In his day, Charley Chase was one of the more popular comedians in films, his work extending from the early days of silent pictures through the golden age of 1930s sound comedy. He worked at Mack Sennett’s Keystone, with Hal Roach productions, and for Jules White at Columbia. And while he did little in feature-length films, his many short comedies provide movie history with some of its funniest and cleverest comic moments from the teens right up to his untimely death in 1940.
Chase has long been championed by comedy film buffs for his talents as a comedian, writer, and director. Allday Entertainment’s 4 DVD set “Becoming Charley Chase,” released in 2009 by VCI Entertainment, gives us a fascinating overview of the comedian’s career from his Keystone roots, through many of his classics with Hal Roach, and several of examples of his fine directorial work. As with this same production company’s wonderful Harry Langdon DVD set last year, this Chase set fills an enormous need for fans and students of screen comedy’s rich history.
The first disc in this set looks at Chase at Keystone, during which he played a variety of small roles in many productions under his real name Charles Parrott. The fast-paced “Love Loot, and Crash” (1915), for instance, is a good Keystone prototype, with blatant gestures, wild slapstick, and dazzling chase footage. Other Keystone productions found here, such as “Peanuts and Bullets,” “The Rent Jumpers,” and “A Versatile Villain” (all 1915), are equally amusing in the frenetic Keystone manner. Chase gets little opportunity to project much personality during this period of his career, but it was a good training ground for knockabout comedy. Chase directs two of the eight films on disc one. The first, “He Wouldn’t Stay Down”, features Keystone perennial Ford Sterling in the lead role. The second Chase-directed film on disc one, “Married To Order” (1920), is actually not a Keystone production, but a Reelcraft release that had been produced at the old King Bee studios two years earlier, and features a young Oliver Hardy starring opposite Chase.
Disc two celebrates the earlier Roach films in which Chase appears as a classic 1920s-era go-getter by the name of Jimmy Jump. Chase had joined Roach in 1921 as a director, and helmed several short comedies before returning to starring roles himself with the 1924 release “At First Sight,” which is the first of sixteen wonderful films on disc two of this collection. The Jimmy Jump period essentially presents Chase in what could be considered a typical Roaring 20s comic character, but with further exploration into what could be done with such a persona. For instance Chase goes against type and plays a shivering coward who is picked on by a gang of children in “The Fraidy Cat” (1924), one of the most outrageously funny films in this set. Creative gags abound in “Young Oldfield” (1924), such as when Pharmacist Jimmy Jump, in order to drum up business, puts ice in front of a fan, and turns the fan on an outdoor crowd, giving them all the sniffles and forcing them to buy the cold medicine he has for sale. In another delightfully surreal image from this same film, an old man with a cane walks faster than the car in which Chase is riding, as he hurries to get the mortgage paid by noon. Chase does his own version of the mirror routine in “Sitting Pretty” (1924), performing it with real life brother James Parrott, who plays a supporting role. The director of “Sitting Pretty,” Leo McCarey, would investigate this same routine with The Marx Brothers when he would later helm their 1933 classic ‘Duck Soup.”
The third disc shows Chase evolving from the Jimmy Jump character into the one he would solidly play for the remainder of his career. Well meaning, a bit fluttery, and prone to embarrassment, Charley would still find clever ways to emerge victorious by each film’s fade-out. The ten films on this disc are perhaps the best on the entire set, showing Chase as a fully established comedian, enjoying a real rapport with his director Leo McCarey, and willing to explore some innovative possibilities for comedy. Initially still referred to as Jimmy Jump, Chase is continues to be impressively inventive in “Big Red Riding Hood” (1925) as a voracious reader who initially dreams himself into the stories, and ends up so interested in a book he can not afford to purchase, he rides is bicycle alongside a speeding car to read the book recently purchased by the car’s driver. Chase was still called Jimmy Jump once his series went from one to two reels per short, doubling their length and allowing for greater narrative depth. “Bad Boy” (1925) is a very funny effort in which mama’s boy Jimmy Jump is spurred on by his father to be more of a tough guy. Dressed as a stereotypical Irish hooligan, Jimmy successfully intimidates several at a dance hall until his ruse is discovered. “Looking For Sally” (1925) features a mistaken-identity theme, something Chase would investigate frequently in subsequent films.
On disc four, the set concludes with seven films Chase directed but did not appear in, featuring some of his initial directorial efforts for Roach. These films usually feature comedian Snub Pollard, or Chase’s brother James Parrott, who directed under his own name, but acted as Paul Parrott. Snub and Paul appear together as an ersatz comedy team in this disc’s best effort, “Dear Old Pal” (1923), which happens to be the last film Chase directed before embarking on his own starring series. Paul and Snub play pals who enjoy a competitive rivalry when playing horse shoes and other such games, usually escalating to a fist fight, but ending with the two making up. Their rivalry for a woman becomes heated when each tries to top the other with gifts, skills, and abilities. Chase constructs the film beautifully, with outrageous gags in each scene. During a fight between the two rivals, Paul repeatedly swings and misses Snub, hitting each of the onlookers one by one. During a three-legged race, the two rivals venture off to chase down a man trying to accost the object of their affection, borrowing a farmer’s wheelbarrow to increase their speed, but not thinking to untie their legs from each other until they’ve already reached the girl’s house.
While there is much slapstick in the comedies presented in this set, Chase would eventually emerge as a comedian who relied far more heavily on situations than isolated gags. He was, in essence, a prototype sitcom star, and his work is an obvious influence on such TV performers as Dick Van Dyke. This four-disc set presents Chase’s development to that point, and allows us to experience many aspects of this talented comedian. Its entertainment value is matched by its historical significance in presenting the development of one of screen comedy’s most interesting and talented performers.
The music on this disc is wonderfully performed by the talented Ben Model, Snark Ensemble, West End Jazz Band, and Ben Redwine. Special features include an insightful documentary, an interview with Chase’s daughter June, and a look at the method of scoring silent comedies for DVD. Each film on this set has an option to be viewed with a commentary track supplied by any number of top level film historians who understand and appreciate these comedies at a level that is matched by only a select few. Among the commentators is Yair Solan, whose Charley Chase website is a wealth of information.
The quality of the films varies, depending on what sort of pre-print material was available for each. Some are beautiful, others a bit washed out, but all are perfectly watchable for those who understand how fortunate we are that 90-year-old movies exist at all. In fact two of the films in this set, “Seeing Nellie Home” (1924) and “Accidental Accidents” (1924) do not survive in complete form. The surviving footage is presented here, offering us an interesting look at two films that were long lost to the ravages of time. The makers of this video were careful to find the best footage possible from various institutions and private collectors throughout the world, and have done a superb job.
“Becoming Charley Chase” is certainly among the most important historical collections of comedy films to be released on DVD. It is most highly recommended to anyone with an interest in motion picture comedy’s fascinating history.