When I set out to write a comprehensive article about underrated comedian Charley Chase decades ago for my magazine Film Fan Monthly there was virtually nothing in print about this talented comedian. Finding copies of his films to screen was another challenge. Fortunately, that has changed in the intervening years. There are several books about him and chapters in other surveys of vintage comedy devoted to him. A number of DVDs spotlight his silent two-reelers for Hal Roach, which are among the funniest ever made. There is even a collection of the comedy shorts he made for Columbia Pictures toward the end of his life. But I never dreamed that anyone would release his Hal Roach talkies, which have seemed destined for obscurity. Enter veteran film distributor Kit Parker and his company The Sprocket Vault with Charley Chase at Hal Roach: The Talkies Volume One 1930-31.
This two-disc set has been assembled with tender loving care. It includes 17 shorts, a photo gallery, commentary by comedy historian Richard M. Roberts, and a bonus I’ve never seen before: the Spanish-language version of my favorite Chase talkie, The Pip from Pittsburg. For about a year, Hal Roach had all of his star comics (even the Our Gang kids) shoot foreign-language versions of their short subjects to export around the globe. Charley does surprisingly well reading his lines in phonetic Español, while a fluent cast fills the supporting roles.
Each short is accompanied by the jaunty scores of LeRoy Shield, who wrote stock themes that editor Richard Currier used again and again. They became as familiar and welcome as the actors onscreen, and they help the Hal Roach shorts avoid the arid soundtrack of so many early-talkie features. (In one short the music is uncharacteristically played on a pipe organ.) In this sense Hal Roach was a pioneer, out-thinking the major studios which didn’t routinely score their films until the mid-1930s. The producer tried another innovative idea that didn’t work quite as well, though it does have its awkward charm: for a brief time he had twin blond girls walk onto a stage set and deliver the film’s credits verbally. Give Roach credit for trying something new and different.
Not every entry in this collection is a gem, but Charley had a quality that sustained even weak material: he is immensely likable. Having him use his real name, as other Roach stars like Laurel and Hardy did, made audiences feel like he was a friendly visitor to their local movie house. The ploy still works today; it’s fun to spend time with Charley and the members of the Roach stock company like Edgar Kennedy (who also directed All Teed Up, one of the best shorts in this collection), James Finlayson, and Charlie Hall.
The brightest light in this array of comedies is Charley’s frequent leading lady, Thelma Todd. Her beauty, charm, and comedic savvy are a major asset and it’s a treat to watch the two stars play off each other. Thelma is even willing to indulge in straight slapstick, as in Whispering Whoopee, which winds up with a wild seltzer free-for-all.
This costarring duo reach their pinnacle in a delightful two-reeler called The Pip from Pittsburg, directed by Charley’s brother James Parrott. Here is a perfect example of how Hal Roach comedies continued the silent-comedy tradition by integrating slapstick and sight gags into character-driven situation comedy. It’s an ingenious, unpretentious and warmly funny little film. (I show my old 16mm print to my students at USC every semester to introduce them to a benign brand of comedy that scarcely exists any more…and it always gets laughs, I’m happy to say.)
Because this collection is designated as Volume One I trust there will be others to follow; nothing could make me happier. Kit Parker is also releasing other Hal Roach product, including his later feature film Captain Fury (1939) with Brian Aherne and Victor McLaglen, and a triple-feature consisting of The Housekeeper’s Daughter (1939) with Joan Bennett and Victor Mature, Turnabout (1940), a gimmick comedy by Topper author Thorne Smith, and Road Show (1941), featuring Adolphe Menjou, Carole Landis, Charles Butterworth, and Patsy Kelly, among others. To learn more, click HERE.