The Charley Chase Scrapbook details a bittersweet life with laughter
Review by Doug Gibson
This review is cross posted at Plan9Crunch blog.
A while back I reviewed “… The Harry Langdon Scrapbook,” a fascinating visual treat of the comic’s life and career. It was a treat from small publishing house Walker and Anthony and it prompted me to want to read and review another vintage comic scrapbook subject, Charley Chase. It’s “The Charley Chase Scrapbook.”
Chase, with an iconic face, worked very had to build his career as Charles Parrott, comic actor. Once living in poverty, he moved himself into prominence as a vaudevillian and early silent comedy actor. He gained initial acting stature, starting as an extra, with movie man Al Christie, and moved to Keystone and Mack Sennett, mostly as a director and writer. Pay disputes prompted him to freelance a while, again directing more often. He worked, among others, with Fox-Films and Bulls-Eye, mostly behind the camera, often directing Billy West, a Chaplin imitator who was popular.
During these years he married a dancer and English teacher named BeBe Eltinge, and two girls were added over a few years, Polly, who later acted with her father, and June, many of whom’s recollections were gathered and eventually used in the Scrapbook. Charley’s marriage with BeBe was a strong union that remained until his death.
Chase eventually gained stardom with Hal Roach studios. About that time he took the “Chase” last name, selecting it out of a phone book. His younger brother, James Parrott, who acted as Paul Parrott, came to Hal Roach a little before Charley and was a director, writer and briefly an actor. By 1926, Chase’s career was rolling; but James’, due to poor health, was slowly receding The rise of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedy teams would eventually eclipse Charley Chase’s stature at Roach’s studio.
Concern over his brother, and a problem with alcoholism, would plague Chase the rest of his life. In the early days of sound, a medium he was well equipped for with a great singing voice, a bad ulcer nearly killed Chase. He rebounded with Roach studios working consistently for the first several years of the 1930s.
In my opinion, and many may disagree, Chase was at his best in the sound era. He was a very talented silent comedian, among the Top 10, but his voice and mannerisms work well with sound, and are well suited to talkies. In the Laurel and Hardy feature, “Sons of the Desert,” Chase is superb as a pushy but likable prankster with the boys at a lodge convention. And although he did his best work overall with Roach studios, The Heckler, a Columbia comedy short he made late in life, captures Chase’s talent so well as he plays an abrasive, jokester fan at a tennis match. He’s great with an outraged Vernon Dent.
Eventually, Chase left Hal Roach studios. A note from Chase in The Scrapbook shows that he took his disappointing departure with humor and grace. Chase stayed busy, soon signing with Columbia’s comedy shorts department, and doing what he was best at, acting, directing and writing. One of his better-known directed shorts is “Violent is the Word For Curly,” from 1938.
Concern over the health of his deteriorating brother, James, wore Chase down in the 1930s. Before drug addiction literally destroyed his career, James directed the classic Laurel and Hardy short “The Music Box” and some Chase’s films as well. But drug abuse demolished James’ career, and eventually cost him his life in May 1939.
According to the Scrapbook, Chase blamed himself for his brother’s death, and continued to drink heavily. Although he had a loving family and a still-strong career with Columbia, the excess drinking contributed to the heart attack that killed Charley Chase 13 months later, on June 20, 1940. He died in his home.
The Scrapbook is designed much like the Langdon one, with stills, posters, writings, drawings, family photos, handwritten entries, newspaper interviews, drawings, articles, and other communications providing a montage of his life. These scrapbooks provide readers glimpses into the personalities of the subjects. You witness Chase’s drive and love of his craft. In this case, the picture is worth at least hundreds of words.
Many of the Scrapbook items are from Chase’s personal collections, preserved by his grandson Charley Preshaw. The pictures of Chase, late in life, holding grandson Preshaw as an infant, provide a warm, human look at the comedy legend.
Chase rubbed acting shoulders with the best of his era. The book serves as a history of his era, a glimpse into a time capsule that fits on a coffee table. “The Charley Chase Scrapbook” is not inexpensive. It’s a small press labor of love. It’s a must for Chase fans, or fans of Hal Roach’s vintage comedy. I recommend it for early film comedy fans as a fitting inclusion in your genre bookcase.