While history may not regard him as highly as many of the other on-screen comics who predated or succeeded him, the world of comedy nevertheless owes a substantial debt of gratitude to Charley Chase. Born Charles Joseph Parrott in 1893, the immeasurably gifted individual worked with just about every great comedy act in the business during his tragically short lifetime. During the Silent Era, a young Chase worked at Keystone Studios for Mack Sennett, appearing in several Charlie Chaplin shorts. In later years, after sound had come to moving pictures to stay, Chase worked on the other side of the camera at Columbia Pictures, lending his writing and directing skills to many of The Three Stooges' best two-reelers.
By the time Mr. Chase passed away from a heart attack at the age of 46 in 1940, he had appeared in nearly 300 (estimated) shorts and directed ‒ often under his birth name, Charles Parrott ‒ over 150 gems. Ultimately, his "middle" period would prove to be the most popular of all, for it was during that time when he worked at the Hal Roach Studios, sometimes working with Roach's best-known icons, Laurel and Hardy, and Our Gang. Whereas many silent movie performers experienced difficulties transitioning to "talkies," the multifaceted Chase made the leap with the greatest of ease, possessing an enviously flexible vocal range which allowed him to croon many self-written songs when he wasn't using his equally perfect speaking voice.
Fortunately, time has not erased all of Charley Chase's efforts. Continued interest in the late genius' work has only grown since the dawn of the digital home video front, and various sets have been released to DVD from Sony Pictures, VCI Entertainment, and Kino International. And that wonderful commitment continues once again with this new two-disc set from The Sprocket Vault, Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies, Volume One: 1930-31. Presented here are 18 chronological shorts hailing from the illustrious Pre-Code era, several of which co-star the lovely Thelma Todd ‒ the beautiful, doll-eyed blonde who co-starred with Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Bros, and Wheeler & Woolsey before Hal Roach turned her into a leading comedienne.
Disc One of the set includes all of Charley's domestic solo shorts from 1930: The Real McCoy, Whispering Whoopee, All Teed Up, Fifty Million Husbands, Fast Work, Girl Shock, Dollar Dizzy, Looser Than Loose, and High C's. Disc Two features the whole of his 1931 starring vehicles made for US audiences: Thundering Tenors, The Pip from Pittsburg, Rough Seas, One of the Smiths, The Panic Is On, Skip the Maloo!, What a Bozo!, The Hasty Marriage. Also included (for those of you wondering why I said "domestic" and "made for US audiences" there) is the Spanish-language export version of The Pip from Pittsburg. Entitled La señorita de Chicago, it's a fascinating relic from the pre-dubbing days of film wherein stars had to read phonetic dialogue off-screen as best they could.
Hal Roach was one of the first studios to regularly experiment with this style, often filming several different versions of the same short, replacing supporting cast members with popular actors from whichever market they were shooting for. Anyone who has ever picked up RHI Entertainment's celebrated Laurel and Hardy: The Essential Collection has probably experienced the surreal sensation of seeing and hearing Stan and Ollie speak poorly-spoken Spanish (or Deutsch, if you've grabbed select DVD releases from Germany). To do so, they simply read off of blackboards and cue cards off-camera; their honored (and patient) foreign co-stars waiting comfortably for them to finish massacring the language so they could carry on.
As marvelous as it is seeing this entire gathering of Charley Chase shorts performing in his native tongue, La señorita de Chicago is something quite amazing in itself. Not because Chase was fluent in Español: He wasn't. But he was capable of rolling that (obviously well-written) phonetic dialogue off of his sharp tongue better than any other comic from the period (sorry, Buster Keaton), to the point where it almost sounds natural. Even if his eyes rarely ever stray whichever direction(s) his lines were hanging from. He even performs a new song ‒ in Spanish ‒ during this alternate expanded version of The Pip from Pittsburg. It's something I'm fairly certain even your old high school Spanish teacher would be impressed over.
Of course, that's just the tip of the iceberg here, as the original English-language shorts are where it's at. Well, most of them, at least. Every comedian cranked out the odd dud; Charley Chase was no exception. But the "lesser" comedies in this set are easily overlooked thanks to the inclusion of acclaimed shorts such as the aforementioned The Pip from Pittsburg. In it, Charley lets his good appearance, manners, and breath go in order to brush off a blind date his pal (Carlton Griffin) forces him into ‒ only to discover the woman in question (Thelma Todd) is a total knockout. James Parrott ‒ Chase's younger brother, who had also been an onscreen comic before helming many of Laurel & Hardy's best titles ‒ directs this hilarious classic.
