Many Big Squawks

A Comprehensive Look at Charley Chase's Early Sound Comedies

By Yair Solan

Although enjoyed by early film comedy aficionados, the Charley Chase sound films have been given short shrift in most analyses of classic film comedy. Some critics maintain that the quality of the Charley Chase series declined in the sound era, while others simply ignore his talkies entirely. Gerald Mast, for example, in his The Comic Mind erroneously stated, "Charley Chase never starred in another series after his silents." His incredible oversight is startling, but perhaps understandable considering the lack of critical commentary on Chase's sound shorts. When Charley Chase's comedies are discussed at all, space is almost always reserved for his silents but not his talkies. This is a shame, as although his sound films are generally not as polished as his golden silents, they do serve to showcase a wider variety of Chase's talents. If the silents were the only films to judge Chase by, he would be regarded chiefly as a brilliant screen farceur with a knack for sophisticated, expertly constructed situation comedies. However, one cannot truly appreciate the gifts of this comedian until one examines the work he produced in the sound era. Chase's voice certainly broadens his talents -- whether it is in the delivery of a funny line, the utterance of an embarrassed exclamation, or the singing of a whimsical song. Charley Chase's talkies, as a whole, are perhaps not as consistently inspired as his silents, but they are certainly enjoyable enough to give some classic comedy buffs pause if asked which group of films they prefer.

Compared to the many silent-film comedians who found it difficult to master film comedy during the sound era, Charley Chase, like his colleagues Laurel & Hardy, fared just fine. Not only did his voice fit his naturalistic screen persona, his penchant for singing catchy comical songs also served to maintain his appeal among audiences. Chase's earliest talkies, released during the period of 1929-1931, are an interesting bridge between his silent comedies and his "Nance" comedies of the mid-thirties, the latter of which transformed his screen character into somewhat of a bashful milquetoast. The following is an examination of the earliest Chase sound shorts, an attempt to bring to light some unjustly ignored comedies.

Charley Chase and Anders Randolf in "Snappy Sneezer" (1929), one of several early Chase talkies restored in recent years.

Chase's first few sound shorts, from his first, The Big Squawk (5/25/29), through Great Gobs! (12/28/29), have long been unavailable for viewing, the soundtracks for a number of them -- namely, The Big Squawk (5/25/29), Leaping Love (6/22/29), Snappy Sneezer (7/29/29), and Crazy Feet (9/7/29) -- having not been recovered until recent years. The earliest sound short currently available for viewing after these initial talkies is The Real McCoy, released on February 1, 1930, the first in a group of Charley Chase "hillbilly" comedies. The film is a weak one, an early talkie devoid of both a music score and good laughs. It looks as if its quality is not typical of even the earliest Chase sound comedies; Snappy Sneezer is said to be a genuine laugh riot by those who viewed it after its restoration. It is the plot of the short rather than the new medium that is responsible for the dismal quality of The Real McCoy, as Chase's hillbilly comedies are usually not considered to be among his best. The successors of The Real McCoy that were produced at the Hal Roach Studio, One of the Smiths (5/23/31) and Southern Exposure (4/6/35), were both sub-par Chase efforts. Only Teacher's Pest (11/3/39), made at Columbia Studios, was a good Chase comedy set in hillbilly country, though still nowhere near the quality of his classics shorts.

Whispering Whoopee (3/8/30) can be considered Chase's first big "success" in the sound era. The song Charley croons in the film, "Smile When the Raindrops Fall", written by Alice Keating Howlett and Will Livernash, became a sort of a second theme song for him (his official theme, "Gangway Charley", was introduced the same year), and sheet music for this novelty tune, adorned with pictures of Charley Chase and other Roach stars, still survives, as does sheet music for another memorable Chase tune written by Howlett & Livernash, "Golfer's Blues" from All Teed Up. Whispering Whoopee itself has long been hailed as a particularly enjoyable Chase short and is the earliest of his available talkies that proves he could make a very amusing sound comedy. The plot of the film involves Charley hiring three "good-time girls" (Thelma Todd, Anita Garvin, and Kay Deslys) to help him secure a real estate deal by working their charms on three stuffy businessmen (Del Henderson, Tenen Holtz, and Carl Stockdale). The party Charley throws eventually becomes rowdy as the businessmen loosen up and start a seltzer-water fight. The film is truly a fun short, and it is its buoyancy instead of any real clever gagging or plotting that has made it a pleasant entry in the Chase series.

The sheet music for one of Chase's most popular tunes, "Golfer's Blues" from "All Teed Up" (1930), was made available in the '30s. The song also popped up as background music in a number of early Hal Roach sound comedies.

