Posted by David Kalat on September 15, 2012
Charley Chase was one of the funniest, most widely talented, most important, and most influential comedians of the early 20th century. I’m not even going to bother to argue that statement, it is simply a fact—the way that 2+2=4 is a fact. However, Charely Chase did his work in shorts, not features. With one exception, he did not star in a feature-length comedy, despite a career in movies that spanned over a quarter century. The film critical establishment has historically held a pronounced bias in favor of features, which has meant that by definition Charley Chase’s extraordinary accomplishments and legacy are seen as secondary in stature.
This bias has its basis in market realities. Once Chaplin led the charge past the two-reel mark into features, he and his peers who followed reaped more substantial economic rewards and industry prestige. Companies like the Hal Roach Studio that were in the business of making short comedies, or those like Pathe which were in the business of distributing same, were increasingly marginalized by a film industry consolidating itself around a small number of media giants who controlled the production and distribution of movie star-driven feature films.
There is a tendency to view Chase’s record of short comedy output, noting the decline in its quality over the later years, and conclude that he didn’t make features because Hal Roach didn’t let him. Here was the studio responsible for Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang, they knew comedy: They must have seen that Chase’s comic personality couldn’t support a larger storyline. This is a recurring theme in writings about the era, both scholarly and casual. But it’s always struck me as baffling. Sure, Roach was the home to Laurel and Hardy, but he was also behind the Dippy Doo-Dads. As a comedy genius, you can’t accuse the man of batting a thousand. The whole idea that Chase was excluded from features because of some defect in his comedy character presupposes the existence of some executive panel of comedy evaluators, who sit around a boardroom and debate the merits of different comedy personas and their abilities to maintain a feature-length storyline. I have never once heard of any such debate actually taking place, and the history of comedy stars from the dawn of movies to this day argues otherwise.
You know what movie executives do gather in boardrooms to debate? Money. And the fact is, we can easily understand the rise and fall of Charley Chase’s comedy career as a story about movie business economics. The nature of his comedy character doesn’t enter into it at all.
As a boy, Charley wanted to entertain. He chose the footlights over school, and became a young vaudeville prodigy. Like many successful vaudeville comics of his generation he soon headed to Hollywood, to the movies. At Mack Sennett’s Keyston studio in 1914, the then-20-year-old Charley was working with the likes of Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe Arbuckle. Charley was already a veteran entertainer with versatile talents. He could play supporting roles for legendary comic superstars or if needed take the lead himself. He could play romantic heroes or dastardly villains. And, he could work behind the scenes, directing for others. Before long, he had become one of Sennett’s top directors—and that prompted him to ask for a raise. The notoriously skinflinty Mr. Sennett balked at upping Charley’s pay even by a penny, and so Charley quit. Thus began a tour of the other comedy outfits of the day, with Charley’s pedigree and experience growing with every move.
In 1921, Hal Roach hired Charley to serve as supervising director. Charley had creative control over the entirety of Roach’s output–except for anything by Harold Lloyd, which was a separate unit under Lloyd’s control. In 1923, though, Lloyd split from Roach which left the Roach studio’s fortunes resting entirely on one-reel comedy shorts, which were not the biggest revenue generator no matter how good they were. To boost sales, Roach pushed his comics (including Snub Pollard and Charley’s younger brother Jimmy Parrott, then performing as “Paul Parrott”) to make two-reel shorts instead.
Charley’s 2 ½ year run as the creative director of Roach Studios was a fairly hit-or-miss affair, with the emphasis on the miss. He oversaw the successful launch of the Our Gang series, but that hit was counterbalanced by a painful string of failures: Snub Pollard’s frenetic brand of absurdity exhausted audiences at the two-reel length, Stan Laurel’s pre-Laurel & Hardy solo shorts did not set the world on fire, Will Rogers did not prove to be a viable silent comedian, and a series of bizarre comedies starring animals billed as the Dippy Do-Dads were an ill-advised experiment. Necessity being the mother of invention, and with Roach’s slate of failed comedy projects being a source of urgent necessity, the studio took their creative director and shoved him in front of the cameras for once. Not wanting to compromise his directorial career if his on-screen work flopped (which, given the recent fortunes of the company, was a good bet), Charley Parrott opted to appear as “Charley Chase” and reserved his real name for his behind-the-scenes work.
