30 August 2009 | wmorrow59
Becoming Charley Chase
For many years Charley Chase fans were out of luck: a relatively small sampling of his films were available in the 8mm and 16mm home movie market, but otherwise the vast majority of his output sat untouched in the vaults. Now, happily, there are at least four DVD sets of Charley's silent comedies on the market, a wealth of material that offers a comprehensive overview of the formative years of his career, and much of his best work. (At this writing Chase's talkies from the Hal Roach Studio and Columbia are not readily available, but with any luck that could change.) The most recent addition to the canon is a set called "Becoming Charley Chase," a beautifully produced collection of short comedies ranging from Chase's 1914-5 apprenticeship at Keystone through his 1923-5 Jimmy Jump series for Hal Roach. If you watch the shorts chronologically you'll see Charley hone his comedic skill as a performer, identify and develop his characteristic material, and sharpen his already impressive abilities as a behind-the-scenes gag man and director.
Made in 1918, Married to Order marks a key stage in Chase's development. Objectively speaking it's not the funniest thing he ever did, but to our eyes it's an early blueprint for the kind of comedies he would produce in his heyday at Roach in the mid- to late '20s. For me this short is more than a prototype, however: it's amusing too, and it's fun in part because it looks like the actors had such a good time making it. Charley's the dashing young swain, in love with a young lady whose father disapproves of the match. (Sound familiar?) Dad hates "mollycoddles" and consigns Charley to that category. I enjoy the way the three principle players openly send up the familiar situation, essentially winking at the audience and letting us know that they're well aware this is a standard comic premise and not heavy drama. For instance, when Charley first greets his girlfriend (played by Rosemary Theby), they melodramatically strike a pose of True Love -- until Charley's jacket belt suddenly comes undone, causing them both to drop the pose and laugh. Later, when the young lovers successfully trick Rose's near-sighted father, they leap into a brief but spirited Victory Dance. The father is played by Oliver Hardy, who steals every scene he's in with deftly performed business using his "pince-nez" glasses. When the glasses are on he can see fairly well, but when they slip off he's blind as a bat, and the young lovers repeatedly attempt to take advantage of this disability.
After various hi-jinx the plot proper kicks in: it seems that Rose has an identical twin brother who has been away at school, and he's due to return this very day. Charley suggests that Rose dress up as her brother so they can trick her old man and sneak away to be married. The one sequence I find a little tiresome comes when Dad, who believes Rose is her brother, gets boisterous and insists that the boy take a slug of hard liquor, chew tobacco, and top it off with a cigar. I recall a routine like this when Lucille Ball disguised herself as a man on "I Love Lucy," and it's shtick I can't enjoy because I don't find humor in watching a woman get nauseous. In this case at least the bit isn't prolonged, and Rose looks none the worse for wear when she switches back to female attire. Why does she change clothes? Well, this is where the plot takes a weird twist. Dad decides to turn the tables on Rose's irritating suitor, and instructs his "son" (i.e. Rose in male drag) to disguise himself as his sister, so they can fool Charley. Dad summons a parson to marry off this "mollycoddle" to a man in drag, his own son, so they can have a good laugh at Charley's expense. It winds up like one of those Elizabethan comedies where a girl playing a boy disguises herself as a girl, etc., hence, the story ends in discovery, reconciliation and the restoration of order.
All told, Married to Order is pleasant as well as historically interesting for fans of the leading players. In addition to Chase and Hardy, buffs will recognize leading lady Rosemary Theby as W.C. Fields' careworn wife in his 1933 classic The Fatal Glass of Beer. Frankly she already looks a little matronly in this early appearance, but displays an engaging comic flair and contributes several nice moments. Laurel & Hardy fans will certainly get a kick out of Ollie's uncharacteristic turn as Dad. (Inside joke: when he receives a telegram it's addressed to Babe Hardy, his off-screen nickname.) And as for our leading man, what a pleasure to see so many of his films become available for home viewing. For far too long it he was routinely called the "forgotten" or "underappreciated" Charley Chase, but that situation has finally changed for the better.