George Formby was the UK’s biggest box office attraction for years on end. The grinning ukulele player and singer of funny, innuendo-riddled little songs (“With my little ukulele in my hand”; “I blew a little blast on my whistle”, etc – you get the idea) was mobbed all over the country as he played, and his tunes and catchphrases have entered the national consciousness.
He’s still loved by many, retaining a far more prominent profile than your average 1930s comedian, yet he is something of a guilty pleasure. Many look down on him snobbily, and he is the target of endless pastiches and parodies. (It’s amazing and a bit sad that many of the same old North-South divide prejudices that Formby faced in his lifetime are still here today). This nice little documentary from UK comedian Frank Skinner gives him his due, explaining his appeal and talent as a performer rather nicely.
Even this documentary doesn’t give much space to his films, which are often overlooked. Formby made 23 films, and all are usually dismissed as lightweight fluff in a sentence or two in most books or articles. Actually, beyond his songs, he was a fine performer, providing an updated version of the classic silent comedy model. They may not be terribly sophisticated, but his films are an important link between silent comedy, the music halls and the classic post-war Ealing comedies. Look at them with fresh eyes, and there’s plenty to enjoy, including some terrific visual gags, not to mention George doing his own stunts . I’ve added a page to the directory of comedians that mainly focuses on his film career, with a bit of biographical info added in:
Charley Chase is one of my very favourite comedians. Charming, wildly inventive and prolific, he turned out dozens of genuine comedy classics in the silent and sound eras. His sound films have always been difficult to see, but thanks to recent showings on TCM, are now coming to light, albeit via non-legit sources such as bootleg DVDs and, of course, YouTube. I’ve collated a few in this post for your viewing pleasure.
The received wisdom among comedy buffs and film critics is that Chase’s talkies are not quite up to the quality of his silents. Ok, it is true that the precision and consistency of his work from 1925-27 was never quite reached again. . Charley’s later films, beginning with his last silents, experimented more, having a more laissez faire approach to the comedy from film to film. Inevitably, some of these ideas were more successful than others, and so the films seemed less consistent.
If some of the films didn’t quite work out, they were balanced by an equal number of films that worked beautifully, succeeding to equal his silent work, often pushing his comedy in exciting new directions.
One particular group of films that most everyone agrees really did work out are those featuring his partnership with Thelma Todd. Chase and Todd made an absolutely wonderful team, appearing in romantic comedies with a real human warmth to them. Charley was always generous with his co-stars; unlike many comedians who barely used their leading ladies as more than decoration, he allowed Thelma to thrive as much more than just a pretty face. In contrast to many of the comedies of the time, they seem like a genuine couple, sharing human foibles. You can’t fake such chemistry, and it’s no surprise to hear that Chase and Todd were very close in real life, with many rumours of offscreen affairs.
First meeting: Charley & Thelma in ‘SNAPPY SNEEZER’
Their first film together was ‘SNAPPY SNEEZER’ (1929), and gradually Thelma’s roles built up to be more substantial. Even in the films where her role is fairly small, the chemistry between her and Charley is the highlight of the film. ALL TEED UP is a prime example; mainly less than stellar comedy of Chase as a rookie golfer, it’s highest spot comes at the beginning as Charley bumps into Thelma at a soda fountain and the pair are mistaken for a couple. Charley knew a good thing when he saw it and Thelma’s roles soon became much more prominent. In the best of their collaborations, the pair are virtually co-starred, each adding to the comedy and story. WHISPERING WHOOPEE has a great role for Thelma to show her versatility as a gum-chewing good-time gal hired by Charley to help ‘persuade’ some businessmen to buy his property. When they turn out to be strait-laced, Charley has to pass her off as a society girl.
DOLLAR DIZZY sees Charley inherit a fortune, and so he books himself into a swanky retreat. He soon becomes aware that gold-diggers are everywhere, as a series of girls all try similar tricks to woo him. Locking himself in his hotel room, he is unaware that millionaires Thelma has been double-booked into the same room. Thelma is also on guard for fortune hunters, and the pair each become convinced that the other has broken in to get a piece of the money. This sort of proto-screwball comedy, with Charley and Thelma both strong-willed and possessed of human weaknesses, is one of the special aspects in these films. Thelma isn’t just a piece of eye candy on a pedestal; she contributes actively to the comedy of the films.
LOOSER THAN LOOSE is, for me, one of the most under-rated Chase-Todd films of all. Charley has just got engaged to Thelma when his boss calls up. Charley is required to entertain one of the company’s clients. Unfortunately, this Mr Henderson insists on wild parties with good time girls, much to Thelma’s jealousy. She insists that she come along as one of the girls. Things go from bad to worse at the nightclub; the other girl is cackling Dorothy Granger who humiliates Henderson and comes on to Charley. This leads to an escalating scene wherein Thelma takes her revenge by costing up to Henderson; Charley responds by snuggling with Dorothy, leading Thelma to up the ante, and so on. With a similar plot to WHISPERING WHOOPEE, to me it stands above that film thanks to some subtle plot changes that heighten the effectiveness of the comedy. For one thing, the film places a focus on Charley and Thelma’s relationship at the centre of the situations, making us care about them more. Much of the funniest moments come less from gags, than their facial expressions: Charley’s pained look when he realises he’ll be in hot water with Thelma; a wonderfully acted scene of disappointment as Thelma sees her new engagement ring for the first time; the pair’s false smiles through gritted teeth. Best of all is the scene where the pair try to make each other jealous by flirting with their new partners: their giggly smiles are amusingly punctuated with snarls and sneers at each other! Secondly, Charley is now an underdog; he only goes along with the evening because his boss insists, and because he is at the mercy of the client’s whims. It’s a great little film, with a wonderful supporting cast and that catchy Leroy Shield music that makes Roach films of this era such a breeze.
Of course, most famous of all these films is THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG. This wonderful blind date comedy has written about many times before, so I won’t add anything – but here it is. Sadly, this is the only online version I can find – an off 16mm copy. But it’s better than nothing. This film really needs to be on DVD in proper quality! A Charley Chase box set would be nice actually… Well, I can dream, can’t I?
Charley and Thelma’s partnership was, ultimately, a victim of its own success. While Charley wanted to make the teaming permanent and make features, Hal Roach had other ideas. Thelma was made a star in her own right, teamed with Zasu Pitts, and later Patsy Kelly, in an attempt at creating a female Laurel & Hardy. While those films are great fun, they rarely rose to the height of the best Chase-Todd films, and we can only wonder what they might have done next. Thelma would be allowed back to co-star with Charley in one last short, ‘THE NICKEL NURSER’ (1932). This story of Charley being hired to teach a millionaire’s daughters the value of money, was a gem in its own way, featuring the return of the usual chemistry alongside some great sight gags, and a devastating Greta Garbo parody! Oh, and there’s Billy Gilbert, too. What’s not to like?
After Thelma moved on to other things, Charley changed direction too. He moved to playing a less confident, more henpecked character he called his ‘nance’ (THE NICKEL NURSER marks one of the first steps in this direction), and subsequently moved into more domestic comedies. He would continue to make some absolutely brilliant films that remain criminally underrated, but the special warmth and magic of these films with Thelma would never quite be repeated. How sad to think that these two young, vital and charming performers would both be gone less than a decade after the films were created. But what a pair they made.