Judge William Lee is silent on 10-year-old bullies.
One of the great geniuses and stars of Hollywood's golden era of silent comedy.
Charley Chase (1893-1940) isn't a name that readily comes to mind when thinking of the great comedians from the era of classic silent movies but his contribution is significant. IMDb lists 278 titles in which he appeared in front of the camera and he also directed or wrote 181 films. This two-disc DVD set from Milestone Films has more than five hours of Chase's brand of humor during the height of his popularity. It's a collection that is sure to please fans and win new admirers.
Facts of the Case
Sixteen short films produced between 1924 and 1926 at Hal Roach Studios are spread over two discs. The first two films run about 12 minutes each. The rest are all "two-reel" films with a typical running time of 22 minutes. This is the order they appear on the DVDs:
• April Fool
Charles Joseph Parrott was a teenage vaudeville performer before he worked in films. He appeared in bit parts and then became a director for Hal Roach Studios. After Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!) left the studio in 1923, the performer adopted the screen name Charley Chase and returned to the spotlight to headline a series of shorts. In his films, Chase didn't possess the physical prowess of Buster Keaton (Our Hospitality), and he didn't exhibit the mannerisms of an outsider like Charlie Chaplin (The Great Dictator). Chase looked like a very average but dapper fellow: tall, well groomed, mustached and cleanly dressed. His roles placed him firmly among the working class. His character is often looking for work or scraping by as a clerk or salesman. Other times, he's learning to do manual labor (at an iron foundry) or aspiring to be a thief. His unimposing build was suited to scenarios where Chase's masculinity would be tested whether he was a privileged son forced to get his hands dirty or a hapless husband in domestic high jinks.
All but two of the films on this set were directed by Leo McCarey (Duck Soup) and the evidence shows they were a great comedy team. There is an emphasis on telling a story in these films and that works out better in some installments than others. Isn't Life Terrible? makes big narrative leaps taking Charley from a struggling salesman to being the winner of a competition to sell the most fountain pens. The one scene were he has a disastrous sales call to a young Fay Wray (Crime of Passion) suggests he is an awful salesman. But individual scenes like that, which start out as mundane situations, are mined for several good laughs.
Recurring references to Prohibition date the film but they also provide opportunity for gags that pit Charley against the police. Elaborate chases and stunts are not to be found here but it's very amusing to watch Charley's endurance, ingenuity and luck as he hides a crate of booze from the authorities by moving it through several rooms in Charley My Boy. Seeing these examples of the humor that existed during Prohibition—clearly ridiculing the Volstead Act supporters—adds a nice bit of cultural history. There is also some rather unfashionable humor that had me in stitches in The Fraidy Cat where Charley plays a coward who gets picked on by everyone. I know it's wrong but it was hilarious to see a grown man get some payback against a bunch of 10-year-olds.
There are many other moments that offer big laughs: Charley stuffing sponges in his tights before performing Shakespeare in Bromo and Juliet; his persistence in wanting to give his employer's father a bath instead of the dog in Dog Shy; and his moves on the dance floor in front of an angry mob in Bad Boy. Regular performers in these films include Katherine Grant, Oliver Hardy and Buddy the dog. Each one of them is a capable foil to Charley's antics.
The video quality of these 16 films varies somewhat but it's remarkable how good they look overall considering the age of these movies and that they've been largely forgotten until recently. A handful of films look pretty rough with faded blacks, heavy scratches and other damage to the print. These include April Fool, Be Your Age and Charley My Boy, which was mastered from a 16mm print and appear exclusively on this collection. Still, the picture still looks acceptable considering how old the sources for these films are. While the image isn't great, I had no problem seeing the action on screen.
The rest of the collection is considerably better but they all show some degree of wear and scratches appear over the image in different degrees. One of the best-looking films is The Uneasy Three, which was mastered from a 35mm print. The picture exhibits great contrast with deep blacks and crisp whites. All of the films are presented in 1.33:1 full frame format with slightly differing widths of window-boxing, which adds black bars to all four sides of the image.
The musical track is encoded on the DVDs in 5.1 surround sound but I only noticed a signal from the two front channels. These bouncy piano scores are the right accompaniment to the films but they aren't very memorable. A couple of films feature the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra and they offer an expanded range of sound with multiple instruments and sound effects specific to the action in a scene.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The care that has gone into presenting these films will be much appreciated by fans of silent films and admirers of Charley Chase. However, the set comes up empty in the extras. Aside from the brief biographical notes on the back of the box, there is no further information on Charley Chase. Nothing about his Hollywood career as a director, his sound films or his influence on future movie comedians. Nothing to place him in context with his contemporaries. Having never seen a Charley Chase film before, this set feels like a big discovery. So it's too bad these 16 films exist isolated from the rest of Charley's legacy.
What a joy it is to discover this comedic treasure trove. The stories may feel a bit repetitive if you're watching them in a marathon session but each one is so much fun individually. While I was preparing to write this review, several times I intended to sample just a part of a film to get a feel for it but wound up watching it all the way through. The narratives move along quickly and Charley's acting wins your attention easily. If you have some Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd in your DVD library, Cut to the Chase! belongs on the shelf right next to them.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Milestone Films
• IMDb: April Fool
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