In a booklet that was originally supposed to accompany the DVD collection Becoming Charley Chase (it’s still online—which was a tremendous relief because the copy I downloaded succumbed to the recent hard drive clusterfudge), Richard M. Roberts had this nice take on why the comedian didn’t do more feature film work: “He wasn’t particularly ambitious. Chase never reached beyond the two-reel form with any seriousness, nor was he ever promoted by Roach with the zeal reserved for Laurel and Hardy, the reigning stars on the lot. Chase was popular with audiences, and they expected and enjoyed his monthly appearance before the feature program. They seemed satisfied with the twenty minutes they spent with him. They never clamored for more, and he never offered.”
Chase did appear in a handful of features. His best known is his delightful turn as the obnoxious conventioneer (and brother-in-law of Oliver Hardy) in Sons of the Desert (1933), and three years later appeared alongside Patsy Kelly in the Hal Roach-produced Kelly the Second (1936). The 1929 feature Chase made for Universal, Modern Love, was restored a few years back; I haven’t been fortunate to see this one but it did make the film festival circuit, notably Hollywood’s Cinecon (44) in 2008. The only other feature on Charley’s cinematic C.V. (to my knowledge) is The King of Wild Horses (1924), which I did sit down with this week. It features Mr. Chase (billed as Charles Parrott) in a “straight” role in a Roach feature starring the Rin-Tin-Tin of movie equines, Rex, the Wonder Horse.
The Wonder Horse goes by “The Black” in this oater (the nag actually answered to “Casey Jones” in his debut film before switching to “Rex” for subsequent films), and he’s the object of obsession by a cowpoke named Billy Blair (Léon Bary), who has sworn to capture and tame the wild stallion…and gets that opportunity when he saves The Black from perishing in a raging inferno that erupts in his stomping grounds. Towards the end of the film, Blair decides to give The Black his freedom…and the horse briefly returns to his old environs before deciding that domestication isn’t such a terrible existence—after all, Billy is getting ready to settle down with a filly of his own, Mary Fielding (Edna Murphy).
Mixed into this story of a boy and his horse is a subplot involving Mary’s brother Boyd (Charley), who’s deep in debt to Wade Galvin (Pat Hartigan), the unscrupulous foreman of his father’s (Sidney De Gray) ranch. (A title card reads that Boyd’s precarious financial situation is due to “questionable gambling methods,” which made me laugh out loud.) I’ve read in some places where Charley is described as the villain of the piece…which isn’t entirely accurate—he’s more like the poor boob who gets in over his head and is forced to do Galvin’s bidding. Chase was cast in this movie about the time he was pressed into inaugurating the “Jimmie Jump” comedy series at Roach (once studio star Harold Lloyd struck out on his own), and I was tickled to no end seeing him doing something a bit out of his element.
That having been said, I don’t think Wild Horses is as good as the other Rex film I reviewed previously on the blog—No Man’s Land (1927), which features a pair of comedic faces in Oliver Hardy (as the despicable Sharkey Nye) and James Finlayson. The weakness in Horses is that the plot concentrates on the taming of the “king,” which to be honest is a little bit of a tough slog at times—I think a better way to approach this would have been too have the Blair character reminisce to Mary Fielding how he made the acquaintance of his horse friend through flashbacks, allowing a lot of the dull man-and-horse sequences to be trimmed. Land concentrates mostly on the human characters in its plot, and seems to only have Rex around whenever Hardy’s villain starts to display filthy intentions toward Barbara Kent’s heroine.
I’m not sorry I watched King of Wild Horses—it has been on my “must-see” list for a good while now—but I must come clean here and admit that I cheated on this one a bit. See, I purchased a DVD from Oldies.com that paired Horses with No Man’s Land and as Horses started to unspool in my DVD player I couldn’t help but notice that the picture quality left a lot to be desired—it was a terribly dark and murky print. (I knew reading the title cards was going to be tough even though the movie isn’t particularly dialogue-driven.) Drawing on my imperfect memory, I vaguely remembered seeing it listed on YouTube…and while that print had its share of problems it wasn’t as much of a chore to watch as the Alpha version. If you’re a Charley Chase fan (and if you aren’t—what’s your excuse, Bunky?), you’ll get a giggle out of seeing the man whose life was “one long embarrassing moment” ride tall in the saddle.