Introduction to Charley Chase Shorts
"Meet Charley Chase! Pleased to meetcha, Charley! You're a new one, but doggone, you sure look like a good one. Don't blush, Charley, but you're a good looking sunamagun. You aren't a cartoon or a caricature. You look like a real human and you act like one. And Charley, you're really funny!"
That's the trade advertisement that Hal Roach took out in 1924 to inaugurate Charley's screen debut as "Charley Chase." But our story actually starts ten years earlier...
Young Charles Parrott was what you'd now call a "triple threat." Even as a boy, he just wanted to entertain. He chose the footlights over school, and became a young vaudeville prodigy. Like many successful vaudeville entertainers of his day, he soon gravitated to Hollywood. Silent movies had no use for a singer, but there was always room for one more comedian. At Mack Sennett's Keystone Studio, he was working alongside the likes of Chaplin and Arbuckle.
The thing about Keystone was, there was always more that needed doing than there were people to do it. Charley was useful as supporting player, ably taking roles as romantic hero or dastardly villain as needed. But he was even more useful--and happier--as a director. The other thing about Keystone was, if you were good at something, there was always someone willing to pay you more than miserly Mack Sennett would. So as soon as Charley had distinguished himself as a comedy director, the job offers started pouring in. He quit Sennett to begin a tour of the comedy outfits of the day.
That tour landed him at Hal Roach, home of Harold Lloyd. Lloyd operated an independent fiefdom under Roach's roof, while Roach oversaw a modest slate of also-ran comedians in one-reel shorts. Charley arrived, started directing those one-reelers, and suddenly those things got better--funnier, faster, more inventive. By 1921 Roach appointed him supervising producer of the entire studio. A few precious years later, Harold Lloyd decided to strike out on his own. The departure of Lloyd was catastrophic: the only feature films that Roach had ever put out were ones Lloyd made. Without him, all that was left were second-string one-reel shorts. Even the very best of these would never replace the revenues of a Harold Lloyd feature. The hunt was on to find a comedy star to replace Lloyd.
You can't say Charley didn't try. He upgraded Snub Pollard to more prominent films--but these were more miss than hit. He had Stan Laurel--floundering in his pre-Laurel and Hardy days. He had Will Rogers--one of America's brightest comic talents, but a man poorly suited to silent slapstick. He had some woeful cute animals called the Dippy Do-Dads (if you've never seen any of these, count your blessings). The best moment came when he bundled a group of child actors around Sammy Morrison and called them Our Gang... but Charley's tenure as Big Boss was not the success Hal Roach had desired.
It was on a business trip to New York that things changed. Roach and Parrott were making the tour of their Manhattan financiers, meeting with exhibitors, and doing all the glad-handing they needed to do to keep the lights on. During this junket, Charley kept everyone happy. His genial charm and easy-going manner defused one tense confrontation after another, turned enemies into friends and friends into drinking buddies. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in Roach's head: "Charles Parrott shouldn't be sitting behind a desk looking for America's Next Top Comedy Superstar. Charles Parrott is America's Next Top Comedy Superstar!"
He changed his name to Charley Chase, and took a tentative step into one-reel comedies in 1924. I say "tentative step," but those one-reel shorts were fully-formed comic creations with a definitive aesthetic and personality as exhaustively thought-out as if he had been doing this for years. But then, he had. All those years of writing and directing for other comedians had turned him into a comedy encyclopedia. He knew the mechanics of every gag type and structure, the strengths and weaknesses of every approach. He'd tried it all before, and was ready to put that knowledge onto celluloid.
How this extensive comic experience was manifested, though, was surprising. As Charles Parrott he had specialized in absurd slapstick and relentless visual gags. His penchant for crazy physical humor never abated--his best work as a director in the 1930s was for the Three Stooges. But when it came to his own starring vehicles as Charley Chase, he crafted an entirely different aesthetic.
You can hear it in that press clipping quoted above: Charley didn't look like a cartoon, and so he needed to be in films that didn't feel like cartoons. Hal Roach was seeking to establish a brand identity for his company--and if Sennett was known for havoc and chaos, Roach wanted to specialize in more realistic humor. Charley Chase kept his passion for the ridiculous--but instead of ridiculous images, he worked with ridiculous situations. He made what were the ancestors of the modern sitcom: domestic comedies of embarrassment and romantic misunderstandings.
