Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New On DVD: Retrospective Of Silent Film Comedy Innovator by Paul F. Etcheverry

"Charley Chase's run of Pathe two reelers from 1925 through 1927 are an astonishing group -- two dozen comedies, each with carefully crafted gag situations that aren't repeated, almost every film a gem. The only track record comparable are the Laurel & Hardy silent MGM shorts of 1927-1929. The few Chase MGM silents that escaped a fate of nitrate decomposition (such as THE STING OF STINGS and LIMOUSINE LOVE) are equally outstanding." Historian Ed Watz, author (with Ted Okuda) of The Columbia Comedy Shorts

Prolific writer-director-comedian Charley Chase - some of you may know him from his role as "the practical joker" in Laurel and Hardy's Sons Of The Desert (1933) - just got some more of his due recognition earlier today.

All Day Entertainment released Becoming Charley Chase, a 4-DVD box set spanning his early career in silent films. While it's a good bet that many of this blog's readers know who Charley Chase (A.K.A. Charles Parrott) was and have seen some of his films, as well the classic two-reelers he directed at Columbia Pictures for The Three Stooges, even fans may not be aware of his importance in film and comedy history.

Chase, along with fellow innovators Harry Langdon and Lloyd Hamilton, essentially changed film history in the mid-1920's by bringing a less frantic, more sophisticated and varied approach to both slapstick and that bastard child of entertainment, the comedy short subject. All three expanded the screen comedy palette. Chase in particular added more sophisticated storylines to classic sight gag humor.

Prior to that, sophisticated comedy and slapstick were strictly separate genres, especially in short films. Sophisticated comedy, exemplified by the popular Mr. And Mrs. Sidney Drew, primarily stuck to pratfall-free but absurdity-filled marital farces. Slapstick - epitomized by the "louder, faster, shorter" school of Mack Sennett, Henry Lehrman and Larry Semon, the king of epic sight gag spectacle - was a rip-roaring characterization-free zone where guys with gargantuan mustaches ran around frantically, threw pies, destroyed cars, water towers crashed, fat guys got doused with gallons of goo, little guys scampered on skyscrapers, lions chased terrified actors, stuff "blowed up real good". . . and stuntmen worked hard, very hard.

Charley Chase mastered all of the above: directed marital farces starring Mr. And Mrs. Carter DeHaven, slapstick for Sennett, Hal Roach (the Snub Pollard series) and Chaplin imitator Billy West, as well as Lloyd Hamilton, whose 1920's and 1930's comedies blend sight gag humor with subtle acting, deliberate timing and an eternally world-weary sad sack characterization. Charley also was among the creative team that developed the Our Gang comedy series for Hal Roach in 1921-1922.

By merging elements of the two genres, as well as fostering a more character-driven approach with Our Gang, Chase changed the very nature of film humor, paving the way for both Laurel & Hardy and the screwball comedy genre that became popular just a few years later.

Although he has been hailed as the originator of situation comedy and aptly compared to Dick Van Dyke (especially Dick's 1960-1965 TV series, created by Carl Reiner), Charley Chase also points forward to quite a few comedians both in and outside of that genre who became prominent long after his death in 1940. The clever invention of his ideas recalls Ernie Kovacs. The contrast between an everyman and a host of improbable, bizarre and wacky things that can happen brings to mind an equally funny guy whose style is very different from Chase: the great Bob Newhart, master of standup comedy and the sitcom. And his mannerisms - especially in such still hilarious films as Mighty Like A Moose (1926) - often make me think of The Goons and The Pythons (watch the Ministry Of Silly Walks sketch and then reference Charley's inebriated gait in His Wooden Wedding).

The 4-DVD set traces his artistic development and features a selection of short and sweet one-reel short subjects he starred in and co-directed with Leo McCarey.

It includes over 40 silent shorts from Chase's early years in movies, both as actor and director, and chronologically moves from his first directorial efforts for Mack Sennett, later films he made as a freelancing director (including one in which he co-stars with the always fabulous Oliver "Babe" Hardy - before either worked at the Hal Roach Studio) and Chase's re-invention as starring performer.

I extend big time thanks to David Kalat, Robert Blair at VCI Entertainment and all the film historians - Ben Model, Robert Arkus, Richard M. Roberts, Paul Gierucki, Rob Farr, Yair Solan, Bruce Lawton, Dave Stevenson - who contributed to this. If you love classic comedy and film history, buy it.

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