Here is where something magical happened.
Because right away from his very first short, Charley Chase was making shining examples of comedy perfection, works of elegantly composed slapstick and satire that took full advantage of all the lessons Charley had learned over the last 10 years of working with nearly every comedian alive.
Roach’s publicity for their new star touted his handsome looks and lack of slapsticky exaggeration:
Meet Charley Chase! Pleased to meetcha, Charley! You’re a new one but doggone, you sure look like a good one. Don’t blush, Charley, but you’re a good looking sunamagun. You aren’t a cartoon or a caricature. Your face ain’t lopsided nor do you sport an Adam’s apple the size of a pumpkin; you look like a real human and you act like one. And Charley, you’re really funny!
Set aside the clunky copy writing and the point is clear. What made Chase distinctive was that his comedy had a naturalistic edge.
For roughly the next 2 or 3 years, the Roach studio prospered thanks to Chase. He was their top money-maker, and established a prestige to the brand name that accrued value to the other comedians as well. The studio became known for a certain style—an aesthetic of domestic-based comedies more interested in satirical jabs at real life than at ludicrous slapstick havoc, like those of Sennett. Roach’s shorts, especially those by Chase, were precursors to television sitcoms, and they were well-positioned to benefit from shifting audience tastes away from raw slapstick. Chase started off making one-reelers, the studio’s bread and butter product, and by the following year was making two-reelers.
This point needs to be emphasized, because this story is about the economics of the film business. Chase’s graduation from one-reels to two was a major, major thing. Up until that point, the Roach studio had failed to launch a successful two-reel series with the exception of Harold Lloyd (who, as noted before, was his own separate business operating under Roach’s name, and as such probably doesn’t really count) and Our Gang. A one-reel short typically returned about $1,000-$2,000 in rentals, which then had to be split with Roach’s distribution agent, Pathe. But, a Charley Chase two-reeler was bringing in $10,000. Putting Charley Chase in movies meant that the studio’s income statements suddenly had an extra zero at the end.
And then came 1926. That was the year when Paramount announced that they would begin distributing two-reel comedies, too. To understand the significance of this development, take note of the fact that Paramount was at the time the biggest movie studio in the world. Their move into the two-reel marketplace was certain to dominate the market and crowd out all the smaller players. Think Walmart coming to a small town and putting the mom-n-pops out of business. In the wake of the news, rumors started to spread that Sennett and Al Christie were going to sign up with Paramount for distribution of their shorts. Pathe went into panic mode. Pathe’s business consisted almost exclusively of selling comedy shorts, and the best case scenario is that they are about to face the most intense competition of their business life; worst case scenario they are about to lose two of their key suppliers to this new behemoth competitor. Hal Roach saw the writing on the wall—the odds of Pathe surviving the coming year were low, and even if they did, they would be a wounded and struggling wreck.
Roach jumped ship to sign with MGM instead—with a 10 year contract promising stability and corporate continuity. As luck would have it, MGM would go on to beat Paramount at their own game and become the film industry’s new giant.
For those of you playing at home, you may be thinking, “OK, I get why Charley Chase didn’t appear in any features before 1926. He wasn’t even starring in movies at all until 1923, and the Roach studio was barely able to turn out profitable one-reelers for much of its early corporate history. But now they’re aligned with MGM they’ve finally got access to a network equipped to distribute features—now’s the time for Charley Chase to follow the example of Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd and start making 90-minute-long comedies.” Right?
MGM took on Roach specifically as a supplier of shorts. MGM had no interest in Roach features. MGM was itself a maker of features, and any MGM-made features they sold returned 100% profits to the company. Any features they sold that were supplied by outside vendors like Roach meant they had to share the revenue, and so with a limited number of movie theaters and available screenings, MGM actively opposed any efforts by Roach to branch into features. Roach broke their resistance from time to time—but this was mostly attributable to the runaway popularity of Laurel and Hardy, whose astronomical success set them apart from everything else at the studio.
During the 10 year association between Roach and MGM, MGM distributed only 22 features provided by outside vendors. Of those 22, 19 came from Roach’s company, and 11 of those were Laurel and Hardy vehicles. One of the handful of non-Roach features MGM agreed to distribute was David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. In short, MGM was unwilling to even consider an independently-produced feature unless it was something that was already firing on all cylinders, the sorts of things that would become enduring legends of cinema and live forever. If you were making something like Gone with the Wind, or a Laurel and Hardy comedy, you had a shot. That was a helluva bar to meet.
