Thelma Todd

(Whispering) Whoopee! Charley Chase talkies on DVD

Charley Chase: At Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume One 1930-31Charley Chase has gone from being an under-represented figure  on home video releases to having much of his classic work out there in superior quality. Thanks to DVD releases from Kino, AllDay Entertainment and Milestone films, a majority of his existing silent work can now be widely seen. In recent years, even his late sound shorts for Columbia have even been pulled from the vaults and released by Sony.

All this is extremely heartening, but the holy grail has always been his Hal Roach sound shorts. Picking up from where he left off in silent days, Chase kept on churning out little gems at Roach until 1936. The distinctive charm of the Roach films, with their stock company and background music, along with Chase’s excellent performances and some great gags, made these a wonderful bunch of films. More’s the pity that they’ve been so hard to see! There was a period when the films  were aired semi-regularly on TCM in the USA, and it has been possible to cobble them together through a ragbag assortment of bootlegs from off-air recordings, VHS transfers and  often ropey 16mm prints, but a legitimate and comprehensive release, in nice quality, has remained elusive.

 No longer. Step forward expert comedy historian Richard M Roberts and The Sprocket Vault, who have achieved what no-one else has been able to in bringing some of Chase’s sound shorts to DVD (it’s the first in a planned series of volumes, which will hopefully work through all the other Chases). Simply by existing, this set would be automatically brilliant; that it presents the films in the best quality possible, with great extras and authoritative commentaries, makes it an absolute  triumph.

Chase’s earliest talkies are currently unavailable, so this set picks up with THE REAL McCOY, his first release of 1930, and goes through to his last release of 1931. Within these parameters, you get some of his all time best, including WHISPERING WHOOPEE, LOOSER THAN LOOSE, THE HASTY MARRIAGE and, of course, THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG. Disc 1 covers 1930, and disc 2 1931. The chronological nature means that you get to see how Charley developed his approach to comedy during the early sound era.  This was a transitional period for Chase, and while sound gave him no cause for alarm, it did give him pause for thought, and to try some new approaches and variations in character. As well as films in the vein of his silent farces like LOOSER THAN LOOSE and DOLLAR DIZZY , several  of the 1930 films are particularly offbeat and experimental in nature. FIFTY MILLION HUSBANDS is a really fun little short full of quirky bits of business and GIRL SHOCK is a particularly unusual comedy, with Charley bordering on Harpo Marx-style mania every time a girl touches him. This one was new to me, and while it’s not one of Chase’s all-time best, I find it a fascinating film. Present also are his experiments at making mini musicals, HIGH Cs and its wonderful companion piece, ROUGH SEAS. Not all the experiments are entirely successful, but that said, practically everything Chase did is diverting and most watchable, especially for L & H buffs, who can enjoy seeing familiar Roach faces like James Finlayson and Charlie Hall in other roles.

See the source imageOf course, the most famous supporting player to feature opposite Charley is the pip herself, Thelma Todd. Their partnership resulted in some absolutely charming comedies, of which THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG endures the most. This simple tale of Charley’s attempts to turn off a blind date, then trying to undo his work when it turns out to be Thelma, is elegantly told and full of great sight gags. As a fascinating extra, the Spanish phonetic version, LA SENORITA DE CHICAGO, is included. While it loses Thelma Todd, it gains an extra reel, including a song from Charley and some bridging scenes that actually make it flow much better than the English original  (for more details on  THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG and Chase & Todd’s other films together, take a look here)

While PIP is most definitely a highlight, some of the less vaunted shorts are just as delightful.  Personal favourites:

See the source imageLOOSER THAN LOOSE, a charming romantic situation comedy, where much of the humour is down entirely to the wonderful performances of the cast;

HASTY MARRIAGE, full of great sight gags and slapstick in a tale of streetcar romance;

ONE OF THE SMITHS, a hillbilly comedy with some terrific mechanical gags, and a much funnier update of L& H’s upper berth sequence, as Charley tries to share his tiny berth with a large tuba!

THE PANIC IS ON, riffing on black humour gags spoofing the depression. There’s an added bonus of a nice little cameo from Laughing Gravy.

Richard Roberts provides detailed and entertaining commentaries for all the film. It’s clear that this is a labour of love, and we owe a huge vote of thanks for the effort in creating the set. As he has said, it is hoped that other volumes in this series will follow; that just depends on how well this first volume sells. So what are you waiting for? Buy, buy, buy!  I’m certain you won’t regret it. It’s hard not to like Charley Chase, and this set is a must-have if you have even the slightest interest in his work, or that of Laurel & Hardy and the Hal Roach studios. While the Chase talkies are generally looser than his impeccably constructed silents, there’s a heckuva lot of talent in these films, and a heckuva lot of fun, too. And there’s plenty more where that came from: Many of the films that the prolific Chase made in 1932 and beyond, such as YOUNG IRONSIDES, HIS SILENT RACKET, NURSE TO YOU, MANHATTAN MONKEY BUSINESS and POKER AT EIGHT, are as good as anything he ever did, so here’s (greedily) hoping for more volumes soon!

Buy Charley Chase at Hal Roach: the Talkies, volume 1 from Amazon. Buy them for your friends too, while you’re there!

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Good Time Charley & The Pip from Pittsburg

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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.

snappy sneezer

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.