Cut to the Chase! The Charley Chase Collection (Milestone, NR)

film cut-to-chase_75Watching these films gives you a good sense for how the ordinary comedy short of the 1920s worked.

 

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Charley Chase (born Charles Joseph Parrott) was a key figure in silent film comedy, working as a gag writer and director, as well as in front of the camera. His best work was done for the Hal Roach Studios, where he turned out a steady stream of one-reel (10-minute) and then two-reel (20-minute) shorts. He’s not as well known today as, say Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton (although he appeared in films with the former, and directed the latter), but a new release of 16 of his short films on DVD gives you a chance to see why his work was so popular with contemporary audiences.

Chase usually played a sort of everyman character, a pleasant, if somewhat awkward young man wearing ordinary street clothes and occupying a role in which audiences could identify, often as a husband or office clerk who finds himself in a perplexing or embarrassing circumstance. It’s not groundbreaking stuff, but audiences liked it, and then as now the movies were a business, so giving the people what they wanted was the name of the game. Two of the films included are available on DVD only in this collection: The Uneasy Three (from a 35mm print held by the Museum of Modern Art) and Charley My Boy (from a 16 mm print in the John Hampton Collection).

Watching these films gives you a good sense for how the ordinary comedy short (as opposed to those enlivened by the genius of a Chaplin or Keaton) of the 1920s worked. Chase’s films are constructed around a series of title cards that carry most of the information necessary to understand the story (in fact, I’m probably not the first to feel that the title cards are the best part of some of these films). The acted segments serve almost as interludes or bridges between the title cards, while also giving the actors to do their particular comic turns. Watching these films also lets you see the early work of some who went on to fame and fortune in the sound era, including director Leo McCarey and actors Oliver Hardy and Fay Wray. All in all, Cut to the Chase! provides you with 303 minutes of comedy, accompanied by musical scores. The set includes two DVDs in a slipcase, but no extras. | Sarah Boslaugh

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