Charlie Chase was born in 1893
as Charles Parrott, the son of Charles and Blanche Parrott, and during his
relatively brief life he managed to bring fame and respect to both his given
name and the name he adopted for his acting career.
That acting career began in Hollywood in
1914 with Universal Films, after he had cut his entertainment teeth performing
in vaudeville, theater, and burlesque as a teen-ager. Soon afterward, he found
work with the legendary Mack Sennett, where many of the great silent film
comedians began. Charlie had the opportunity to learn from the best - he quickly
began appearing in shorts with silent stars Charlie Chaplin and
who were Sennett proteges at that time also. These were not starring roles of
course - Chase was still learning the film trade - but the experience working
alongside such comic geniuses as frequented the Sennett lot became invaluable to
Charlie Chase as both actor and director later in his career. He appeared in
some sixty of these shorts for Sennett’s Keystone Studios in the next three
years, gaining valuable insights and skills with every performance.
Charlie was quickly given the opportunity
to put these acquired skills to broader use, as Sennett soon had him directing
or co-directing some of Roscoe Arbuckle’s short films, since Charlie seemed more
interested in the work behind the lens rather than before it. He became
fascinated with film techniques and production, and at this time nearly
abandoned acting altogether in favor of the technical aspects of film-making. In
1917, Charlie left Keystone and directed for several other film companies for
the next several years, including Fox, Paramount, and Universal, using his given
name of Charles Parrott, to distinguish it from his acting career. These were
years where he gained more valuable experience, working with some of the great
comedians of that era, including a working relationship with
Oliver Hardy that
would continue for the remainder of his life.
In 1923, Hal Roach asked Charlie to appear
again in front of the camera, acting in short subjects, and even though he had
some trepidation about returning to acting, Charlie consented, knowing that it
would give him the opportunity to work with his older brother James, who was a
director at Roach Studios. It turned out to be a hugely successful move. There
at Roach Studios, Charlie refined his craft and became a master comedian and
movie-maker, beginning his personal Golden Era, and in the process producing
some of the greatest silent films ever made.
These were one and two reel comedies, most
of which featured Charlie’s on-screen persona, an everyday, average kind of man
named Jimmy Jump, often portrayed as the beleaguered husband. At first, his one-reelers
included heavy doses of the slapstick comedy he had learned with Mack Sennett at
Keystone, with lots of chases, shootouts, and the like, but Charlie gradually
shifted the emphasis of his pictures toward more sophisticated characterization.
Typical of this approach was 1924’s “The Fraidy Cat”, in which Charlie appeared
with several of the Our Gang regulars, including Joe Cobb, Mickey Daniels, and
’Sunshine Sammy’ Morrison. In this movie, he is a mousy kindergarten instructor
who suddenly finds great courage in his daily life when he mistakenly comes to
believe he is dying. Facing death, he fearlessly challenges a rival for his
lady’s affections, and turns the tables on his kindergarten class tormentors
(the Our Gang kids). Naturally, in the end he finds out that he isn’t really
dying, and it is great fun to watch the reversal of character that results.
Other gems from this period were 1925’s
“Should Husbands be Watched?” and “Mighty Like a Moose”, both of which explored
marital relationships, middle class values, and domestic life in general. The
latter is a two-reeler generally regarded as the best silent film Charlie ever
made - it was well directed, wonderfully acted, and did not rely on slapstick or
gags, but on situational comedy arising from several clever plot devices. One of
these demonstrated his continuing fascination with film techniques in a
hilarious scene where he is fighting a rival, which is actually Charlie himself,
re-edited into the same scene.
The series of silent films Charlie Chase
made for Roach Studios - and there were nearly one hundred of them through 1929
- were almost universally accepted by fans and movie critics as being among the
best works of that time period, and some of them like “Limousine Love” and those
mentioned above, are short masterpieces.
Charlie waved good-bye to the silent film
portion of his career with 1929’s “Modern Love”, which was a full-length project
he filmed for Universal. In this film Charlie sang for the first time, and this
became a trademark of his in many later films, notably “High C’s” (1930) and
“Rough Seas” (1931). His transition to the new talking movies was as effortless
and successful as his contemporaries, Laurel & Hardy, who of course were also
stars with Hal Roach Studios. In addition to producing a number of classic films
of his own during this period such as “The Cracked Iceman” (1934) and “The
Chases of Pimple Street” (1934), Charlie also contributed jokes and gags to the
Laurel & Hardy films.
But all good things come to an end, and in
1936 Charlie left Hal Roach Studios to join Columbia. He had been offered a
chance by Jules White to come to Columbia as actor-writer-director and he
accepted, believing he still had more to contribute to movie-making - his work
at Columbia Studios bore this out. Not only did he still make some fine movies
of his own there, but he directed films for other Columbia stars, including of
course the legendary Three Stooges, already the kings of slapstick at this time.
Unlike many movie stars, and especially stars
from these early years, it can truthfully be said that Charlie Chase was making
good movies right up until the end of his career, proof of which was “The
Heckler”, filmed in 1940. In this one, Charlie is a loud-mouthed fan at a
baseball game who causes the home team to make all kinds of errors as he heckles
their play in the field. Gamblers in attendance see an opportunity to make a
killing by using Charlie to demoralize the team again at the
next game, and betting on their opponents.
Unbeknownst to the gamblers however, the players sneak into Charlie’s room while
he sleeps and leave ice on his chest, so the next day full-throated Charlie has
no more voice than a whisper.
This was another Chase classic, and we are
fortunate to have this last testament to his greatness, for Charlie died in June
of this same year, a victim of excessive drinking during the later years of his
life. It is a shame that this great comedian’s career has not enjoyed the same
continuing popularity as some of his contemporaries, because among the hundreds
of films he made, many were wonderfully funny and entertaining, both silents and
In 1969, Robert Youngson released a
compilation film called “Four Clowns”, which featured the work of Laurel &
Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chase. What renown Charlie does have with
recent generations is in large part due to the exposure he received from this
movie, which showcases an extended segment from his masterpiece “Limousine
Love”, and other classic snippets from throughout his career.
Other stars from that time may
have shone more brightly, and others may have enjoyed more directorial success,
but few entertainers from his era possessed the combined film-making talents and
dedication of Charlie Chase.
Ken Lashway is a freelance writer from New York.