While Charley Chase is far from being as famous as “The Big Three” (Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd) today, he’s highly respected as one of the “greats” by fans of silent comedy.
Chase (real name Charles Parrott) was born in Maryland, USA, in 1893. After a brief career in vaudeville, burlesque, and musical comedy he appeared with Al Christie at Universal Studios as a comedian in 1913 before moving to the Mack Sennett Studios the following year. His career in films did not start off with remarkable success. He played bit parts in a large number of short comedies, coming to notice in ‘The Knockout’ with Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Edgar Kennedy and The Keystone Cops. This was followed by appearing in a number of films written and directed by Chaplin. At the end of 1914 he was one of the stars in the spectacular Tillie’s Punctured Romance featuring all the stars on the lot, and which took 14 weeks to shoot. He spent another year with Sennett starring in his own shorts, one of his first being Settled at the Seaside co starring Mae Busch. In 1915he started directing films using his real name and switching to his stage name when starring. He moved to Fox Studios in 1916 where he directed, wrote and starred in comedies some of which featured Chester Conklin. After a couple of further studio moves he rejoined Sennett then went to Paramount before arriving at Hal Roach Studios in 1920 as a director, before Roach realized what a gifted performer he had hired. “I can play anything!” Chase told Roach, and eventually his claim was confirmed. Although Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio has earned legendary status as the ultimate factory of comic invention, it can hardly be denied that Roach developed a more refined style of comedy which obviously fitted Chase better (indeed, Sennett’s unsophisticated product increasingly lost favor with the movie-going public by the early 1920s, while Roach’s studio flourished). During five years, 1924-29, he starred in nearly a hundred two-reelers, most of which were directed by Leo McCarey.
Chase usually portrayed an apparently gentle and charming man who in reality, it eventually turned out, was quite a loser after all. His character was largely inspired by Lloyd Hamilton, another neglected comedian whom Chase had directed in several two-reelers. Among Charley’s most memorable shorts are Innocent Husbands, Mighty Like a Moose, and Movie Night.
From the beginning, Charley Chase was a “critics’ darling,” but none of his movies were remarkably successful at the box office. There is no official “explanation” to this, but one reason may be that Chase, in contrast to the more popular clowns, never starred in any feature during the silent period. On a personal level, Chase was severely hobbled by alcoholism, which is unapparent in his films.
Chase made several promising appearances after the talkies arrived, in 1929-30, especially in Laurel and Hardy’s highly acclaimed feature Sons of the Desert (1933). Despite this, he was never offered any further appearances in features. But he continued to perform in shorts and did also direct some of the Three Stooges’ early movies. He died in 1940, not yet 47 years of age, of a heart attack. It is reasonable to believe that his early death was to a large extent caused by his addiction to alcohol, a problem which had troubled his family for several years. His brother James, also an actor, had died the year before. The two brothers had been close throughout their lives, although their personal problems frequently affected each other (or perhaps that was the reason for their being so close.) Chase was married to Bebe Eltinge from 1914, a marriage that lasted until his death and produced two daughters, Polly and June.
Chase’s silent work was celebrated on DVD in two volumes from Kino Video. At long last his comic genius is being recognized.