His earliest one-reel silent shorts are marvels of filmic construction. A clearly delineated premise, out of which spins a logical progression of embarrassments and complications that culminate in a final climactic punch line. Fade to black. It sounds simple, but it really wasn't--as the multitude of sloppy, oddly-paced comedy shorts from others of the same era attest.
The 1924 season brought Hal Roach his brightest economic news in years--all hail Charley Chase. He would remain one of the studio's top money-makers for twelve years--second only to Laurel and Hardy. When sound rolled in, Charley made minute adjustments to his formula, and kept on chugging. Sound derailed many of his competitors; for him, it was a positive boon. Now he could sing in his films--at last! In one of his earliest talkies, Whispering Whooppee (1930), he sings "Smile When the Raindrops Fall," a song of his own that soon became both a Roach standby and Chase's signature tune. (Not to mention, the title of his biography by Brian Anthony).
He took off in talkies with style. In 1930, he made an endearing sound short called High C's, about a musically-minded soldier in WWI wooing a French barmaid played by Thelma Todd. The short was so well-received, Chase and Todd soon shot an even sharper sequel, Rough Seas (1931). Later that same year, the Motion Picture Herald hailed The Pip from Pittsburgh as "perhaps the funniest comedy Charley Chase has ever made." Interestingly, Pip is a case study in how Chase appropriated Harold Lloyd's comedy into his own métier. Pip riffs on a classic scene from Lloyd's The Freshman (1925), in which Harold attended a party and was gradually denuded, one piece of clothing at a time. In Chase's hands, the comedy is reversed: and Charley is getting dressed (and shaved), bit by bit, as the party unfolds.
Charley Chase had hit his stride.
His output, though, prodigious as it was, would be in the form of comedy shorts. His proto-sitcom style was well-suited to the two-reel format, but the question must be asked: why no features? To paraphrase Curly Howard (whom Chase was soon to direct), he was the victim of circumstance.
Charley Chase's in-the-nick-of-time rescue of Roach came after the departure of Lloyd, when Roach had lost the infrastructure for making feature-length movies. In modern parlance, call it a Knowledge Management problem. It took years for Roach to rebuild the technical skills, talent pool, and financing needed to get a feature made--and by the time he managed that, he'd lost the distribution network to get it out to theaters. Chase was at the top of his game as a comedian and a celebrity at a time when Roach's distributors refused to handle any Roach features. Roach was able to break that logjam to get Laurel and Hardy features out--but it was a difficult battle, and not easily repeated for Chase's benefit.
Eventually, in 1936, Roach finally won Chase an opportunity to make a feature (Neighborhood House)--but a series of production crises hobbled it. If someone had filmed the misadventures behind the scenes, that could have made a mighty fine comedy.
Chase would star in a feature film just once--a hybrid part-talkie part-silent from Universal, entitled Modern Love (1929). The romantic comedy concerns a working woman whose successful career requires her to keep her marriage to Charley a secret. He needs her income to survive, but feels emasculated by the charade--and jealous of the attention of his wife's coworkers, who believe her to be single. Like the screwball comedies that would soon overtake Hollywood, it revolves around and illustrates a peculiar social more that inspires a variety of increasingly nutty contrivances. Modern Love isn't much like its slapstick forebears, it more closely resembles the new tradition of screen comedy coalescing around Ernst Lubitsch, Frank Capra and Leo McCarey (who got his start directing Charley Chase). It isn't hard to imagine a young Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart playing Chase's role--and it showed how Chase could have found a happy place in the new world of dialog comedies. Sadly, it was not to be. After the fiasco of Neighborhood House, Chase left Roach. He found a new place at Columbia, where he continued to star in shorts and where he enjoyed moonlighting as a director for other comedians. His hard-drinking, hard-partying lifestyle caught up with him, and he passed away before reaching the age of 47.
The world was poorer without him. But he left behind an almost mind-boggling back catalog of starring vehicles and directorial efforts that display a comic imagination of astonishing breadth. He steered the direction of screen comedy away from physical slapstick and towards situation comedies. His influence is felt still.
Pleased to meetcha, Charley, indeed.
by David Kalat
Brian Anthony and Andy Edmonds, Smile When the Raindrops Fall.
Leonard Maltin, The Great Movie Comedians.
Leonard Maltin, Selected Short Subjects.
Richard Lewis Ward, A History of the Hal Roach Studios.