Bright Lights Film Journal

Forgotten Charleys II: Charley Chase: Mr. Normal Unleashes His Comic Demon

“He could be suave or awkward, likable or pesky, average or eccentric, a winner or a loser, a fussy nerd or the life of the party, all the while remaining Charley Chase.”

The California sun is shining; the 1920s are at their peak, ready to roar down towards the Crash. A trim and dapper young man is on his way to meet the girl his parents, and hers, hope he will marry. At the train station he bumps into a pretty young woman and both are smitten at first sight. Unaware that she’s the girl in question, the young man is now desperate to get out of the arranged marriage; his valet suggests that if he pretends to be insane, his prospective in-laws won’t want him in the family. This is the premise of Crazy Like a Fox, a 1926 short comedy from the Hal Roach Studio. Not sure he can get away with the ruse, the fastidious young man decides to try out his act on an unsuspecting passerby. Looking worried and reluctant, he tells his valet, “I’ve never tried to act goofy before.” Then he springs out from behind a pillar and begins prancing around like a mad faun, eyes alight with lunatic glee, mouth fixed in a demented grin, picking imaginary flowers as he skips and capers around the badly unsettled stranger (Oliver Hardy in a brilliantly baffled cameo.) With this success under his belt he proceeds to the posh home of his bride-to-be, where he explains that he sometimes has “spells,” and proceeds to lapse into ecstatic derangement, recovering each time with pained expressions of shame. But he starts to enjoy being crazy; it means he can get away with anything, including pushing the Republican governor in a goldfish pond — twice.

This is the essence of Charley Chase: a nice, normal man with an acute sensitivity to social embarrassments, within whom lurks a comic demon and a gift for going completely nuts. Jaunty and well-meaning, with a winning smile that curdles into a wince, he helplessly watches each minor mix-up metastasize into something so outlandish that his only choice is to meet lunacy with lunacy, drawing on his own unexpected resources of zaniness. He has a kind of slapstick savoir-faire: a matter of knowing when and how to gracefully abandon one’s dignity.

Like Harold Lloyd, Chase took advantage of his ordinary good looks to play a middle-class everyman; his brand of humor was based less on pratfalls or sight gags than on complex plots and naturalistic reactions. He was a pillar of the Hal Roach Studio, both influencing and exemplifying the Roach style. While Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studio championed the surreal and anarchic side of silent comedy, with chaotic films built around gags and action, and with clowns whose grotesque appearance set them apart, the Roach lot developed a more sedately paced style dependent on fully developed characters and believable situations. Peter Hogue described the spirit of the Roach comedies, and of Charley Chase’s in particular, as “a worldly geniality that acknowledges the claims of genteel propriety but honors the impulse to rambunctiousness.” While Keaton, Chaplin, Langdon, and many comics in their mold played outsiders or eccentric loners who struggled to find a place for themselves and to connect with women, the Roach style was more convivial. Charley Chase in particular tended to play men who had jobs and wives and friends, a position in the community. His comic predicament is not achieving these things, but holding onto them. He has everything to lose.

Chase was thirty when he started his starring series, but he wisely introduced a more mature character than the eager young go-getter Lloyd inevitably played, thus escaping the aging-juvenile trap. Despite his high energy and youthful looks, there was always an air of sophistication and confidence about Charley. He didn’t burn with the need to prove himself, or blush and stammer around girls. His comedies had a particularly adult tone; they could be risqué, full of jokes about adultery and homosexuality, but they also convincingly portrayed grown-up romance. Richard M. Roberts identifies Chase as the 1920s “emancipated man.” He had a jazzy angularity and loose-jointed freedom of movement — he did a very nifty Charleston — and a fun-loving spirit that often got him into trouble, on screen and off.

Lanky and charming, with bright eyes and straight teeth, slicked-down hair and a neat little mustache, Charley Chase was rejected by Mack Sennett as too normal-looking for a comic. He nonetheless became one of the most popular comedians of the twenties, but he has slipped through the cracks to become comedy’s forgotten man. As a director — under the name Charles Parrott — he worked with a broad swath of silent clowns, and it’s likely that without him we would have neither Laurel & Hardy nor Our Gang. Many of the films he starred in were directed by the young Leo McCarey, who went on to make Duck Soup and The Awful Truth, and who stated that Chase had taught him everything he knew.1 Why then is he so obscure? He never starred in a feature film and his short comedies have been hard to see, but the difficulty of pinning down his character — his lack of an instantly recognizable silhouette or style — has also blurred his reputation. He could be suave or awkward, likable or pesky, average or eccentric, a winner or a loser, a fussy nerd or the life of the party, all the while remaining Charley Chase.

