Charley Chase at Hal Roach

Three Gender-Bending Comedies from Hal Roach studios

Old films give us a window into the cultures, values and everyday norms of the past, and comedies sometimes hold up the mirror to society best of all. Although silent comedies rarely tackled politics head-on, they often took inspiration from current events and trends, and people’s attitude to them. Often this was in passing, but sometimes comics went the whole hog to make satires. The Suffrage moment became a favourite topic for comedy; many men in the male-dominated society felt threatened by the increasing voice of women, and this was reflected in comedic portrayals of fearsome battleaxes. As the 1920s rolled on, the increasingly confident and empowered flapper generation began to be represented in films, with wonderful performers like Clara Bow, Dorothy Devore and Marie Prevost flying the flag for contemporary women.

However, not all welcomed such developments. The narrow-minded mutterings in some quarters that skirts were getting too short and things really were going too far were ripe for spoofing. Emasculated men having to deal with the housework became a comedy staple, but the gagwriters at the Hal Roach studios went one step further and made some wonderfully silly and surreal films where genders were bent as men and women swapped roles fully. They weren’t trying to make a serious point, just having some fun and trying to make good comedy that would resonate with their audiences. Nevertheless, the films give a fascinating insight into what was considered conventional for each gender in the 1920s.

In 1922, the gagmen and performers had great fun playing with exaggerated gender stereotypes in Snub Pollard’s YEARS TO COME. Set in a future where men’s and women’s roles are reversed, it offers the amusingly goofy sight of the heavily moustached Pollard and the usually tough and burly Noah Young delighting in incongruous feminine mannerisms.

The Roach gagmen always liked to revist a good idea, and in 1926 they remodelled the basic idea of YEARS TO COME with another moustachioed comic, Clyde Cook. WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? was even dafter than the original, and mocks the more ridiculous gender conventions of Hollywood film for all they are worth. To this end, we get James Finlayson as a shrewish father-in-law (“about to bear up bravely as his little one is wrenched from his apron strings”), and Laura de Cardi as a caddish lounge-lizard, as well as a series of ridicuously surreal visions of an outlandish future.

This gag-happy little film was co-written by Stan Laurel and Frank Terry (It is Terry who makes a cameo as a man in a window, not Laurel as often stated. Sorry, Stan Fans!) For many years known primarily in a one-reel cutdown, WHAT’S THE WORLD COMING TO? has been restored to its full glory, and kindly shared online by The San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

Roach comedian Charley Chase had a theory that comedy ideas could be recycled around every seven years. Sure enough, in the mid-30s he began reaching back to some older plots from the silent era. 1935’s OKAY TOOTS! was maybe inspired by the two previous films. Though not a remake of them, it takes a similar approach in playing with gender roles. In fact, it anticipates FREAKY FRIDAY as Charley and his wife Toots (Jeanie Roberts) swap bodies, each speaking with the other’s voice as Charley gets a lesson not to take all his wife does for granted. It’s a bizarre little film – unlike the previous two shorts, Charley and Jeanie do not outwardly look or dress like the opposite sex, but everyone accepts them as such without question. Chase’s impotent indignation as a group of housewives give him an enforced makeover is a highlight, as is his variation on a parallel parking routine used by Lloyd Hamilton and W.C.Fields. Look out for a funny bit from Charlie Hall at his most menacing too!

Though these films and the conventions they spoof are obviously very dated now, they remain interesting artefacts of their times – and more importantly, they’re still funny!

Not-so-silent Racket: More Charley Chase classics on DVD

I’m a bit late to the party on this one, but I’ve been away travelling for a few weeks and have only just had time to digest the magnificence of Sprocket Vault’s latest heroic venture into the Hal Roach vaults.

If you’ve had a browse around this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a huge Charley Chase fan. Playing an ordinary man to whom extraordinary things happened, his mixture of natural human comedy with outlandish plots and gags are a knockout combination. To me, Chase had one of the most fertile minds of any of the great comics, and yes, I include Chaplin, Keaton, Laurel et al in that. He’s also one of the most charming performers. Add to his comedic gifts the wonderful Hal Roach stock company and Le Roy Shield music so familiar from the Laurel & Hardy films, and you have an incredibly likeable body of work.

As with volume 1 of this series, I have to begin by awarding this DVD five stars simply for existing. It’s too easy to forget the limbo these films were in for far too long, difficult to see without access to a 16mm print library. Quite simply, nobody wanted to put this stuff out there. I remember first reading about these films in Leonard Maltin’s book THE GREAT MOVIE SHORTS years ago and longing to see them. After spotty acquisitions of the forbidden fruits via TCM, Ebay, old VHS from friends, mailing lists and the like, I finally picked up an almost-complete set of the films on bootleg DVD in 2009. Looking at these beaten up ex-VHS or 16mm transfers made my eyes water and did the films no favours at all. Nevertheless, I treasured those discs as the rare jewels they were, and assumed it was the best I would ever get.

