In August of last year, I prematurely announced that our good friends at The Sprocket Vault would begin releasing Charley Chase shorts to DVD, beginning with a 2-disc release of the comedian’s output in 1930 and 1931 in November. The news of this release was warmly received by the Facebook fans that propagate a lot of the classic comedy congregations on that social platform (groups devoted to slapstick comedy, Charley Chase, the Hal Roach Studios, etc.) and when the collection was finally made available at Amazon, there was much rejoicing among them. My fellow movie maven Cliff Weimer, who makes certain the boxes of Jujubes and Raisinettes are aligned perfectly straight In the Balcony, remarked that he had been waiting for thirty years for a Chase collection like this…and once it came to fruition, he was one happy movie collector.
I know just how he feels. I’ve been a Charley Chase fan since childhood, when I was first exposed to the shorts he made for Columbia before his passing in 1940 (I talked about them here and here and here) and they were shown along with other studio funnymen (the Three Stooges, Andy Clyde, etc.) on WCHS-TV in Charleston, WV. I’ve also been fortunate that I’ve painstakingly put together a collection of his silent and sound efforts from Roach, where Charley achieved his greatest fame; there have been some first-rate compilations of his silent output from VCI, Kino-Lorber, Milestone, etc. but on the sound side of the ledger you more often than not had to either patronize mom-and-pop establishments or pray that The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ would stick a Charley comedy in between scheduled features instead of their umpteenth Pete Smith Specialty.
I got wind of the news about Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies, Volume One 1930-31 from Facebook compadre Rodney Bowcock—a bulletin that was not without controversy, because The Sprocket Vault/VCI didn’t really want it circulating until the particulars were solidified. (The miscreant who leaked this bombshell—and I cannot stress this enough: it wasn’t Rodney—has been rounded up and is being disciplined by having to watch an endless loop of Irvin S. Cobb shorts.) The set was released in January of this year, and when I received a screener I danced a little jig of joy, knowing that I was going to enjoy revisiting some of my favorite Chase outings (I saw a few of the comedies that are on the set when TCM did their Hal Roach tribute a few years back) as well as being introduced to some unfamiliar ones. However, there is a set-in-stone rule that you must finish dinner before you can have dessert…and with my assignments for Radio Spirits completed, I was ready to devour Volume One with relish.
I’ll get right to the point: this Sprocket Vault/VCI release is one of the most important classic movie DVDs of 2018. I know—my opinion has a undisguised streak of bias running through it; nevertheless, if you push my lifelong love of movie comedy aside I think you’ll agree that having these cinematic treasures from the Hal Roach “Lot of Fun” accessible to fans is essential at a time when classic movie DVDs are becoming more and more a niche market…and some blasphemers are considering getting out of the physical media business altogether. The films of Charley Chase are timeless mirth generators spotlighting a hard-working movie comedian whose cinematic domain was the two-reeler. Film historian Richard M. Roberts, who not only co-produced the release but contributed commentaries for all the individual shorts wrote the following for a booklet that was originally going to accompany the Becoming Charley Chase set when it was originally going to be an All Day Entertainment release (and it’s still an excellent assessment):
In his fifteen years as a comedy star for Hal Roach and Columbia pictures, Chase produced a product so consistent in its fine quality that contemporary critics grew tired of finding new superlatives and simply announced “another typical Charley Chase comedy” to their readers. 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.
One of the pluses of Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies, Volume One 1930-31 is that there is so much material in this collection to be enjoyed it’s impossible to do so in one sitting. I had my hands full just finishing all the shorts to complete this review in a timely manner; I was only able to listen to Richard’s commentary on The Real McCoy (1930) so I have all those other commentaries waiting (and I’m going to enjoy them all—it is good to save dessert for last!). Roberts is the author of Smilage Guaranteed: Past Humor, Present Laughter, an exhaustive reference on the Roach Studios that I reviewed over at the blog’s former stomping grounds, and in the McCoy commentary, the whiners who were wondering why this release didn’t start with the 1929 talkies will learn that those half-a-dozen shorts were ones with sound-on-disc and that it was easier to start the distribution package with McCoy.