He was born Charles Joseph Parrott in Baltimore in 1893, to a working-class Irish family. His father died when he was ten, and young Charley, an ambitious lad blessed from the start with an appealing personality, started singing and dancing on the street to earn money for the family. Leaving school after fifth grade, he recruited two other boys and they broke into small-time vaudeville with routines Charley wrote. After a stint as a singer in a nickelodeon, Charley Parrott went back into vaudeville and gradually worked his way to better billing, teaming with Harry Bernard in an act called “Two Boys from Nutsville.” Ending up in Los Angeles after one tour in 1911, he joined a revue produced by Lon Chaney and met a chorus girl named BeBe Eltinge. She was a refined and educated young lady for whom show business was just a lark, and she initially scorned the eager, rough-edged kid from Baltimore, who was six years her junior. Always a quick study, he worked hard to improve himself and wore her down with his persistence; they were married in 1914 and went on to have two daughters, Polly (Polly Parrott, get it?) and June.2

In 1913, Charley started working in movies, soon arriving at Keystone where he had small parts in films with Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand. By 1914 he was directing Normand, Chester Conklin and Ford Sterling. He got his start, allegedly, when he was irritated by an inept director and declared that he could do a better job; Sennett wanted to put the cocksure young man on the spot. Charley left Keystone in 1916 after a salary dispute, and for the next four years worked at almost every comedy studio in town, directing among others Hank Mann, Billy West (the most famous of the Chaplin imitators), and Lloyd Hamilton, a good friend and major influence on Chase. In 1920 he found his home at the Hal Roach Studio, where his younger brother Jimmy had been acting, under the name Paul Parrott, and directing. Jimmy, who in youth looked so much like his brother that many of his films were later mis-identified as Charley Chase comedies, suffered from obscure health problems — Roach said that he was epileptic and suffered periodic breakdowns — that curtailed his potential as a star. He also lacked Charley’s effervescent personality, though he was highly regarded as a director and gag-man.

Roach liked to recall how at their first meeting, Charley Parrott boasted of his many talents, and as a sample showed how he could imitate a lighthouse, slowly turning his head and widening his eyes as they faced front. Won over, Roach hired him, but put him to work behind the camera. He started out directing Snub Pollard and soon became director general of the studio, bringing Oliver Hardy to the lot and assisting the birth of Our Gang, as well as masterminding legendarily spectacular Christmas parties. In 1923, Harold Lloyd, who had teamed up with Roach to start the studio in 1915, finally left to form his own company, and a star was needed to replace him. Charley had always itched to get back to performing, and Roach agreed to give him a chance with his own series. Charley claimed that he chose the name “Chase” at random, but it’s unlikely he could have plucked such a perfect moniker from the phone book on the first try. Roach gave his new star a big buildup, plainly laying out his vision for the series in a trade paper ad: “Pleased to meetcha, Charley! You’re a new one, but dog gone, 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!

His initial batch of one-reelers, in which he plays a character named Jimmy Jump (the name was later dropped) made much of Charley’s attractiveness. In some he comes off more as a juvenile lead than a clown: for instance Rent Jumpers, in which his landlord’s daughter has a crush on him, and he wants to take her out but has no money. While his landlord and roommate run around losing their pants and doing pratfalls, Charley sits in a restaurant flirting with the girl. Jimmy Jump could be a sporty young man about town or a hapless wimp. In A Ten-Minute Egg, he has business cards printed identifying himself as a bouncer for the Barrel of Blood Café, and enjoys his unearned status as a tough guy, bullying hulking bruisers — until he runs out of cards, at which point a midget gets up on a chair to kick him in the pants. In Married to Order, he has trouble seeing his girl, who adores him, because her father (Oliver Hardy again) thinks he’s a “mollycoddle.” In a turn worthy of an Elizabethan cross-dressing comedy, the girl dresses as her twin brother in order to elope with Charley. Her near-sighted father, obsessed with manliness, is taken in and forces her to down a shot of whiskey, chaw tobacco, and smoke a cigar. He then suggests to his “son” that he dress as his sister and fool Charley into marrying “him,” and ends up squinting in dismay at the newlyweds locked in a passionate kiss.