Even the top comedy superstars needed transitional features to find their voice—Keaton’s Three Ages, Lloyd’s Grandma’s Boy, Langdon’s His First Flame. They were afforded a chance to experiment on the feature stage before being expected to be impeccable. Chase was not given the same opportunity. When Roach’s contract with MGM ran out in 1936, Hal Roach had decided to call it quits in the short comedy business overall. The market was dying and Roach wanted to transition fully to the more profitable business of making features. If that meant parting company with MGM, but so be it. Laurel and Hardy had already moved on successfully to features, the Thelma Todd series had ended with Thelma’s tragic death, his miscellaneous comedies had imploded as unpopular and unsellable. The only two-reelers Roach still had were Charley Chase and Our Gang. And as far as Chase went, this was “up or out time.” He had to prove himself viable for features or leave. And by “prove himself viable for features,” I don’t prove himself to audiences—I mean prove himself to MGM. To win that argument, Chase needed to deliver an impeccable film production.
He had MGM’s indulgence to give it a try, with It Happened One Bank Night(note the obvious debt of influence owed to It Happened One Night–Chase’s brand of slapstick was linked to the development of romantic dialogue comedies). Unfortunately, far from being “something that was already firing on all cylinders,” it was plagued by production problems. The fault did not lie with Chase as a comedian, nor really with him as a filmmaker. Bank Night was a riot of dumb decisions, yes, but they were legitimate creative decisions that simply proved to be impolitic and ill-timed. He was a victim of circumstance.
The biggest problem was the central conceit of the “Bank Night,” which was a common promotion back in the day in which movie theaters offered cash prizes to audiences. The real-life Bank Night promoters didn’t take kindly to the unauthorized use of their trademarked name and in the legal battle over its use also objected to the satire Chase intended to direct their way. This resulted in wastes of time and money, hasty rewrites, and bad publicity. Compounding this was the fact that Chase used this set-up to lead into a parody of gangster films, at a time when censors were growing increasingly jittery about the use of screen violence. The gun-toting gangsters and proto-film-noirish comedy would have been quite at home in the “Pre-Code” era a couple of years previous, but the newly empowered film censors decided to throw their weight around. Roach had successfully lobbied MGM to accept his features in the past when he had a strong sell—but It Happened One Bank Night collapsed into chaos. It was eventually recut into a two-reel form and retitled Neighborhood House, which would turn out to be Chase’s final short for Roach.
Chase decamped to Columbia—a ramshackle cheapskate shop that proved a home for many a slapstick refugee. Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Andy Clyde—they all ended up at Columbia eventually. And Columbia was also home to the Three Stooges, and as it happened, Chase seemed to understand their slapstick aesthetic better than anyone else. With Chase as their director, the Stooges were never better.
Chase alternated between behind-the-scenes gigs for the Stooges and starring in his own run of shorts (and by now had given up alternating names, he was now proudly taking credit for everything as Charley Chase). Some of Chase’s Columbia work is among his best. Directing Flat Foot Stooges, starring in The Heckler—there’s some fine comedy here. The only tragedy is that Chase drank himself to death and died young in 1940—which is horribly tragic, nightmarish, but there’s no career tragedy here.
Let’s summarize: It was only for a sliver of his tenure at Hal Roach that Charley was even in a position to theoretically make features. Chase’s unit was hampered by studio priorities that favored Laurel & Hardy. Chase himself avoided confrontation and was temperamentally disinclined to argue effectively on his own behalf. Meanwhile, the bar was set at Laurel & Hardy’s height—in order to get a feature into the MGM pipeline it had to convince MGM executives that it could succeed on the same level of profitability as a Laurel & Hardy feature. Chase’s 1936 feature debut suffered from teething troubles not markedly dissimilar to those experienced by his peers during their respective transitions to longform filmmaking, but under the circumstances of Roach’s relationship with MGM Chase would be punished disproportionately for those missteps.
Chase left behind just one example of what he would have been like as a feature movie star. And no, I don’t mean Neighborhood House. I mean the film I hinted at back at the top of this essay when I noted a singular exception to Chase’s “no-feature” legacy. I mean Modern Love, but that’s a story for next week.
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