete with the balloon tickets….

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3:30am (EST) Speedy (1928)

Counterintuitively, given that the American film industry was largely based in New York City during its earliest years (roughly 1893-1913), by the twenties most of the business was where it is now, in Hollywood. Location shooting in New York City for major feature films had become something of a novelty. Harold Lloyd’s Speedy redresses that lapse; it’s virtually a love poem to New York. Harold plays a soda jerk and rabid Yankees fan who wants to help save his girlfriend’s dad’s endangered business: the last horse drawn trolley line in New York. Two special highlights: a cameo by the actual Babe Ruth (Harold has to rush him to a game); and an actual vehicular accident, which the producers opted to keep in the film because it was so spectacular. And let’s not forget the cool scenes at Coney Island and Times Square! Harold plays a slightly different character in this film: cocky, pushy, fun-loving and a little irresponsible. Just like New York.

Speedy was Lloyd’s last released silent film. His next film Welcome Danger was originally prepared as a silent, but adapted for sound.

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5:05am (EST) Anna Case in La Fiesta (1926)

This couldn’t be farther from a silent slapstick comedy. I can only think they include this short and Roseland (below) as illustrations of what the late silents were up against. This is an early Vitaphone talkie starring opera singer Anna Case, backed by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

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5:15am (EST): Charley My Boy (1926)

An early Leo McCarey effort. The great Charley Chase gets mistaken for a suitor for the affections for heiress Kathryn Grant (he’s just there for a job). The last act has him roaming around the boss’s house, trying to hide booze from prohibition cops.

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4:57am (EST) Roseland (1930)

Ruth Etting et al in a Vitaphone short set in the famed Jazz Age nightclub.

And stay tuned — they’ll be showing more classic comedies later in the day — more on that to come!

For more on silent comedy and slapstick film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

Charley Chase in “Movie Night”

Posted in Charley Chase, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on May 11, 2015 by travsd
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Tiny Sanford as the theatre manager, fixing to expel the troublemaking Chase with extreme prejudice

Today is the anniversary of the release of the Charley Chase comedy short Movie Night (1929). Do the math — this is one of the last silent movies that anyone in America saw at their local cinema (May 11, 1929). Ironic of course — this is one of the most perfectly constructed of all silent comedy shorts, not just one of Chase’s best, but one of THE best. The plot is simple (as the best ones always are): Chase and his family of four have an epic amount of trouble on an ordinary trip to the movies: trouble with tickets, trouble finding seats, trouble with snacks…etc, etc. Chase co-wrote the comedy with the great Leo McCarey. I read recently where someone said something to the effect of “Of COURSE films had to move on to sound at this stage (1929). Silent films had just reached perfection.” The short of those films that demonstrate that silent film had reached perfection.

To learn more about silent and slapstick film please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out more about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Tonight on TCM: Seminal Silent Comedy Shorts

Posted in Charley Chase, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Fatty Arbuckle, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2015 by travsd

Tonight starting at midnight, Turner Classic Movies will be screening several classic silent movie shorts, some of which are downright pivotal in American comedy history. Just click on links below for more info on each comedian mentioned. Note: they don’t give specific times for each film; shorts are all strange, unpredictable lengths so they just give them all in a block. When I DVR them, I find that the only way is “all or nothing”. But according to TCM, they will be presented in the order below. It’s nice little program, suggesting something about the evolution of the comedy short under Sennett’s watch, and the passing of the torch between comedy stars.

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The Curtain Pole (1909)

The film that started it all. It may be too much to say The Curtain Pole is America’s first film comedy, but it is Mack Sennett’s first film comedy and since he’s the guy who laid the foundation for most of what came later, this is the one that counts. The Curtain Pole was made while Sennett was still at Biograph; Sennett wrote the script and stars in the film and D.W. Griffith directed. At the time, the top comedy films in the U.S. were all coming from France, most of them starring the immortal Max Linder. Here Sennett apes the style of those imported French farces so much as to make it seem a parody. Sennett’s character, M. Dupont (complete with top hat and some very clownish make-up) is helping a woman (Florence Lawrence) hang a curtain when he accidentally breaks the rod. Not to worry, he declares! He goes to town, buys a new one, stops off at the bar and gets wasted, and then rides back in a hansom cab, destroying everything he encounters along the way with his swinging, bad-ass curtain pole. The phallicism of this comic concept is positively Roman. Or maybe we should say Gallicism? This was perhaps the most extreme example of Sennett’s Francophilia in action. It is a similar phenomenon to the Roman comedies of Plautus and Terence having been set in Athens – living in the shadow of the older, better established culture. Later homages would make a more sensible effort to borrow situations and plots from French farces without feeling the need to make the characters actual Frenchmen. But to make sure no one was confused, he would still label most of his films “Farce-Comedies” right in the opening credits both at Biograph and at Keystone.