Silent comedy presented a schizophrenic view of marriage; men are either in love with sweet girls and desperately eager to marry at all costs, or they’re married to rolling-pin-wielding harpies and desperately eager to escape at all costs. Charley Chase’s films are more nuanced. His screen wives are attractive, he is happily married and wishes to remain so; but like a city perched on an active fault-line, marriage is constantly vulnerable to the earthquakes of suspicion and jealousy. Charley is never actually guilty; even when he winds up with a naked girl in the back of his car on the way to his wedding (in Limousine Love), it’s not his fault. But somehow he keeps getting into these situations, and you can’t entirely blame his wives for doubting him. His films pose questions like Is Marriage the Bunk? and Should Husbands Be Watched? This last starts as a hilarious, painfully accurate portrait of a middle-class couple who hire a maid and are terrified of her. Never having had “help” before, they stammer and bungle, not knowing how to behave and worried that the girl in her sexy uniform is judging them. In the end, after the maid has tried to seduce Charley, his wife proves to a cop that they are married by punching him in the nose.

Too Many Mammas turns into an orgy of jealousy. Charley goes along to a speakeasy as the “alibi” for his married boss, who wants to step out with his mistress. As the boss’s wife, Charley’s girl, the mistress’s husband, and the husband of a female apache dancer who has befriended Charley all make their appearances, a rapid-fire round of pretense ensues. At one point Charley has to pretend to be the apache dancer’s partner; he was a rubber-legged master of comic dancing. Big Red Ridinghood (an odd, delightful whimsy in which Charley plays a penniless scholar who can’t afford to buy a copy of Little Red Ridinghood in order to translate it into Swedish, and so has to surreptitiously read it at a bookstall and pursue the crook who swipes it) ends with the conclusion, “And so they remained single — and lived happily ever after.”

Charley and BeBe did not live happily ever after, though they remained married until his death. A homebody, BeBe naturally resented her husband’s chronic carousing (he spent much of his free time at the Masquers, Hollywood’s club for comedians, eventually becoming president), and they argued over Charley’s “spoiling” of their daughters with lavish gifts; he was a doting father if a straying husband. They were periodically estranged, and Charley was known to have “a weakness for blondes.” Then there was his drinking. Hal Roach said that he never saw Charley Chase drunk at the studio — or sober away from it. He drank for fun, relishing crazy stunts and scrapes, and he drank when he was frustrated or bored. In Looking for Sally, when Charley pretends to be a bum in order to meet a girl who works in a mission, he recounts through filmed flashbacks his downfall through drink. While the sequence is built around gags, such as Charley the soused hotel clerk putting a horse to bed in an upstairs room — it becomes a disturbing, too-realistic portrait of a hopeless drunk sinking in alcoholic degradation. He describes how each time he was deprived of his bottle, “Something in my brain snapped — skidded — and I went Mad — MAD — MAD!

He hit his peak in 1926 with a series of polished and ebullient short masterpieces directed by McCarey. I first saw Charley Chase in what remains my favorite of his films, Mighty Like a Moose, which was shown as a warm-up to Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. at the Silent Movie Theater in Los Angeles. He was no more than a name to me, and I sensed that most in the audience were equally taken by surprise. Our laughter all but blew the roof off. Here Charley squarely tackles the problem of not being funny-looking enough. He plays Mr. Moose, a man with a shelf of buck teeth you could use for piano keys, married to a woman (Vivien Oakland) who could challenge Jimmy Durante to a duel of schnozzes. A devoted couple, Mr. and Mrs. Moose each secretly saves money for cosmetic surgery, wanting to surprise the other with an improved appearance. Perhaps it’s a stretch that they would pick the same day to have the work done, and even more of a stretch that they would meet by chance afterwards and not recognize each other; but the way the now-handsome couple’s vanity draws them into a flirtation they think is adulterous, is all too plausible. Charley keeps flashing his new straight teeth, Vivien keeps offering her attractive profile, and they wind up cheating on each other with each other at a hot party. Once the truth emerges, Charley is shocked that his wife was stepping out with another man, and determines to teach her a lesson. He has a pair of dentures that recreate his old buck teeth, and he proceeds to play both outraged husband and clandestine lover, switching back and forth between the two personas — one dashing, the other dorky — with increasing rapidity, until he is chasing himself around in circles and beating himself up in the doorway of his wife’s boudoir. It was at this point that some in the L.A. audience came perilously close to laughing themselves into an early grave.