Richard’s attention to detail even extends to the folk song that Charley sings in the short–”Naomi Wise”—he fills in the background about this engaging tune, which I must admit is the highlight of an otherwise unremarkable short. Chase did a number of “hillbilly-themed” comedies (another is on this collection, 1931’s One of the Smiths) that I have to admit leave me rather stone-faced in light of my Mountain State origins. (The only “hillbilly” humor that makes me titter regularly involves two men running a general store down in Pine Ridge.) Volume One features a few shorts that are admittedly more funny-interesting than funny-ha-ha; still, I was most taken with Thundering Tenors (1931), which features Charley as a “radio singer” invited to a swanky society party. Mistaken for a butler by the hostess, he’s asked to ensure the place settings at dinner are “proper” and his suggestion is that while the hostess needs to lose a few of the forks it’s okay to keep two knives (one for cutting and one for eating). The second half of Tenors can’t quite measure up to the first (Charley gets a fishbone stuck in his throat and is at the mercy of an osteopath he winds up wrestling in the living room), but the hostess sequence is one of the funniest things I’ve seen Chase do.
Let me concentrate on the strengths of Volume One. Whispering Whoopee (1930), one of my favorite Chase comedies, is on this set; Charley hires a quartet of “goodtime gals” (Thelma Todd, Anita Garvin, Kay Deslys, Dolores Brinkman) to entertain some clients who are interested in a piece of real estate he wants to sell. The clients turn out to be a trio of dour-faced lemon suckers (Del Henderson, Carl Stockdale, Tenen Holtz) who eventually thaw out during a game of “Post Office” with the girls, and the proceedings eventually snowball into a tipsy fight with seltzer bottles. Looser Than Loose (1930) has a similar premise: Charley is assigned to babysit a client (Henderson again) but his fiancée (Thelma!) disapprovingly demands that she go along as one of two girls enlisted to entertain. When the other girl, Maizie (Dorothy Granger), commits a faux pas by revealing Henderson’s toupee to all and sundry, Del demands that Charley switch ladies with him. There’s a scene in Loose where Charley and Thelma bicker in low tones about the evening while holding up menus to their faces that is positively riotous.
Thelma Todd was one of Charley’s first leading ladies in his talkie shorts and the one many maintain was the best; they had a marvelous chemistry (on…and offscreen, as is gossiped) and seeing them interact in outings like Dollar Dizzy (1930), High C’s (1930), and Rough Seas (1931) is a sheer delight. These three shorts were departures from the usual two-reel formula (each of them runs three reels); normally I find that the Roach three-reelers suffer from too much padding (there are exceptions to the rule, like the Laurel & Hardy comedies Another Fine Mess  and the Academy Award-winning The Music Box ) but the Chase three-reelers don’t seem to be hindered by the protracted length. High C’s and Rough Seas even tell a continuous story (both feature the same players), with Charley a WWI doughboy who’d rather sing than fight (the musical numbers no doubt dictated the extra reel)—you could make an interesting short feature just editing the two together.
Thelma is also the leading lady in The Pip from Pittsburg (1931), acknowledged by Chase fans to be one of his finest comedies; Charley is roped into a blind date with Thelma by his pal Carlton Griffin and because of a previous bad experience with a woman from “the Steel City,” he decides to make himself repulsive to Ms. Todd: he refuses to shave, wears a shabby suit, and munches on garlic. He’s stunned, of course, by Thelma’s loveliness (as are we all) and during a dance they’re attending goes to hilarious steps to make himself more presentable (using a perfume dispenser as a mouthwash, for starters). As a bonus, Volume One features the Spanish version of Pittsburg, La señorita de Chicago; the supporting cast is replaced by Latino actors, but Charley not only speaks the language well he even sings in Spanish! (This short runs a reel longer to accommodate Chase’s warbling and extra dialogue/business here and there.)
By the time of the final short on the Volume One collection—The Hasty Marriage (1931)—Charley Chase seems to have found the comfortable niche he would occupy in The Land of Two-Reelers; Marriage is a delightful situational romp where Charley must quickly marry his girlfriend (Gay Seabrook, “the poor man’s Gracie Allen”) to secure a job with a streetcar company. Plenty of fun slapstick in this one (directed by Billy Gilbert!), with James “D’ohhhhh” Finlayson in a wonderfully sympathetic role as Seabrook’s father (he prefers Charley to Gay’s other suitor, the loutish Eddie Dunn).
Fans of classic film comedy need to put this in their Amazon shopping cart right away, and both Richard M. Roberts and Kit Parker deserve an appreciative round of applause for their fine work on this 2-disc collection. There are many more Charley Chase gems to come…but the Thrilling Days of Yesteryear faithful needs to do their part in supporting these releases. There’ll also more Hal Roach goodies recently released by the Vault to be reviewed here on the blog, so watch this space.