An examination of Charley Chase's early talkies would not be complete without a close look at his on-screen relationship with Thelma Todd. Chase's association with Todd began in mid 1929 with Snappy Sneezer, and Chase quickly saw her potential as a sort of teammate with him. Even in All Teed Up (4/19/30), where her role as Charley's girlfriend was decidedly a small one, the highlight is the opening scene between Chase and Todd. Thelma Todd became the first Charley Chase leading lady of the sound era, and in many ways she was the best one he ever had. Her vivacity, beauty, sense of humor, and charm perfectly complemented the Chase character of the period. The screen persona of Charley Chase during this period, which was going to undergo a complete makeover a few years later, was a sort of "Goodtime Charley", usually a brash, ambitious young man, though down-to-earth and good at heart. Chase and Todd hit it off so nicely in their initial collaborations that she quickly became his preferred leading lady, appearing alongside Chase in most of his 1930 output, becoming a comedienne nearly on par with Chase in his own films.

A contemporary advertisement for "Fast Work" (1930), a comedy in which the girl of Charley's dreams is June Marlowe, Mrs. Crabtree from the Our Gang series.

One of the few shorts of 1930 without Thelma Todd, Fast Work (6/28/30), featured another up-and-coming actress on the Roach lot, June Marlowe, who had just begun playing Mrs. Crabtree in the Our Gang series. This was Marlowe's only appearance in the Chase canon (incidentally, it was one of Hal Roach's favorite Charley Chase comedies, according to Brian Anthony and Andy Edmonds' Chase biography), and the two do not seem to share the kind of chemistry Chase had developed with Thelma Todd. Interestingly, Fast Work was the second of several Chase comedies produced in 1930-31 that was also filmed for the overseas market in foreign-language versions. Many of these do not survive, but the few that do contain extra footage not available in the standard English versions. Additionally, many of the actors in the English versions were replaced by native speakers in the foreign-language versions, Carmen Guerrero replacing June Marlowe in the Spanish Fast Work, Locuras de Amor. Guerrero also appeared in both the English and Spanish versions of Girl Shock (8/23/30), currently the rarest of Chase's post-1929 talkies.

Charley Chase made foreign-language versions of several of his 1930-31 shorts. On the left is Chase with Dorothy Granger from "Looser than Loose" (1930). On the right is Chase and Carmen Granada from "Una Cana al Aire" (1930), its Spanish-language counterpart.

Thelma Todd's roles in the Charley Chase films became so much more prominent as the series progressed that in the three-reeler Dollar Dizzy (10/4/30), Chase and Todd virtually play a prototypical screwball comedy couple. In this comedy, Chase plays a newly-made millionare (a plot device obviously of interest to Depression-era audiences) wary of golddiggers who suspects that Todd is after him for his money. The next comedy in the series, Looser than Loose (11/15/30), is one of Chase and Todd's most popular collaborations, its Spanish-language equivalent running a whopping five reels (who ever said that Charley Chase never made a feature film?).

The comic style of the 1930-31 Chase shorts is strikingly two sided. Some shorts could be reminiscent of his silents in their emphasis on situation comedy, while others can be much more freewheeling. The farcical Fifty Million Husbands (5/24/30) is an example of the former, a gem of a comedy based on his silent Forgotten Sweeties (1927), and, despite some sound gags and funny dialogue, is the closest any Charley Chase talkie comes to the spirit of his silents. Despite Chase's occasional borrowing of plots from his silents, there is a crucial difference between the silent and sound Chase farces: in the silent films, the plot was always resolved, while in the talkies, the plot did not always need to be resolved as long as there was something funny going on. Most of the silent Chase comedies are therefore better films than the talkies in terms of construction, even though some of the talkies may be wilder than the silents.

Whispering Whoopee is the best example of these freewheeling Chase talkies, though many unfortunately did not match that film in execution. Skip the Maloo! (9/26/31), released a year and a half after Whispering Whoopee, is a rather lackluster Chase effort. This lukewarm comedy is a remake of the silent A One Mama Man (1927) that quickly descends into a wild game of follow the leader (with Charley making society guests go through a number of strange rituals, including spraying the chef with seltzer water, a rehash of the seltzer-water fight of Whispering Whoopee). The scene does not come off well at all, and viewers are left scratching their heads, wondering how any of this is supposed to be amusing. The short is an embarrassing mess -- one cannot imagine how a film like The Pip From Pittsburgh could have been made only months earlier. Thundering Tenors (2/7/31), released just a month before The Pip From Pittsburgh, is another entry in the series that, with the exception of a couple of funny sight gags, is rather forgettable. What a Bozo! (11/7/31) takes the intriguing idea of having Charley star as a nightclub bandleader and wastes it on a long scene of a strange and unfunny musical salute to United States history. Not even another rendition of "Smile When the Raindrops Fall" could save this misfire. Perhaps the less said about this film, the better. (Compared to What a Bozo!, Hasty Marriage (12/19/31), the comedy that immediately followed it, is virtually a classic, with Charley continually at odds with Eddie Dunn in the comedy, a rivalry that leads up to a slapstick finale inside a streetcar.) One of the Smiths, an earlier 1931 clunker previously mentioned, takes the musical route as What a Bozo! did by presenting a country hoedown as its unfunny comic conclusion. The short's only redeeming factor is a scene in which Chase sings a song viewed by a drunk in the film, who sees four Chases singing as a barbershop quartet. This is an early precursor to Chase's song numbers in the overall superior Four Parts (3/17/34).

