Back during the 1970s nostalgia boom where classic films became trendy to the mainstream, comedians like The Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields enjoyed popularity on college campuses at a level beyond the stardom they had achieved when first making their films. It was around this time that seasoned comedy buffs began paying greater attention to the more unsung stars of Hollywood’s golden age. The comedian that seemed most unfairly neglected was Charley Chase.
Being in the throes of writing a book on Chase’s sound shorts (1929-1940), I have been chagrined at the continued lack of exposure for this period in his career. However, the greater availability of his silent screen work is good consolation, and Milestone Film and Video has released a wonderful two-disc set.
This is the third collection of Chase’s silent films to get an official release by a major company, and its contents are outstanding. Such silent Chase classics as April Fool, The Fraidy Cat, Bad Boy, The Caretaker’s Daughter, Be Your Age, Bromo and Juliet, Dog Shy, Innocent Husbands, Isn’t Life Terrible, What Price Goofy, Long Fliv The King, Mama Behave, Mighty Like a Moose, and Mum’s The Word. All have their highlights, some are among Chase’s (or anybody’s) best work of the silent era.
Two films on this disc that deserve immediate mention are Charley My Boy and The Uneasy Three. Neither have been available on any other collection, and are exclusive to this volume. This writer saw them for the first time while reviewing this disc. It is great to see something "new" at this point, and these turned out to be two of the funniest shorts in the collection.
While in the talking picture era Chase eventually redefined his screen character to better coincide with his approach to middle age, during the twenties when these comedies were made, Charley was a common man, dapper and handsome,, filled with enthusiasm, and often placed in embarrassing situations. Much of his humor is subtle and more situational than the slapstick that had been prevalent in the 1910s, but that does not mean he eschewed physical gags. For instance in Charley My Boy, Chase is seated on a fire hydrant that loosens and sprays water upward, the force pushing his body into the air. Mighty Like a Moose is a masterpiece in visual humor featuring Charley and his wife as unattractively buck-toothed, each getting work done to alter their appearance without the other knowing. When they finally meet up afterward, they do not recognize each other, but do find each other attractive. Thus, they begin flirting, harboring guilty feelings about cheating on their spouses, when, in fact, they are not. This clever, brilliantly executed two reel comedy was named to the National Film Registry for preservation in 2007. Bromo and Juliet has Chase as a classical theater actor filling out his stocking-clad skinny legs with sponges so they look better on stage. However, he stands too close to a sprinkler system and the sponges fill with water. Chase used this same gag for Curly Howard when he directed The Three Stooges short Mutts To You at Columbia Pictures studios years later.
The films on this DVD set were produced by the Hal Roach studios, which was Chase’s home from 1924-1936. Most were directed by Leo McCarey, who would go on to helm such classics as The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933), and is often cited as one of the chief individuals responsible for the teaming of Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy.
Years in the making, this DVD set contains the best quality prints available on each title. The music for each short is performed by some of the finest silent movie accompanists active today, including Ben Model, Dave Drazin, Dave Knutsen, Donald Sosin, and Rodney Sauer with the Mon Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
An absolute must for comedy buffs, Cut To The Chase is also an important DVD set to include in any University or public library. The films of Charley Chase are a very significant to the history of screen comedy, and the development of both visual and situational humor.