Fri 20 Nov 2009
BRIAN ANTHONY & ANDY EDMONDS – Smile When the Raindrops Fall: The Story of Charley Chase. Scarecrow Press, 1998.
RICHARD LEWIS WARD – A History of the Hal Roach Studios. Southern Illinois University Press, 2005.
Together these two books give a nice portrait of one of the most interesting smaller studios during Hollywood’s Golden Period. The Charley Chase book covers the creative sides by telling the story of one of Hal Roach’s most talented stars and directors. The Ward book covers more of the business and practical aspects of the studio and includes a great deal of specific figures on the cost and earnings of individual films and series.
I am a bit late to the party on Charley Chase, as other than his supporting role in Laurel & Hardy’s wonderful Sons of the Desert, I was not very familiar with his film work. I had seen a few of his shorts but those few were years ago. More recently, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) ran some of his silent short subjects as well as talkies and it piqued my interest. Chase was a very talented fellow, both as a performer and director.
Born Charles Joseph Parrott in Baltimore in 1893, he spent his first 10 years in an ethnic neighborhood near the inner harbor. After his father died, the family moved in with his mother’s sister and Charley began running errands and anything he could to bring in money.
A talented tap dancer with a pleasing voice, he began earning money on the streets as an entertainer. Soon he teamed up with two other boys and the trio gained bookings in vaudeville theaters. Eventually, he teamed up with another comic for a routine entitled “The Boys from Nutsville” that was very successful. Charley became tired of living out of a trunk and stayed in Los Angeles when a tour ended in 1911.
He found employment with Lon Chaney’s stage troupe as a member of the chorus. There he met his wife, but soon Chaney abandoned his stage career to enter movies. Out of a job, Charley did the same, first with the Christie Studios and then with Mack Sennett.
With Sennett, Charley began doing bits and graduated to featured roles, and along the way, was given his first chance at directing. He also became friends with the star of the Sennett lot, Charlie Chaplin, and appeared in several of the Chaplin films circa 1914. After several years with Sennett, Charley freelanced as a director and performer at Paramount and other studios.
His younger brother Jimmy Parrott went to work for the Hal Roach Studio in 1917 as a gag writer on Harold Lloyd comedies and eventually made his way in front of the camera. Jimmy was drafted into the Army and sent to Europe where he was wounded.
After his return, Roach put him back before the cameras but soon James Parrott left acting to become one of Roach’s best directors.
Meanwhile, his brother Charley joined Roach and because of his experience with some of the best producers, he was made supervisor of all productions. It was at Roach that Charley made his mark both in front and behind the camera.
As a studio manager, Charley lured Stan Laurel into returning to the Roach Studio trom vaudeville. Charley had worked with Oliver Hardy in the Billy West comedies and in 1924, he added him to be Roach stable of actors. While others have credit for teaming L&H, Charley got them to the same studio.
The star of the Roach Studio in the early days was Harold Lloyd. I attended a 100th birthday party for Hal Roach given by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington. Nearly completely deaf, Roach did answer questions posed. Asked who was his favorite comedian, Roach immediately answered “Harold Lloyd.” Why? “Because I made the most money with him.”
I need to dig up my notes from the Roach interview to be exact but when he was asked who he thought was the funniest comic, he quickly said “Charley Chase. But he was a terrible drunk.” Alas, in a hard-drinking era, Charley was notable for his love of brandy and eventually, it killed him in 1940.
Rail thin, slicked-back hair and a small mustache was the picture of a young man on the go in his early movies and even as he grew older, he maintained a very likable film persona. It is ironic that he is best remembered for his role as the obnoxious fraternal order convention-goer who plagues Laurel and Hardy in Sons of the Desert.
When Roach exited the short subject field (except for the “Our Gang” series), he used Chase in a couple of features and then fired him. Chase took a full page ad in Variety to thank Roach for a wonderful 17-year run. He moved over to Columbia where he had his own series, and he directed others including several of the best by the Three Stooges including Violent Is the Word for Curley.
The biography is an odd collaboration as Andy Edmonds had done much of the research years before but had never finished the biography. One day Anthony knocked on his door and asked him “Why?”
Together they finished the book: The close cooperation of Chase’s daughters and children add a human element often missing from biographies. The writers also visited the homes they lived in and that added a lot of physical detail.
Edmonds’ early interviews saved a lot of information that would have been lost with the death of Chase’s contemporaries. He even tracked down Joe Kavigan, the bartender at the theatrical oriented Masquers Club where Charley was an officer. Kavigan used to drive Chase home when he was in his cups. Chase would yell “Stop the car!! Get out!!” And outside, he said “Look at the sky! Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”
Kavigan said his helping the patrons home could be misinterpreted. He often escorted an inebriated Spencer Tracy from the club to his home. One late evening, Mrs. Tracy came to the door to help her husband in and said sharply, “How come when he’s with you, he’s always drunk?” She probably had no idea he was the bartender.
The Ward history of the Hal Roach studio is a much drier book but I found the level of detail fascinating. Discussed in detail are the relationships with Pathe as his distributor, fol1owed by the glory years with MGM and then finally with United Artists.
I knew Roach had been in trouble in the early 1930s after the crash but was surprised to learn that the studio nearly went under in 1940. Although Roach produced the wonderful Of Mice and Men starring Lon Chaney Jr. and Burgess Meredith, the rave reviews did not translate into profitability due to mishandling by United Artists.
As documented in a wealth of detail, the studio was never in great financial shape. Hal Roach, Sr. eventually turned it over to his son and Hal Roach, Jr. made the lot one of the most active in the early days of television. Shows shot at Roach included My Little Margie, Blondie, Racket Squad, and The Stu Erwin Show.
Independent producers rented the studio to make series including Amos and Andy, Life of Riley, Beulah, You Are There, and Waterfront. Yet, the studio couldn’t make money because of the debt it was carrying, including a hefty buy-out for Hal Roach Sr. Eventually, it went bankrupt.
Interesting tidbits: “Our Gang” weekly salaries in 1937: Spanky $200, Alfalfa $175, DarIa $150, Buckwheat $80.