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On His Wedding Day (1913)

An early one from Sennett’s own comedy shop, Keystone. A cross-eyed bride (Dot Farley) and her family are waiting for a wedding to start. Ford Sterling shows up as the groom. His flowers make everyone sneeze. The girl runs away in consternation. Everyone goes to look for her. The Ford sees a good looking babe with another guy and tries to horn in on the action. Another guy hires bums to beat Ford up and they do. Ford managaes to knock the other guy and a cop down. Everyone chases him. More cops come and chase him. He climbs onto a roof, goes down a chimney — back into the parlor, where the waiting family is ready to start the wedding. The cops follow him into the room, but the bride beats them off.

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Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)

A real classic of the genre — it’s what a lot of people think of when they think of silent comedy. A melodrama parody, it features Ford Sterling in top form as a mustache-twirling villain who vies for Mabel Normand’s affections. When she won’t give in, he and his two henchmen tie her to the railroad tracks. Meanwhile her boyfriend the hero, played by Mack Sennett, enlists the help of real life race car driver Barney Oldfield, who races him to the rescue.

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The Speed Kings (1914)

This one reel short stars Ford Sterling, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Barney Oldfield again — as himself. Shot against the backdrop of an actual auto race (a frequent gambit of producer Mack Sennett’s) it tells the tale of Papa Ford Sterling trying to curb Mabel’s infatuation with driver Teddy Tetzlaff. Arbuckle plays a masher.

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The Knockout (1914)

The Knockout is one of the premiere boxing comedies. Today it is usually marketed as a Chaplin film, although it really stars Fatty Arbuckle. Chaplin has a small (but funny) turn as a referee. Fatty is drawn into the boxing world by a bunch of street toughs led by Al St. John who try to humiliate him in front of his girl (Minta Durfee). They haven’t counted on the fact that bricks bounce off of Fatty’s bean, or that he can lift 500 lb weights. He dispatches the punks in short order at the neighborhood gym. (Minta dons male drag so she can enter the gym to watch). Then gangster Mack Swain books Fatty to fight the champ (Edgar Kennedy, who’d actually been a boxer in real life) leading to our main comic set piece. The bout spurs Fatty into a violent rampage. The Keystone Kops are called, leading to a rooftop chase and a fall through a skylight onto a fancy party in the loft below. The Kops throw a rope around Fatty as though he were an elephant they were trying to bring down. He drags them all down to the pier and chucks them in the drink.

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Recreation (1914)

Though amusing in spots, it’s one of Charlie Chaplin‘s less distinctive efforts, being one of several in which he and his cast improvise their comedy in the park. And this is sort of a third string cast, containing none of the other well known Keystone stars we usually delight to see interact with Chaplin: instead of Arbuckle, Normand, Sterling, Kennedy, Conklin, Swain and company….we get Charles Bennett, Edwin Frazee, Edward Nolan and Helen Carruthers. The plot: a tramp, a girl, a sailor, some cops, some fisticuffs — and then everyone falls in the pond. (This happens in about 50% of early Keysone Comedy).

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The Rounders (1914)

The Rounders is significant for being the only honest-to-God co-starring vehicle of Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, and handily one of Chaplin’s best comedies at Keystone.

The Rounders casts Chaplin and Arbuckle as a couple of drunken lodge brothers out for a night on the town, always one step ahead of their exasperated wives (Phyllis Allen and Minta Durfee). The physical rapport of the two comedians is brilliant – the sight of Arbuckle and Chaplin in evening clothes, arms locked together, stumbling down the street in total synchronization is indelible, as is the image of the enormous Arbuckle dragging the passed-out Chaplin down the sidewalk like a ragdoll. In the end, the two fall asleep in a sinking rowboat. Now that’s drunk. If one didn’t know Chaplin was such an abstemious chap, one might suspect that he are Arbuckle had enjoyed many such sprees together. It’s such a shame they weren’t able to team up like this again.

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Leading Lizzie Astray (1914)

Minta Durfee plays the titular Lizzie, a farmer’s daughter. Roscoe “Fatty Arbuckle” (her real life husband, who also directed) is her sweetheart, a hand on her father’s farm. Into their life rides trouble in the form of a rich city slicker (Ed Brady). He and his chauffeur (Edgar Kennedy) are driving past the farm when they get a flat tire. As Kennedy changes it, the city slicker flirts with the girl. Fatty too becomes occupied with the car, bringing his superhuman strength to bear, lifting the car so the chauffeur can take off the old tire, and blowing up the tire with his own breath. (Fatty exhibited this comical trait in several films. He should have done a lot more of it, it would have helped define his screen character),

Later, Lizzie sneaks away with city the slicker. He brings her to a café, where everything is fast and little bit scary. (Among the patrons at this unruly establishment are Mack Swain,Phyllis Allen, Al St. John, and Charles Parrott, i.e. Charley Chase as a cowboy).  Lizzie doesn’t like it here and wants to leave bar, but the guy wont let her. Meanwhile Fatty, much saddened by Lizzie’s departure has been in pursuit. Recognizing the car parked out front, he enters, beats everyone up, throws several of them through a wayy, and then throws the piano, just for good measure. He is reunited with Lizzie. They kiss.