Not so. Fast forward ten years and here’s the second chronological set in Sprocket Vault’s series. Not only are the films now on an official DVD, but they look beautiful, feature original titles and come with authoritative commentaries. If that weren’t enough, there are bonus features, including an incredibly rare Spanish-language version of Chase’s LOOSER THAN LOOSE, UN CANA EL AIRE!

What about the films themselves, though? How do those forbidden fruits taste? Well, if you’re not a completist and this is your first Chase purchase, you won’t be disappointed. Of the shorts featured here, at least four are among my all-time favourite Chase films, and most of the rate between good and excellent, too.

For a bit of context, these fifteen shorts were all made in 1932-33. Chase had settled into sound well by now and so the early talkie clunkiness is now almost entirely gone. He was starting to change his approach, adopting a more fussy, nervous character more suited to a man approaching 40 than the young man about town of his earlier work. For several of the films here he worked with brother James Parrott as director, an always fruitful partnership that inspired some creative comedies.

YOUNG IRONSIDES is one of the best films he ever made, full of original sight gags and situations that come thick and fast as Charley is hired to prevent Muriel Evans from taking part in a beauty competition. It develops into a three way game of cat and mouse between Charley, Muriel and a suspicious house detective tailing them both, with the highlight coming as Charley fashions himself a grass skirt of collars and enters the pageant as ‘Miss Hamburg’!

HIS SILENT RACKET is another classic, with Charley conned into being a partner in James Finayson’s failed dry cleaning business. Lots of great characters and visual gags in this one.

FALLEN ARCHES, IN WALKED CHARLEY, GIRL GRIEF and MR BRIDE are all other favourites of mine. The last is a particularly daring (for 1932) comedy in which Charley must act as a bride for his fastidious boss Del Henderson on a rehearsal honeymoon! The scenes of Charley being forced into a feminine role amidst everyone’s presumptions that they are a gay couple are very unusual, and take Chase’s comedy of embarrassment to new extremes.

Even more experimental are the technocratic NOW WE’LL TELL ONE, surreal ARABIAN TIGHTS and bizarre Tarzan spoof NATURE IN THE WRONG. Ever wanted to hear a lion speak with the voice of James Finlayson? Of course you have. Well, here’s your chance!

In fact, for L & H fans, there are lots of moments where the familiar stock company players shine: Anita Garvin vamps Charley in HIS SILENT RACKET; Billy Gilbert does his best Germanic bluster in LUNCHEON AT TWELVE; James C Morton and Eddie Dunn pop up in FALLEN ARCHES. You also get an introduction to some other great Roach co-stars who didn’t appear with the boys, including Gale Henry and Jimmie Adams. Richard Roberts’ commentaries fill in lots of great detail on these performers, by the way.

The leading lady for most of these films is Muriel Evans, who is a charming performer, if not quite Thelma Todd. Thelma does make one appearance, in THE NICKEL NURSER, a wonderful, underrated comedy with Charley an efficiency expert hired to teach a millionaire’s daughters the value of money. Throw in a Greta Garbo-esque maid, a jealous butler and some deception, and you have a bedroom farce worthy of Chase’s silents.

Of course, being a chronological set, you do get the ebb and flow of inspiration that naturally comes with any art form. Chase’s personal and professional lives were both strained at the time, and occasionally it shows with less inspired films like SHERMAN SAID IT or FIRST IN WAR. However, even the lesser efforts are watchable, thanks to Chase’s charm and natural humour.

In conclusion, if you’re at all a fan of the Hal Roach studios, this (along with volume 1) is an essential purchase. If this set is your entry point to Chase, I envy you – there’s loads to enjoy here and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. If, like me, you’re familiar with the films, you’ll see them with fresh eyes in this quality and learn lots from the commentary tracks. Of course, for Chase devotees, the inclusion of UNA CANA EL AIRE is worth the price of admission alone. Like many of Roach’s phonetic versions, it’s much longer than its English language equivalent, and features extra gags. Among the gems are some funny toupee gags, and a brilliant moment as Charley tries to cross a crowded dancefloor.

I’m so grateful that this DVD exists. Thanks to Richard M Roberts and Kit Parker at The Sprocket Vault for making it happen.

So, what are you waiting for? Go buy it!

Oh, and if you want more detailed discussion of the films, take a look at the Chase article in issue 9 of THE LOST LAUGH MAGAZINE, which covers his films from this period.