One of my Facebook chums and I were having a chinwag about the latest DVD release from our friends at Kit Parker Films/The Sprocket Vault: Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume Two 1932-33. This two-disc collection, which “hit the streets” in mid-July this year (July 16), makes available the 15 two-reel comedies that funnyman Charles Joseph Parrott made for the “Lot of Fun” between 1932 and 1933. My friend and I reminisced about a time when the only way a film buff could access these treasures was through our friendly neighborhood classic movie bootlegger; suffice it to say, we’re giddy as schoolgirls about this official release, and firmly believe it was worth the wait.
In his splendid reference book Selected Short Subjects: From Spanky to The Three Stooges (a.k.a. The Great Movie Shorts), author-historian Leonard Maltin notes: “By 1932, the Charley Chase comedies started to be more consistent, with good products outweighing the bad.” The Tabasco Kid, which kicks off Talkies Volume Two, is prima facie evidence of this; a funny Western parody (the title is a play on The Cisco Kid) that allows Charley to play two roles (his regular persona and a Mexican bandit based on the real-life desperado that inspired the fictional Zorro), Tabasco features laugh-out-loud gags (the bit with harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler is riotous) and an engaging supporting performance from Chase’s pal Billy Gilbert (Billy’s the gout-plagued father of Charley’s fiancée [Frances Lee, in her only short for Roach]) while allowing Charley to display his remarkable fluency in Spanish (this came in handy in a short that I’ll reference here in a moment).
The Tabasco Kid was made at a time when there was a bit of upheaval at the Roach Studio; I’ll spare you the office politics details but you’ll get the complete skinny by listening to the audio commentary on the DVD’s shorts, provided by comedy film historian (and friend of the blog) Richard M. Roberts. Chase himself left the studio for a brief period after completing First in War (1932)—Hal Roach, cognizant that he was losing one of his studio’s most valuable assets (and also realizing that Charley’s director brother James might follow his sibling out the door), quickly offered his star a new contract and greater creativity in his two-reel efforts.
With his new contract came a new leading lady; the vivacious Thelma Todd, who was such a gem in earlier Chase shorts like Looser Than Loose (1930) and The Pip from Pittsburg (1931) (both of which were previously released in the collection Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume One 1930-31, reviewed here on the blog), had moved on to her own starring series with ZaSu Pitts (also available from The Sprocket Vault and reviewed here) and was no longer accessible (her valedictory Chase short, The Nickel Nurser , is on this set). Charley’s leading lady in In Walked Charley (1932) was Julie Bishop (billed as Jacqueline Wells) and Nancy Torres fulfilled that duty in First in War. Young Ironsides (1932) would be the debut Chase short for Muriel Evans, perhaps the comedian’s best partner outside of Thelma. Ironsides is one of my favorite Chase outings: as “Fearless,” Charley is hired by gazillionaire Clarence Wilson to keep his daughter (Muriel) out of a beauty pageant. Charley later meets Muriel on the train trip en route to the contest, oblivious as to who she really is. There are some hilarious oceanfront gags in this short and a funny Billy Gilbert cameo (as a “pansy”) plus the chemistry between Charley and Muriel is positively sublime. (I’ve been running into Evans in a few Buck Jones pictures of late, as some of his Universal oaters have been getting a recent showcase on Starz Encore Westerns.)
Now We’ll Tell One (1932) is another treasured pick of mine (and recently made the rounds on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™); an inventor demonstrates his latest boon to mankind in the form of a belt that allows the personality of a test subject to be transferred to the individual wearing it. Charley comes into possession of the accessory, and finds himself transformed into a motorcycle stunt rider, a drunk, and a prizefighter (among the many adopted personas). Nature in the Wrong (1933) has also been featured on TCM—Charley, upset at the lack of blue blood he needs to marry Muriel (her mother [Nora Cecil] is most disapproving), is tricked by his rival (Carlton Griffin) into thinking he’s a descendant of Tarzan (of “of the Apes” fame). Chase is knocked unconscious while attempting some Tarzan-like stunts and ends up having a wild hallucination that he really is Tarzan (there’s even a funny “MGM/Leo the Lion” reference). Actress Mary Gordon plays Charley’s landlady, which required me to shout “Mrs. ‘udson!” when she first appeared onscreen.
There are two shorts on the first disc of this collection—Girl Grief (1932) and Mr. Bride (1932)—that are held in very high regard by Charley Chase fans…but I’m going to go against orthodoxy and admit that I’m not particularly enamored with either of them. Many, many years ago I owned a videocassette of Roach Studio shorts in which Grief was included…and even though I wasn’t impressed with it at the time I decided I needed a second glance to re-evaluate. A reworking of his earlier What Women Did for Me (1927), Grief casts Charley a girl-shy momma’s boy who winds up having to teach at an all-girl’s school. There’s a nice little musical interlude where the women in Charley’s music class scat-sing Seeing Nellie Home (it reminded me of the Swingin’ the Alphabet number from the Three Stooges’ Violent is the Word for Curly , which Charley directed), but the protracted comedic highlight with the cats just leaves me stone-faced. Author James Neibaur calls Girl Grief “one of the best two-reel comedies of the 1930s” in his reference The Charley Chase Talkies: 1929-1940. Your mileage may vary, of course.
