23 October 2004 | wmorrow59
Comedy gold, thanks to Mr. Chase
Perhaps you've heard about the great-but-neglected comedian Charley Chase, and perhaps you wonder what was so great about him. If so, this nicely polished gem from Chase's silent era heyday would be a good place to start an acquaintance. Judged on a bare plot outline Innocent Husbands might sound like a run-of-the-mill marital farce, the sort of two-reeler comics like Leon Errol cranked out by the dozen, but the difference lies in the execution. Charley Chase was a charming, agile performer with a highly expressive face and a lanky build, rather like a cross between Dick Van Dyke and John Cleese. Chase also possessed a gift for physical comedy and a fertile imagination for gags, which he demonstrated not only in his own movies but also when he directed films featuring his peers.
When I speak of "physical comedy," by the way, I don't mean the sort of primitive butt-kicking slapstick found in the early Mack Sennett comedies. Like many of his contemporaries Charley Chase's film-making apprenticeship took place at the Keystone Studio during World War I, but by the '20s he'd refined his skills to the point where his work was comparatively sophisticated, with an occasional touch of the risqué. One example from this film: when Charley is sent to an apartment building to fetch a young lady to bring to a party. He is told to stand in front of her building and whistle three times; this will be her signal to throw down her room key. Charley dutifully stands before the building and whistles three times-- and is pelted with dozens of keys! Maybe that isn't your idea of "sophisticated," but it's miles ahead of a Keystone food fight. Next we have a funny scene where Charley actually has to fend off the hot-to-trot young lady in the back of a cab. He's not merely an innocent husband, but one who has to FIGHT to uphold his virtue!
This is the sort of farce in which an obsessively jealous wife tries to catch her husband cheating. He's innocent, like the title says, and yet he eventually winds up-- innocently, of course --with an unconscious floozy in his bedroom, and must scramble to conceal her presence. Again, what makes it work is the freshness Chase brings to this admittedly familiar material. A highlight comes early on, when Melvin (Charley's character) tells his wife Mame that he's become so tired of her suspicions he's going to end it all. He stomps into the next room, finds a revolver, fires it into the floor and falls, in a histrionic manner. No response. So, naturally, he does it again. Still nothing. Now Mame opens the door to watch as Melvin performs this ridiculous act a third time. Flat on the floor Melvin looks up, realizes Mame is watching, and quickly resumes playing dead. This may not sound so funny in the telling, and God knows plenty of lesser comics have performed similar routines to little effect, but trust me, when Charley Chase does this, it's funny. Innocent Husbands is a comic treat that deserves to be better known, and so does its star performer.