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It was at Hal Roach Studios that Charley Chase came into stardom. He was by that point already one of the comedy world's most in-demand directors, and a former supporting player to Charlie Chaplin--not insubstantial achievements. Roach brought Chase on board as his new chief of production, but it wasn't long before the studio found a better use for him on-screen. For roughly sixteen years, Chase was one of Roach's most bankable stars--eclipsed in popularity only by the arrival of Laurel and Hardy.
Chase was one of the few silent clowns to make a seamless transition to the world of talkies--his vaudeville-honed talents included a mellifluous singing voice and sound provided Chase with a new dimension in which to entertain.
Among his earliest and best talkie shorts were High C's (1930) and its sequel Rough Seas (1931). In those films he played a WWI soldier who just wants to sing and find love--not necessarily in that order. Chase is an endearing buffoon, caught up in slapstick both gentle and genteel. The Office's Andy Bernard could have joined the fracas without skipping a beat.
The two musical shorts were among Hal Roach's personal favorites. In 1933, Chase and company decided to take a third bite of the apple with Arabian Tights. Chase's character is reunited with his fellow troops/singing buddies in Paris to celebrate past victories. They go out drinking, but Charley squanders his last dollars on what he mistakenly thinks is French pornography. Unable to settle their bar tab, the boys run away and into the welcoming arms of the French Foreign Legion. Goodbye angry saloon keeper, hello Algeria!
Here's where things get tricky, from the standpoint of contemporary mores. To say this is a fantasy vision of an Arab state is underselling it. The swarthy native wear dirty rags on their heads, harem girls swoon over an effete potentate, and their language is revealed to be a series of clicks, pops, and Donald Duck impersonations. (Foreigners don't speak English. Get it?)
Charley Chase came of age in a world in which "ethnic comedian" was a valid comedy career path. Plenty of Chase's peers and friends made their livings trading in crude stereotypes and insulting caricatures of other cultures. A fair bit of this stuff is innocuous enough when seen today--few would get worked up by the clich of the Irish cop, for example. The problem comes in when the ethnic tensions still simmer today--and in these cases the caricatures of yesterday carry an additional, unfortunate, and unintended bite. The "Arabs" of Arabian Tights remind us of continued anti-Arab sentiment in America, and the awkward and violent history of French colonialism in Algeria, yet the film itself has no desire to engage any of these ideas. It's meant merely as a light-hearted vehicle for some pratfalls, misunderstandings, double-takes, and a couple of songs.
Hal Roach Studios had played this kind of material before. Laurel and Hardy's first tentative steps towards making features was the bonus-length short Beau Hunks (1931), with much the same premise: Stan and Ollie stumble thoughtlessly into the Foreign Legion, are sent to Algeria (or a reasonable comedy facsimile), and get into wacky scrapes with Arab caricatures. What role if any Chase may have played in the making of Beau Hunks is mere speculation -- he isn't credited on the film, no anecdote ever placed him anywhere near it. Probably he just absorbed the ideas by osmosis while working on the same lot. However it happened, the idea got into his brain, and there it lodged.
Just five years after making Arabian Tights, Chase returned to the idea. . . sort of. He had by this point left Roach and settled anew at Columbia, where among other things he was directing the Three Stooges. 1938's Wee Wee Monsieur is the next link in our comedy chain: the Stooges stumble thoughtlessly into the Foreign Legion, are sent to Algeria (or a reasonable comedy facsimile), and get into wacky scrapes with Arab caricatures. Even if you haven't seen this short, you've probably seen it--it was remade and recycled into subsequent Stooge outings Malice in the Palace (1949) and Rumpus in the Harem (1956).
Weirdly, Wee Wee Monsieur is among very few Stooges shorts from 1938 not directed by Charley Chase. The similarity to Arabian Tights is unmistakable and certainly no mere coincidence, but for whatever reason Chase opted to conceal his involvement.
Time marched on. Algeria would fall--winning independence from France in 1962. The entire Arabian Peninsula would be remade, repeatedly--its history is still our present. And things like Arabian Tights seem more out of place than before. Perhaps that's part of its charm.
Producer: Hal Roach
Director: Hal Roach br>Music: Leroy Shield
Film Editing: William H. Terhune
Cast: Charley Chase (Charley), Muriel Evans (Miss Evans), Carlton Griffin (American Consul), Jimmie Adams (as The Ranch Boys), Marvin Hatley (as The Ranch Boys), Frank Gage (as The Ranch Boys).
by David Kalat
Brian Anthony and Andy Edmonds, Smile When the Raindrops Fall: The Story of Charley Chase.
Leonard Maltin, Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to the Three Stooges.