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Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Elusive Charley Chase

Charley Chase was never an easy comedian to track down. Television exposure of his short subjects was virtually non-existent from the beginning. They were syndicated in the early fifties, but I’ve never spoken to anyone who saw any of them. We certainly never had them down here when I was growing up. About the only way you could see Charley was in one of those Robert Youngson comedy compilations, or on 8mm home movies from Blackhawk Films. Youngson devoted a third of his Four Clowns in 1970 to Chase, but by then it was really too little and too late. To this day, Charley Chase languishes in a no-man’s-land of stored and forgotten negatives --- his talkie output and a number of silents are presently hoarded by the Hallmark Card company, and they’ve got about as much interest in Charley Chase as I have in Britney Spears (did I spell that right?). The only ones you can lay your hands on are public domain shorts originally released by Pathe in the mid-twenties, and Kino Video has done nicely by these in two volumes they've so far released on DVD. To be sure, Chase’s output is a mixed bag. Some of the comedies are gems, some are pretty appalling. Like a lot of other technicians in those days, Charley had deadlines to meet. Sometimes the work met standards, and sometimes it didn’t. Maybe he wasn’t Chaplin, Lloyd, or Keaton (damn those unfair comparisons again!), but Chase deserves a lot better than the obscurity he’s got, and even though I fear he’ll never get the recognition he has coming, there’s still a lot to like for those of us willing to claim membership among a particularly rarified viewing niche.

Like a lot of up-from-nothing performers in those days, Charlie Chase played hometown street corners before small-time vaudeville took him out on the road. Ever notice how easy it was for people to leave home and strike out on their own in those days (well, I'm sure it wasn't easy)? Not like now where guys in their thirties still live in their parent’s basement. Anyway, Charley ends up with Al Christie, then Mack Sennett, and finally Hal Roach
. He works with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd at the very beginnings of their careers. You can see him in some of those frenzied Chaplin Keystones where he’s a dapper young man always getting splattered with something gooey and repulsive. It must have been depressing for these young guys to have nice suits ruined like that. When I watch Charley take a pie, or go head-first off a pier, I always wonder if his wardrobe was provided to him, or if that’s his personal attire getting drenched. Hard for me to picture Mack Sennett picking up a dry-cleaning bill for a struggling beginner. Chase finally gets to wear dry clothes when he goes to Roach as a director. Walrus-mustachioed types like Snub Pollard get the benefit of Charley’s seasoned way with gags. Chase would say later that a good man with comedy was the one with a good memory, for even the clammiest routines could be re-cycled every seven years as new generations entered the viewing marketplace. Is it coincidence then that Disney would later re-issue its animated classics on approximately the same schedule? Chase clearly observed that rule throughout his career, as much of his talkie stuff was reworked from the silents. But for the departure of Harold Lloyd from Roach, Charley might have stayed behind the camera, but they needed a Lloyd type to cover the loss, so he got a starring series beginning in 1923.

It always seemed to me that Charley got a bit of a screwing at Roach. Every time he’d hit a stride with talented writers and/or directors, Roach would "promote" them up to another series he was pushing, and Chase would be left to start all over again with green beginners he’d have to train and develop. Not that he wasn’t up to it. Leo McCarey credited Chase with teaching him everything he learned in the business, but even McCarey got yanked away from the Chase unit when Roach recognized his extraordinary supervisory and directing abilities. Charley was essentially providing traction for a lot of talent that would go on to have bigger careers than he ever would, and that’s kind of sad when you consider that it happened over and over. Meanwhile, his own comedies were building a solid audience, and when he peaked around the 1926-27 season, Charley Chase was the biggest comedy name at Roach, but that would not last long. Laurel and Hardy were just then getting together, and their astounding success would forever eclipse Chase at his home studio. Personal issues, including a major drinking problem, made it that much worse. His voice was ideally suited to the new talkies, but Charlie still got the short end where supporting talent was concerned. No sooner had he established a felicitous teaming with Thelma Todd than Roach withdrew her for a starring series with ZaZu Pitts, and by the by, that $1,750 per week Charlie was getting at Roach was not nearly what he was worth. Even Charley’s own brother, James Parrott, was pulled off his team to go work with Laurel and Hardy. Pretty demoralizing, particularly when it was all Chase could do to show up for work in the morning, his health being what it was.

These trade ads from 1926 represent Charley’s season in the sun with Roach. Within a year, Laurel and Hardy would break out and dominate publicity materials from that point on. His Wooden Wedding is one of the notable Chase silents --- there’s comedy here they’d never dare in today’s restrictive marketplace. It’s available on one of the Kino DVD’s. These rare newspaper ad mats were typical of the stock materials provided to exhibitors playing a Chase short. All they had to do was insert the appropriate title. In this case, it’s The Nickel Nurser. That’s Tommy "Butch" Bond with ice-cream man Charley in I’ll Take Vanilla, and off-screen squeeze Muriel Evans in Young Ironsides. His weakness for blondes had Charley in hot water at home, and that hand-carved Meerschaum pipe he kept filled with marijuana was the source of much studio gossip. The wild life has clearly caught up in these later shots. The graying temples on view here in Neighborhood House (his last short for Roach) was nothing new in 1936, but Hal had made him black his hair almost from the beginning, and Charley was only now letting it go natural. The new look couldn’t help but emphasize the age (yet he was only 43!). The little girl on stage with Chase is Our Gang’s Darla Hood. With double features crowding out short subjects, Roach let Charley go soon after this. The Columbia comedies that would wind up his career were a generally inferior lot, but as with Buster Keaton at the same company (and at the same time), there were moments to treasure. Chase did a lot of writing and directing here, and some of the best Three Stooges
shorts from this period are his. A final shot from 1938 (with Ann Doran) was nobody’s idea of flattering, but it does offer a game comedian still giving it his all despite worsening health concerns that would allow him only two more years beyond the date of this pose (he died in 1940).