Sometimes cited as being all-but-the-founder of the Screwball comedy, Chase's unique style of humor dives deep into the seas of embarrassment, presenting us with early situational comedies. Throughout the bulk of these shorts, the tall, lanky, handsome man with the little mustache appears as a thoroughly awkward feller thrust into one uncomfortable position after another. When a beautiful woman such as Thelma Todd or Dorothy Granger (another Hal Roach player who pops up in this set regularly) appears, he tends to turn into a graceless buffoon. Even then, he still manages to turn the tables against those who are out to exploit (or outright kill!) him, especially when he finds himself in a position to stick it to high society's snobby elite.
Additional highlights here include landowner Charley hiring escorts Thelma Todd and Anita Garvin to help him seal a deal, only to find the men interested in his property are old fuddy-duddies (Whispering Whoopee); Chase tearing it up on the golf course in a vain attempt to impress Miss Todd's father in All Teed Up; and the memorable Girl Shock, which finds our hero suffering from a form of hysteria whenever a woman touches him. The bizarre ending finds dozens of hospital nurses literally dying to get away. Another weird moment occurs at the end of Rough Seas ‒ a sequel to the Chase's WWI-themed High C's from the previous year ‒ where a passing passenger ship is nonchalantly sunk by Chase's mischievous pet monkey!
H.M. Walker, a prolific comedy writer of the era, is the credited author of many of these shorts, many of which were directed by James W. Horne. Also appearing in this collection are the comedic talents of slow burn maestros Edgar Buchanan and James Finlayson; studio regulars Charlie Hall, Eddie Dunn, and Baldwin Cooke (if you've seen Laurel and Hardy shorts, you've seen the aforementioned people, believe me); June Marlowe (seen in several Our Gang comedies as school teacher Miss Crabtree); and a rare meaty supporting role by Stanley J. Sandford ‒ better known as "Tiny" Sandford, a bit player who usually played a mostly silent foil ‒ in one of his most talkative roles. Naturally, there are a couple of cameos by the great Billy Gilbert, too.
Lastly worth noting in the casting department are a few minor names. The first ‒ or first two, rather ‒ being the occasional appearance of identical twins Betty Mae and Beverly Crane. While they didn't show up in many movies, they made a unique (cutesy) contribution to Hal Roach movies: the pair of 13-year-olds clad in identical outfits were filmed on a stage, as if they just walked out in front of moviehouse patrons live, wherein they proceeded to read the film's credits to the audience. There weren't many instances where a movie's credits were read out loud, and Hal Roach only briefly tinkered with this weird motif: the Crane Sisters all but disappeared from film altogether soon thereafter, but their odd contribution to film still stands out to movie buffs to this day.
The final name I wish to reference here is that of Dell Henderson, a stocky Canadian-born actor who appears in many of the shorts featured in Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies, Volume One: 1930-31, twice in the company of two other distinguished-looking performers, Carl Stockdale and Tenen Holtz. With well over 300 film appearances to his name, Mr. Henderson also directed over 200 hundred silent titles. His frequent presence in these classic Chase shorts reminds one of character greats Bud Jamison or Vernon Dent, the two most commonly seen heavies in Three Stooges shorts at Columbia Pictures. Not surprisingly, Mr. Henderson himself appeared in one of the Stooges' earliest shorts, 1934's Men in Black.
An Amazon Exclusive from The Sprocket Vault, Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies, Volume One: 1930-31 presents these classics in their original 1.37:1 aspect ratios. Culled from the best source material(s) available, the overall image quality is better than what I had expected, but anyone expecting immaculate restorations will be sorely disappointed. English (SDH) subtitles are included with each short, including (thankfully) the Spanish-language one. Surprisingly, an informative audio commentary from historian Richard M. Roberts for each and every (English-language) short, though the omission of a Play All option for the menu (as well as the fact the cursor returns to the top of the list each and every time) can be downright frustrating.
Still, there is a lot of classic movie history and laughs included in this set, so I have no choice than to give The Sprocket Vault's Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies, Volume One: 1930-31 high praise. It's a fine gathering of early sound featurettes from an incredibly versatile talent whom the world of comedy ‒ nay, the world itself ‒ and should properly whet the appetite of even those who are wholly unfamiliar with the lost talent of Charley Chase. Needless to say, I am thoroughly looking forward to the next set!