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Hash House Mashers (1915)

One of the earliest comedies to star Charley Chase (here still billed as Charles Parrott). Here he plays the young lover of Virginia Chester. The pair live in a boarding house, and he’s the only one of the crazy creeps in the house with beau potential. Yet, in order to convince her parents he’s worthy, he must put on a beard for a disguise. And it actually works! Mack Sennett directed this at a time, when his early career as a comedy director was winding down. Withing a few months the demands of running a studio were earing too much of his time to direct many films personally (although he would continue directing as late as 1935).

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Ambrose’s First Falsehood (1914)

Most folks who know Mack Swain at all nowadays know him as Charlie Chaplin’s prospecting partner in The Gold Rush (1925). Fewer know that ten years earlier he’d been a comedy star in his own right, appearing in a series of comedies for Mack Sennett in which he played a character known as “Ambrose”, helping to fill the void left by Chaplin’s recent departure with such frequent co-stars as Chester Conklin. In Ambrose’s First Falsehood , he tells his wife (Minta Durfee) that he is off to San Francisco on business. Cavorting at a bar with pal Charles Parrott (a.k.a. Charley Chase) and his girl (the vivacious Cecile Arnold), he gets into a brouhaha and never makes the train. That’s good news and bad news. The train gets into a wreck and, hearing the news, Mrs. Ambrose is worried sick. Edgar Kennedy plays the barkeep.

For more on silent comedy film history see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Century of Slapstick #80: Love, Loot and Crash

Posted in Century of Slapstick, Charley Chase, Comedy, Harold Lloyd, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on April 24, 2015 by travsd

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the release date of the still-popular Keystone comedy short Love, Loot and Crash (1915). People like to check this one out for two reasons. (A) It is one of the first comedies with a prominent role for Charley Chase, who wouldn’t be a proper star until almost a decade later at Hal Roach. And (B) it also features Harold Lloyd in a small role as a fruit vendor; this was during his very brief stint at Keystone.

The plot: a pair or crooks have a plan to rob a house—one of them will go in drag and masquerade as a cook, answering a want ad. The whole thing is ruined when a policeman comes in for his usual graft…some free food and hanging around the kitchen to flirt. The crook panics and throws the cop in the cellar, then flees with his cohort and the daughter of the house who wants to elope. The father chases them down the street. Then the cop grabs a bunch of his fellow Keystone Kops and they pursue, giving us A VERY satisfying comic chase — one of the very best of the early ones. I talk about it a bit in Chain of Fools in the context of cross-cutting.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin in “Mabel at the Wheel”

Posted in Charley Chase, Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comediennes, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Mabel Normand, Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on April 18, 2015 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Keystone comedy Mabel at the Wheel, starring Mabel Normand.

There are all sorts of reasons this film is noteworthy.

* This is one of the early films in which Charlie Chaplin does not appear in his famous tramp costume, but in another character he seemed to be developing, the top hatted melodrama character he had played in Making a Living and Cruel, Cruel Love. This character seems like he is literally being asked to fill in for Ford Sterling, who had recently left the studio. That feeling is accentuated in this film by Chaplin’s Sterlingesque chin whiskers

* This is another of those interesting Keystone films we have written about, that were semi-improvised at a live event, in this case an auto race. There were many of those

* This film contains the first known on-camera appearance by Charley Chase (Charles Parrott)

* This is the film on which Chaplin’s tension with his fellow Keystone players boiled to a head. He was having difficulty taking direction from Mabel Normand (the director and star of the picture) and so he sat down and went on strike. He considered Normand a “young girl”, with far less professional experience than he had. Yet she wouldn’t take any of his suggestions. Mack Sennett stepped in and talked him back (rather than firing him, which would have been Mabel’s preferred solution). Sennett did so because he’d recently learned that the comedies in which Chaplin appeared were starting to pull in big box office. Not long after this, Chaplin would begin directing his own pictures. Problem solved.

The plot of the film? A gossamer thing. Motorcycle-riding Charlie and his henchmen compete for Mabel’s affections with race car driving Harry McCoy. When they tie up Harry to keep him out of the race, Mabel takes his place at the wheel. Despite Chaplin’s dirty tricks (including a spectacular stunt involving an oil slick) Mabel wins the race anyway. Chester Conklin appears in the film as Mabel’s father. Mack Sennett plays a newsreel reporter. Now through the following year, appearances by Sennett in his own films grew increasingly rare and small.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To find out about  the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Charley Chase in “His Wooden Wedding”

Posted in Charley Chase, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , on December 20, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Charley Chase short His Wooden Wedding (1925), directed by Leo McCarey.

In this hilarious silent short, Chase plays a young man who’s about to get married. Unfortunately (for his own good) he’s a bit shallow. So when his rival for the girl’s hand informs him that she has a wooden leg, he has last minute second thoughts. Misleading evidence seems to corroborate the rival’s story. She has a limp. Charley tries to feel her leg under the table and accidentally feels a man’s cane. So he backs out at the last minute. He decides to take a cruise to leave his worries behind, with many more hijinx on the ship, including a great turn by Gale Henry. Meanwhile (as only happens in movies), his fiance (Kathryn Grant) and her father catch up to the ship in their yacht to try to put things right. Charley is contrite. They throw the rival in the drink.

For more on silent and slapstick comedy please see my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

chain%20of%20fools%20cvr%20front%20only-500x500

To find out more about show business past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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