12 February 2006 | wmorrow59
Charley tries on a few new personalities, with middling results
I'm a fan of Charley Chase's work from the silent era, especially the two-reel comedies he made for the Hal Roach studio in the mid- to late 1920s, but I've yet to find a talkie that shows off this uniquely talented and generally under-appreciated comedian to best advantage. Now We'll Tell One is a pleasant short with a couple of good sequences, but it never comes close to equaling the level of comic inspiration found in Charley's silent classics. There are certainly worse ways you could spend the twenty minutes it takes to watch this, but based on the evidence found here a first-time viewer unfamiliar with Chase's earlier movies could be forgiven for concluding that his reputation as a great comedian is exaggerated.
Our story concerns an eccentric scientist who has invented a device for transferring personality from one individual to another, a process accomplished through the wearing of what looks like an electrified belt. The scientist demonstrates his device on a stage before an audience of colleagues in a medical college. Several volunteers (each of whom, we're told, has a personality sharply contrasting with the others) take turns trying on the belt, and as each one does so the scientist throws various switches on his fearsome-looking machinery, and thus transfers that volunteer's personality traits to the main subject of the experiment, ten miles away. The subject is an elderly man who happens to be the grandfather of Muriel, who is the girlfriend of Charley, a timid soul who lacks the nerve to propose marriage to her. It's also established that neither Muriel nor Charley is aware of the nature of the experiment in which Grandpa is participating.
You with me so far? Good. Well, as it turns out, the first volunteer on the medical school stage is an acrobat, and when his "personality" is transferred to Grandpa ten miles away the old man finds himself turning back-flips uncontrollably. Grandpa is unhappy about this and promptly quits, pulling off his belt, throwing it down, and stomping off in disgust. For no good reason Charley claims the belt, puts it on and leaves. Meanwhile, back at the medical college, the scientist is unaware that his subject has quit the experiment, and continues to switch the belt from one volunteer to the next. Thus, for the rest of the movie, Charley's personality abruptly switches from one extreme to another, usually at the worst possible moment and causing him much embarrassment, but ultimately in a manner that allows him to save the day.
So, that's the plot. I don't know if this is a remake of an earlier silent film, but my feeling is that this kind of wacky farcical story might have worked better without sound. We're more willing to accept this sort of thing in the unreal world of silent cinema. The premise is just so goofy to begin with it would have required expert handling to put it across, but in this case the execution isn't all it might have been. For starters, Charley himself is not as likable as he was in his silent comedies, probably because for the sake of the plot it was necessary to establish him as a wimp early on, and frankly a wimp doesn't make a good leading man. Charley is all too convincingly wimpy, even giving his character a nervous giggle that is quite irritating. And unfortunately this film lacks the colorful supporting players found in many Roach comedies of the day; there's no Billy Gilbert, Mae Busch or Jimmy Finlayson on hand to enliven the proceedings. Another drawback: at the time this film was made the Roach studio was facing financial difficulties, forcing a cut-back on special effects. Thus when Charley assumes the personality of a motorcycle stunt rider we settle back to enjoy a 'thrill' sequence, but we're disappointed -- or I was, anyway -- to find ourselves watching Charley cavort on an obviously stationary motorbike parked in front of a rear-projection screen. The cheesy effects are a big letdown. (Budget cuts similarly hurt the chase sequence in Laurel & Hardy's County Hospital, made around this same time.) On the plus side, there's a funny scene when Charley goes to ask Muriel's father for her hand in marriage, just as the scientist places the belt on an effete "modern dancer." Muriel's father watches in bewilderment as Charley prances about in pseudo-Isadora Duncan fashion. Now We'll Tell One also benefits from the delightful background music of Roy Shield, found in most of the Roach comedies of the period. And while this movie lacks the the more familiar contract players in supporting roles, leading lady Muriel Evans is charming, and decidedly easy on the eyes.
In sum, this is a mildly diverting comedy for the not-too-demanding viewer, but anyone interested in discovering why Charley Chase is considered one of the great unsung comic talents of the movies should seek out such gems of the 1920s as Innocent Husbands or Long Fliv the King. Meanwhile, I'm still searching for a Charley Chase talkie that rises to the admirably high standard he established in the silent days.
P.S. Since posting this review several years ago I've managed to find a number of excellent Chase talkies, including Snappy Sneezer and The Hasty Marriage. It took me a while, but these and a few others proved to be worth the wait!