Those who underrate Chase — for instance Walter Kerr, who writes so vividly about Keaton, Langdon, and other sui generis figures in The Silent Clowns — class him with light comedians who lacked strong personalities and couldn’t escape the realm of the everyday. They find him, as Mack Sennett did, too ordinary. But Chase’s gift was for dancing on the slippery slope that leads from normality to madness. He was a pioneer of situation comedy, a form now irreparably tainted by the TV laugh track. Rather than dominating his surroundings, or creating a world in his own image, he adapts to outrageous predicaments the way a normal person would — if that person were blessed with a fertile imagination, resilience, and ragtime quickness.

Things get weird, but in insinuatingly plausible ways. When, in Innocent Husbands, he needs to get a collection of odd characters including an unconscious floozy (it’s really not his fault) out of his room without his wife knowing of their presence, he takes advantage of the fact that she’s holding a séance, throws bedsheets over them, and marches them out as a parade of floating spooks. In Bromo and Juliet, he has to play Romeo in a charity bazaar production, and is self-conscious about showing his skinny legs in tights. He pads the tights with sponges, and is so delighted by their muscular appearance that he breaks into a Charleston. Then he walks through a sprinkler and winds up looking like a bad case of dropsy. In the witty, nutty His Wooden Wedding the fixation is on his girl’s legs: a jealous and imaginative rival sends him a note just before his wedding warning him that his bride has a wooden leg! During the ceremony Charley cops a feel and accidentally gets hold of her father’s cane; with visions of a family of peg-legged tots dancing in his head, he flees the altar. Soused and despairing, he decides to go on an ocean voyage “to forget.” He drives to the pier, and when a cop tells him he can’t park there, he calmly pushes his car into the drink.

The girl in His Wooden Wedding is Katherine Grant, one of his most frequent leading ladies. Among their other virtues, Charley Chase’s films showcased a bevy of beautiful and sparkling comediennes. The task of playing leading lady to a silent comic was often thankless, giving actresses little to do besides look pretty and stay out of the way, but Chase’s women are never mere trophies. Fluffy-blonde Grant, who perfected a narrow-eyed look of jealous suspicion, could also somersault head-first out of a car, or prove there’s nothing wrong with her legs by high-kicking a man off a yacht. Martha Sleeper, a brunette cutie with huge Betty Boop eyes, excels as a hard-boiled apache dancer in Too Many Mamas; and the Amazonian Anita Garvin seethes magnificently in supporting roles. Despite his eye for pulchritude, Charley loved Gale Henry, a gangly gargoyle, and featured her prominently. In His Wooden Wedding he engages her in a wild shake, shimmy, and jitterbug in an effort to recover a ring he accidentally dropped down her dress, and in Mighty Like a Moose she pays him back by dragging him through a foot-stomping polka. When Chase started making talkies in 1929, he paired with Thelma Todd, and enjoyed such good chemistry with her both on and off screen that he hoped Roach would allow them to become a permanent comedy team. Thelma had everything — she could play tough or girlish, she could sizzle or bubble, and no amount of slapstick or silliness diminished her sex appeal. (She could hold her own with the Marx Brothers too, no mean feat.) Sadly, after a handful of films Roach moved Todd away from the Chase unit.3