Examining these lesser entries in a critical light, one can see that their failure derives, at least in part, from Chase's uncertainty in the sound medium at this early stage. For one thing, his interest in musical numbers serves to weaken such shorts as What a Bozo! and One of the Smiths. Additionally, Skip the Maloo! is marred by the entire "skip the maloo" sequence, which features an absurd but unamusing game which basically consists of high class party guests jumping around, exclaiming "skip the maloo!" -- and it is a safe assumption that if the namesake of a film is not funny, the entire film will not be a winner. This short demonstrates that seeing people doing wacky things is not necessarily funny, and it seems to have been a lesson Chase learned. He would not be making films like this in the future.

Charley Chase + The Ranch Boys = a delightful barbershop quartet in "High C's" (1930), a film successful enough that it spawned a sequel, "Rough Seas" (1931).

There are two companion shorts (both three-reelers) that Chase made during 1930 and '31 that take the freewheeling Chase comic formula of the early '30s to the extreme and execute it well. These shorts, High C's (12/27/30) and Rough Seas (4/25/31), are out-and-out musical-comedies, and, as John V. Brennan put it, "go nowhere, but have a helluva time along the way." The plot of the first film (whatever there is of it) involves Charley's stay in France during World War One and his relationship with a pretty French girl (played, of course, by Thelma Todd). The second film chronicles Charley and Thelma's escapades on an army boat after he smuggles her aboard so they can get married upon getting back to the United States. The highlights of these films are the songs and the chemistry between Chase and Todd. The songs, unlike the musical finale to What a Bozo! that serves to bring the short to a complete halt, are interspersed throughout these two films and are quite enjoyable in the romantic musical-comedy sense. These comedies also have loads and loads of charm; the combination of Charley Chase, Thelma Todd, Grade-A comedy, and likeable barbershop-style songs simply cannot fail. Charley Chase, although reportedly quite pleased with these films at the time, would never again release any comedies quite like them, making High C's and Rough Seas very pleasant diversions from the "typical" Chase shorts of the period.

Immediately preceding Rough Seas is what is usually considered to be the ultimate Chase-Todd short, and one of Charley Chase's most acclaimed films, sound or silent: the aforementioned comedy classic The Pip from Pittsburgh (3/21/31). An impeccably constructed film, The Pip from Pittsburgh returns to Chase's attitude (which, as we've seen, is adhered to only sporadically in his talkies) of "story first". In Pip, Charley's friend (Carlton Griffin) forces him to go on a blind date. Having already gone on a disastrous blind date once before, with someone his friend had also referred to as a "pip," he decides to make himself look as distasteful as possible in order to get away from this girl. To look disagreeable, Charley doesn't shave, wears a cheap suit, and eats garlic by the mouthful. When he discovers that his date is the beautiful Thelma Todd, he tries his hardest to undo his scruffiness while still courting Thelma. The film is an excellent example of a marvelous comic situation executed flawlessly and aided by the likable performances of Charley Chase and Thelma Todd. Although not necessary his funniest short, it has become, over the years, one of his most beloved, due in equal part to its gags and its charm.

Thelma Todd became Charley Chase's preferred leading lady in the early '30s. Here they are in (left) "The Real McCoy" (1930) and (right) their most celebrated collaboration, "The Pip From Pittsburgh" (1931).

Amid The Pip From Pittsburgh, Rough Seas, and all the lesser entries, Chase made The Panic Is On! (8/15/31), an uproarious spoof of the Great Depression, surging with more and more force by 1931. Complete with multiple references to the period's rampant poverty (including a mugger played by Leo Willis who doesn't have enough money to buy bullets for his gun), the film is indeed gallows humor that comically deals with some very serious topics, presenting the kind of persistent social reality that none of Chase's other shorts, or arguably any other comedy two-reeler of the period, even attempts to depict -- and to satirize, no less. While Charley's down-and-out persona of this short hardly recurs with any regularity in his succeeding comedies, this film nevertheless signals a new era for the series. With Chase's first short of 1932, The Tabasco Kid (1/30/32), the seeds would be sown for his "Nance" persona, which would point Chase in a slightly different comic direction, retiring his "Goodtime Charley" character in the process.

Copyright (c) Yair Solan, 2004. All Rights Reserved.

Photo of the sheet music for "Golfer's Blues" courtesy of Advertisement for "Fast Work" courtesy of Festival Films. Still photos from "Looser than Loose" and "Una Cana al Aire" courtesy of Cole Johnson. Photo from "The Real McCoy" courtesy of David B. Pearson's Silent Ladies & Gents.
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