Monday, September 27, 2010

Two Charley Chase Shorts: “The Real McCoy” and “Young Ironsides” (Hal Roach/MGM, 1930-1931)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Afterwards Charles and I looked for something short we could watch just as a cinematic palate-cleanser after the miserable experience of Incubus, and I found it in a couple of Charley Chase shorts from Hal Roach (released through MGM) in the early 1930’s that TCM had shown as filler following their presentation of Miss Mend (a four-hour plus Soviet silent from 1926 that was apparently issued originally as a serial, though the version Flicker Alley prepared for TCM isn’t a serial — it’s just spliced together to create a very long feature). The first short on the agenda was The Real McCoy, made in 1930, directed by one Warren Doane (a name otherwise unknown to me) and with no writer credit, which starts with a long silent scene in which Chase is driving down a rural road in a sports car (at least what passed for one in the U.S. in 1930) and Edgar Kennedy, as a motorcycle cop, is in hot pursuit. Chase misses a “Detour-Bridge Out” sign and drives off a washed-out bridge into a creek — and so does Kennedy in the middle of following him — but not before he’s seen a hot-looking blonde (Thelma Todd) and decided he wants to stay in this small town to get in her pants.

He tries various means to get to know her, including attempting to pose as a mountain man because he’s been told (by the Kennedy character) that the people in the mountains distrust outsiders and therefore he’ll never be able to get next to her if he can’t appear to be one of the locals. He poses as the last of the McCoys (as in the Hatfields and … ) and is warned that the locals will shoot him at any opportunity if they find out he’s an outsider, but they’re too gallant to murder a cripple. Immediately on hearing that, Chase starts affecting a limp wherever he walks. As part of his mountain-man outfit he gets a hat made out of skunk fur, but a hunter who sees the hat over the edge of a fence thinks it’s a live skunk and shoots it off Chase’s head — and when Chase picks it up again he doesn’t get the hat: he gets an actual, odoriferous skunk and puts it on top of his head, then wonders, when he finally does get let into Thelma’s house, why she keeps insisting on first opening the windows and then closing them again. She offers to take his hat — and then immediately throws it away again. Meeting her again under less fragrant circumstances, he gets her to agree to be his date at the local square dance — whereupon someone challenges his mountain-man pose and insists he prove his bona fides by joining the local bluegrass ensemble in a song — which Chase sings quite capably, besides playing a dizzying array of instruments including banjo, violin, jew’s harp and ocarina. (Charley Chase, musical star — who knew?)

The finale is set off by another series of complications: on one of his initial attempts to approach Thelma, Charley split his pants open and Kennedy helpfully pinned them back up … with his cop’s badge. Well, in a community full of moonshiners holding a police badge is virtually a death sentence — and when Chase takes off his coat at the dance the badge is revealed on his ass and he has to get away again, only to find that his sports car (which has been fished out of the water in the meantime) won’t move because its back wheel is stuck in mud. (He thinks it’s moving because a square-shaped array of clotheslines is being blown in the wind behind him — the wind is turning the clothes into sails and spinning the thing, an ironic gag based on the carousels with painted backdrops by which movie backgrounds were frequently supplied before the advent of process screens.)

The Real McCoy is the sort of simple, basic comedy at which Hal Roach’s studio excelled, though the film they showed after it, Young Ironsides (the title is a pun on the naval costume drama Old Ironsides about the 1812 War, produced by Paramount in 1926, but the two films otherwise have nothing in common and this one is not a spoof of the other), was even funnier and a good deal more typical Roach fare. The director was Charley Chase’s brother, James Parrott (Parrott was the family name and Charley’s own directorial efforts were signed “Charley Parrott”) and the writer was H. M. “Beanie” Walker, who began at Roach as a title writer and was one of the few who graduated from that job to full-fledged screenwriter in the talkie era. This time the story is about the efforts of Muriel Evans (the name of both character and actress) to enter the big beauty contest at Ocean Beach, and the efforts of her father, J. Caldwall Evans (Clarence Wilson, the great comic villain of W. C. Fields’ movies Tillie and Gus and The Old-Fashioned Way), to stop her. In order to stop her he hires a detective named “Fearless” (Charley Chase) — who of course is introduced when a mouse crawls up his walking stick and he erupts with comic fright, doing a pratfall across the Evans’ living room and breaking up a serving cart — for $1,000.

Fearless traces her to the pageant, tries to get on the 10th floor where the beauty-contest girls are staying, is kept out by the house detective (Heinie Conklin) but has already met Muriel Evans on the train and fallen in love with her without knowing who she is. There are some racy gags in this one, reflecting this film’s position in the “pre-Code” Hollywood glasnost, including one in which Chase is on a train attempting to eat a stalk of asparagus, only the asparagus keeps going limp and collapsing before he can get it into his mouth — and if that weren’t Gay enough, there’s a scene in which he’s in a compartment with Muriel and a large man (an almost unrecognizable Billy Gilbert). The train goes through a tunnel and the room is plunged into pitch-darkness, and Chase is muttering endearments to his ladylove — only when the lights go on again, you guessed it, Charlie is muttering endearments to Billy Gilbert instead. Our Hero apologizes, and Gilbert, in the queeniest voice imaginable, says, “Oh, no! I don’t mind at all!” Eventually Chase gets to the hotel where the contest is being held and thinks he’s locked Muriel in her closet so she can’t get out and appear in the contest — only it turns out he’s locked in the house detective instead, and the house detective arrests Chase for owing $1,000 in room rent back east.

Just then, in a legitimately surprising finish, Muriel finds out that her father was supposed to pay Chase $1,000 to keep her out of the beauty contest and she withdraws, insists that dad pay Chase the money, and thereby gets her new boyfriend off the hook at last. These aren’t great films but they are reliable laugh-getters and considerably funnier than anything being made today, not only because they don’t depend on cheap sex jokes for their humor but also because they’re considerably better constructed, with gag following and topping gag after gag in a style of continuously increasing merriment that Hollywood seems to have long since forgotten.