Hal Roach was fond of Charley Chase, who was one of his top-grossing stars, but often short-changed him. He took advantage of Chase’s skill and efficiency, using his unit as a testing ground for untried directors and performers, so that Charley — who was very much in charge of his own films, though he rarely took directorial credit — was forced to break in new talent and then lose the people he liked. Working too hard and drinking too much, Charley wore himself down; in 1929 he was admitted to the Mayo Clinic for a routine appendectomy, but was found to be suffering from severe ulcers that necessitated the removal of part of his stomach. The scare did not slow him down. He made a smooth transition into talkies, which allowed him to put his first talent, singing, to use again; he also wrote his own songs with help from friends. He saw his future in full-scale musical comedies. But the Roach Studio, struggling in the depths of the Depression, limited Charley to two-reel films. He turned out some excellent productions, shifting his character to that of a middle-aged milquetoast and experimenting with more far-fetched premises, but after his brother Jimmy left the series, quality declined. With the advent of double features in the mid-thirties, the heyday of comedy shorts — often more popular than the features they introduced — was over. Although his character- and plot-oriented style would seem ideally suited to longer films, Charley Chase never made the transition to features; his one try, Bank Night in 1936, got mixed reviews and was cut down to two reels. Many other comedians couldn’t make the leap, and Stan Laurel later said he wished he and Hardy had stuck to short films. Of course, Charley Chase’s greatest claim to immortality is his role as a sublimely obnoxious conventioneer in Laurel and Hardy’s 1933 feature Sons of the Desert. As the archetypal back-slapping, fez-wearing, practical-joking Shriner from hell, Chase is aggressively funny, though he hated the character’s mean edge. He was growing increasingly frustrated in his work, and away from it his life began to disintegrate.

From then on it was a rocky series of ups and downs: separations from BeBe, reconciliations, benders, health scares, hard work, good films and bad. In 1936, Chase was unceremoniously fired from the Hal Roach Studio. In 1937 he was hired by Columbia, which had become a refuge for humbled geniuses of the silent era: Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon were there as well. Columbia shorts were turned out quick, and the results were generally fast, loud, shrill, and unsubtle. Despite friction with director general Jules White (the only person ever to go on record as disliking Charley Chase), he made the best of things and turned out some decent work. He also directed some of the best Three Stooges films, bringing an uncharacteristic nuance and delicacy to the series. The final blow for Charley came in 1939 when his brother Jimmy died, officially of a heart attack. Charley believed it was suicide. A drug addict, Jimmy had long depended on him for financial and emotional support, and the brothers were probably closer to each other than either ever got to anyone else. Charley was heartbroken, blaming himself for having refused to lend any more money that he knew Jimmy would spend on drugs. Charley seemed to lose his will to live, and when he was not working and separated from his family, his drinking became suicidal. Following a binge, he died of alcohol-induced heart failure on June 20, 1940.

Several people who knew Chase on the Roach lot contradicted his “good-time Charlie” image, reporting how businesslike and intense he was when working. Anita Garvin found him not to be the wild character she expected, and Roy Seawright, a cameraman, claimed that though friendly, “he was an introvert. And by being an introvert you withdraw, and you’re lonesome. There were a lot of times that he was lonesome. Everything he achieved was based on his ability. He didn’t have to lean on anybody; he isolated himself from everybody.” He was a natural entertainer, but also a sensitive observer. Peter Bogdanovich wrote that Leo McCarey “instinctively understood the ridiculous and the absurd in people’s behavior; rather than condemning it, however, he celebrated this peculiar quality, which led to exceptional comedies.” McCarey said he owed his success to Charley Chase, whose films rest on this same keen, unsparing, but gently tolerant view of human foolishness. Laughter is the reward we get for facing up to what fools we are. When Hal Roach turned one hundred, he was given a party at which films by all the great Roach Studio stars were screened. Afterward he remarked that of all the films shown, Charley Chase’s got the most laughs.

  1. The legendary mirror scene from McCarey’s Duck Soup is virtually identical to the staging of a similar routine performed by Chase and his brother James Parrott in Sittin’ Pretty. It is possible to see traces of Charley Chase in Cary Grant’s character and performance in The Awful Truth. []
  2. As a young woman Polly Parrott acted in several of her father’s films, and she later worked for Walt Disney. A witty cartoonist, she drew a family emblem: a male parrot lasciviously pursuing a female: a parrot chase. []
  3. Even more sadly, many of Charley Chase’s films from 1928 and 1929 are lost. Because they came out shortly before the changeover to sound, and because they were distributed by MGM, which held onto its prints tightly, they were never kodascoped and distributed for the home market, which is how many of Chase’s earlier films survived. While many of Chase’s sound films do survive, they are extremely difficult to find, one reason I have confined myself to discussing his silent work. Charley was devastated by Thelma Todd’s murder in 1935; though their affair had ended, they remained close friends and Charley broke down when he received a Christmas card she had sent the day before her death. []