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I've been waiting for someone to release the Chase talkies on DVD... and I guess I'll have to keep waiting.

Any reason why the spelling of his first name bounced back and forth between "Charley" and Charlie"?

7:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They ran the Columbia Charley Chase comedies in the Detroit TV market in the late 50s--they were part of the package of 3 Stooges two reelers that were the rage.

Back in early 1982, the Nostalgia Channel ran many of his Roach two reelers--they certainly were far better than the Columbias. I was able to tape many of them on my Beta machine back then....

When my dad was growing up, he was teased about his last name--Chase, and was referred to as Charley Chase....

DVD releases of both Columbias and Roach shorts by Charley are a major want!!

9:09 AM  
Blogger Poptique said...

I'd love to see a few more Chase talkies - the only ones I've caught were on the "Lost" Laurel & Hardy DVD series. I thought Whispering Whoopees was hilarious; so much so they couldn't come up with a topper to end it on.

From the Youngson compilations I especially remember Never the Dames Shall Meet (from L&H Laughing 20s) and Limousine Love (Four Clowns?) both with the lovely Viola Richard. Now theres someone I'd like to see on a Monday morning...

10:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a darb! THANK YOU for this tribute to one of my favorite screen funnymen. I 'discovered' Chase (whose name was billed as Charley; Columbia loved to misspell it as "Charlie" on their lobby cards, the dolts) when several of his Roach sound shorts were included as bonuses on Laurel & Hardy tapes from the Nostalgia Merchant in the mid-1980s. I show them for the Friday Night Movie gang and he's very popular; his silent films MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE and LIMOUSINE LOVE are as sure a laugh-getter as I've ever seen, and his best sound shorts, including THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG (with Thelma Todd) and ON THE WRONG TREK (with a great gag appearance by Stan 'n' Ollie) are almost as good. Chase had a beautiful singing voice, and it's a treat to hear him use it. Oh, and of course that's him as the loud-mouthed wiseguy in L&H's SONS OF THE DESERT. Several of his Columbia shorts were remade a few years later with Shemp Howard, notably THE HECKLER (which became MR. WISE GUY). Or was it vice-versa? Remember when the Three Stooges sang "Swingin' the Alphabet?" Chase gave them that one. There's a fine book out called "Smile When the Teardrops Fall" by Brian Anthony and Andy Edmonds.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Anna said...

Really timely posting (for those of us in the UK) The National Film Theatre is showing Silent Comedies for its May season, and Chase is in there. Now I might go and have a look!

11:30 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Glad to hear that someone was able to watch Chase on TV growing up. Thanks for that info, Detroit, and many thanks to Laughing Gravy for always welcome comments and that nice boost you gave us over at the Google Laurel and Hardy discussion group! As far as that spelling of the first name bouncing back and forth, that is entirely the consequence of my own senility.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

No, John, I didn't mean you changing Charley/Charlie's name! The spelling seems to change at the whim of 1930s magazine writers -- or in Columbia's case, promotions department.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Every year, Cinevent in Columbus OH includes a Charley Chase festival in its lineup of classic films. It's held annually every Memorial Day Weekend. I'll be there again this year.

The Chase festival will be after the lunch break on Sunday the 28th. More details HERE:

3:04 PM  
Blogger Poptique said...

Kudos to Anna for flagging the Silent Comedy festival at the NFT in the UK.

We've already missed LIMOUSINE LOVE, but they still have MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE on a double-bill with the W.C.Fields/Louise Brooks IT'S THE OLD ARMY GAME, plus A PAIR OF TIGHTS and a fistful of "chase" (not Charley Chase) comedies topped off with TWO TARS!

4:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They ran some of Chase's Roach shorts as part of a program hosted by Leonard Maltin on the Odyssey/Hallmark Channel a few years ago. I'm glad I had the foresight to tape as many as I could.

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sadly, the drinking problem ran in the family...James also drank and died of a heart attack in 1939, a year before Charley met the same fate.

4:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Jimmy had addiction troubles greater than his drinking problem. Chase had complained about him using all of his money on "dope".

I'm lucky enough to have copies of 16 of the 20 Columbia shorts, and for the most part, they're really funny. Chase was too old to playing the young go-getter, but if you can put that past you, there's a good portion of quality shorts.

I'll be presenting a group of Chase shorts at the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention in Aberdeen, MD in September (plug).

PS--Mr Noisy was Shemp's remake of The Heckler (an excellent short).

9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder why all the silent greats who wound up at Columbia or Educational never would play their age? Buster, Charley Chase and Harry Langdon all were middle-aged men playing copy boys and young men courting a young girl. Only WC Fields seemed to understand that playing your age was important for the believability of a film and he did his best work in his 50's.

4:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They also ran the Charlie Chase Columbia shorts in Richmond, Va. in the early 60,s on a show called Laff Time. I remenber being dissapointed in not seeing the Stooges when they show the Columbia logo at the beginning of these shorts. But i came to like the Charley Chase comedies. They also showed Andy Clyde and others with this package which played in Richmond for about 4 years.

2:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's another event at which you can always be assured of seeing Charley:

11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just signed up for attending the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention not just because of the Charley Chase film short showings, but there are other comedy shorts besides Charley Chase such as Thelma Todd, Little Rascals (Our Gang) and World War II cartoons. Charley Chase fans should find the showing of interest.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

Can just about remember the Chase shorts on Detroit TV...of course the Stooges ran forever.....

11:40 AM  

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