Jim is also enthusiastic about Bride, calling it “brilliant” and “so edgy, so completely absurd.” Charley’s boss (Dell Henderson) is planning to tie the matrimonial knot but is so concerned that it come off without a hitch that he “rehearses” with employee Charley as “Mrs. Henderson.” Bride is a good example of how Robert Youngson once described Chase’s comedy as “one long embarrassing moment” and again—I freely admit I’m the odd man out here because the short just doesn’t play all that funny to me. (I’d be curious to check out a Chase silent that features similar material, 1925’s Chasing Husbands.) Mr. Bride marked the last collaboration between Charley and his director brother James; Parrott, plagued with substance abuse problems (he died tragically in 1939, an event that his brother was convinced was somehow his fault), left the “Lot of Fun” and though he returned intermittently to write and direct for Roach he would never direct Charley again.
The second disc of Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume Two 1932-33 spotlights some of the best two-reelers from the comedian’s reign at Roach. I’m exuberant about Fallen Arches (1933); I’ll concede the running gag where Charley takes everything said to him literally (boss Billy Gilbert remarks “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse!” prompting Charley to order Gilbert one for lunch) gets old very quickly but once Chase is on his way to San Francisco (Billy has instructed him to “hike” on out there and Charley is all-too-eager to please) the sight gags come fast and furious (I love the crutch bit), culminating in a hilarious sequence where Charley tries to maneuver James Morton’s automobile out of the mud and winds up in a water-filled pit. (Chase originally did this in one of his silent comedies, All Wet , and reworked the bit again when he went to work for Columbia for The Awful Goof .)
In Midsummer Mush (1933), Charley is a Scoutmaster taking his troop on a camping trip when he “meets cute” with Betty Mack (his new leading lady) and seemingly discovers endless variations on how to fall into a lake fully-clothed. His Silent Racket (1933) is another of my all-time favorites; James Finlayson (“D’ohhhh…”) snookers Charley into becoming a partner in his cleaning establishment (Fin’s charade of how the store is doing gangbusters business is just priceless) where our hero squares off against a protection racket and a bomb planted by those gangsters. (Thrilling Days of Yesteryear fave Anita Garvin plays Mrs. Fin in this one, so the first time I saw it I was prepared to like it from the get-go.)
The final short in the collection is Luncheon at Twelve (1933), which finds Charley going to work for “interior decorator” Billy Gilbert as he, Billy, and Jimmie Adams are hired to spruce up the home of dowager Greta Van Geldt (played by silent film comedienne Gale Henry!), who’s throwing a societal shindig at the same time. The highlight of Luncheon features the decorating trio painting a table…and getting more paint on themselves than the furniture. If this sounds familiar, it’s because Charley recycled the sequence for another Three Stooges comedy he directed (and one of their finest), Tassels in the Air (1938). Admittedly, the slapstick material served Moe, Larry and Curly better but it’s still funny in Charley’s hands (if Gilbert’s involved you know it’s going to be gold) and while the decision to end the short with a kicking rendition of Oh, Desdemona might be an odd one (the swanky affair turns into a Savoy-stompin’ dance party, with an ash can collector [Jack Barty] tripping the light fantastic with Henry) it’s so infectiously fun I didn’t mind.
There is a bonus short included on Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume Two 1932-33—the four-reel Spanish version of Looser Than Loose, Una cana al aire (1930). If you haven’t seen Loose, I don’t recommend you watch Una cana al aire until you’ve done so but once you’ve completed that assignment it’s a fascinating curio with Charley handling the Español most convincingly (these comedies were filmed with the foreign language presented phonetically out of camera range to help the non-language speaking actors). You’ll lose the participation of Thelma Todd, Dell Henderson, and Dorothy Granger, of course, but it’s something you should watch at least once.
I’ll make no bones about it: I’m a bit biased when it comes to releases like this because I’m both a fan of Charley Chase and two-reel comedies, but if you’re as fond of these classic shorts as I am you’re going to want to hie yourself to Amazon and slip Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume Two 1932-33 into your shopping basket. (If you do this…my sources report that there may be future Chase collections on the way, something I think we can all get behind.) The inclusion of such divertissements as Young Ironsides, Now We’ll Tell One, Fallen Arches, His Silent Racket and so many more makes it a moral imperative.