Cut to the Chase - The Charley Chase Comedy Collection
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Charles Joseph Parrott of Baltimore, Maryland started out in vaudeville during the rough and tumble days in the first decade of the 20th century. Exactly 100 years ago this year, this young man fresh off the stage, started working at the Christie Film Company. During the next decade he worked as a juvenile lead, a gag writer and a comedy director. When he changed his name to Charley Chase and found himself featured in the Hal Roach s short comedies, he became one of the great geniuses and stars of Hollywood s golden era of silent comedy. As renowned as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd at the time, Chase easily matched them laugh for laugh. The always-dapper Chase specialized in portraying the pleasant common man with very common skills placed in the most uncommon of circumstances. Chase's best performances at the Roach studio were directed by the legendary Leo McCarey (Make Way for Tomorrow, Duck Soup) and featured great character actors of the day including Bull Montana, Max Davidson and the lovely Katherine Grant. Years in the making, this amazing Charley Chase collection features more than five hours of comic masterpieces from the height of Chase s career. The Uneasy Three (from a 35mm print at the Museum of Modern Art) and Charley My Boy (from a 16mm print from the John Hampton Collection, courtesy of the Stanford Theater Foundation) are exclusive to this release. Disc One: April Fool, The Fraidy Cat, Bad Boy, The Caretaker s Daughter, Be Your Age, Bromo and Juliet, Dog Shy and Charley My Boy Disc Two: The Uneasy Three, Innocent Husbands, Isn't Life Terrible?, What Price Goofy?, Long Fliv the King, Mama Behave, Mighty Like A Moose, Mum's the Word
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If you are a Charley Chase fan, this set is worth the cost just to see more Chase films you haven't seen before, and to see a few in better image quality than you've seen before. BAD BOY is in absolutely excellent condition, visually, and it is complete (the only other decent version on another DVD set is missing a key shot at the end). However, the music by David Knudtson does not bring the film to life. I have to give him a lot of credit: he is obviously watching the film and trying to comment on the action, which so many silent-film accompanists fail to do (I'll never know why); but the music in general is pretty lackluster. Probably if he had played the organ it would have been a bit more colorful. I do suggest finding a copy of the DVD collection "Becoming Charley Chase", which has a murky version of this film but with the very funny, kooky music-track by the Snark Ensemble. (If you are a Chase fan you should get that set anyway.)
I find that Chase's comedies, as funny as they can be, still tax my patience a little (I'm not a fan of embarrassment humour), and they need the help of a good musical accompaniment to sustain my interest. Therefore, I found DVD#1 of this set a little rough going.
The movie DOG SHY is presented here in a far inferior print than you find in the Kino version. For Heaven's sake, the right half of the image is out of focus!!! Kino's print is 100% sharp and clear. If Milestone could not find a good print, why not find a different movie with better quality to replace it? I don't see the purpose in inferior duplication. Also, although Ben Model's music isn't bad, it is Neil Brand on the Kino DVD who really brings life to this film. On the other hand, although presented with the typically bland accompaniment by Dave Knudtson, this Milestone print of BROMO AND JULIET is much better than the image quality of the print used by Kino. However, Kino's pianist Neil Brand blows away Knudtson with the verve and humour of his musical accompaniment. I would use the Kino prints of the above two films if I were going to share these movies with anyone. David Drazin's music to THE CARETAKER'S DAUGHTER started out pretty good, but then he proceeds to improvise in his hunt-and-peck-peck-peck method on the piano, without heed to anything happening in the movie, and after three minutes or so I became so annoyed that I just turned off the sound and watched the film in silence. Ben Model's accompaniments are better, if undernourished.
DVD#2 has a little different story. Starting with the second film on the disc, INNOCENT HUSBANDS, you have another movie with superb image quality, but this time with a perfectly matching, superbly-composed soundtrack by Donald Sosin. If you get this DVD set, just compare Sosin's work on this film, versus the piano music on any of the preceding movies. His music is so head-and-shoulders above everyone else's music up to this point, that I cannot understand why Milestone would even CONSIDER Knudtson, Drazin or even Model, given the exemplary quality they would get by hiring Sosin to do the music. I cannot possibly over-emphasize how perfectly Sosin matches sound to action. And when he is not highlighting a comic moment (in fact, even when he is), his music is upbeat, jazzy, sensitive (does not wear you out), and appropriate to the era.
Regrettably, with the next film, we go back to Drazin's pointless note-picking. I couldn't watch it, particularly since I have this film on the Kino version with much better music.
Fortunately, the very next film, WHAT PRICE GOOFY, has again beautiful picture quality, and this time with the Mont Alto orchestra's sweet and engaging music, mostly appropriate to the action. Not perfect, but enjoyable. This is an instance where, in my opinion, sound effects would help overcome the moments when the music doesn't quite match the tempo of the action. Comedy is SO hard to do... And along that line, just watch the incredible timing of the ensemble work by the actors in this movie, the individual pantomime, and the editing. And the IMAGINATION of the writing! It is all astounding. This is comedy that nobody can do today. It requires too much skill. Or perhaps, too much care.
LONG FLIV THE KING has pretty good accompaniment by Mont Alto, although they take a while to warm to the humour, sometimes continuing to play sweetly through a scene that becomes frantic. Unfortunately, the image, though sharp, is scratched, and not too clear in the first few shots. A better image (with more precisely matching music) is available on one of the Kino sets of Chase films.
MUM'S THE WORD is a poorly-restored (read: not restored at all) print, dark, scratched and at times pretty beatup. However, it has an excellent soundtrack by Donald Sosin. On the other hand, you can find a MUCH BETTER print on the Kino version, and also with a very, very good music track.
This set may contain the definitive version of MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE, the rightly acclaimed classic. The image is about as good as it gets for this film. Mont Alto are very funny with their score, and even include a couple of well-placed sound effects. Their music is a little repetitious, and they play through a few scenes that could use more variation in style and tempo, but overall it is a satisfying experience. Perhaps almost equal in image quality and with an even more precise soundtrack is the version on the recently re-released DVD set: "Slapstick Encyclopedia". But Mont Alto is very, very good here, and when they make the effort to match the comedy they are particularly ingratiating.
If you are NOT exactly a Charley Chase fan, or haven't yet become one, I suggest that you look into the Kino sets before buying this one. Those two sets have several of the same movies on this set, but with superior musical accompaniments, and sometimes superior image quality, for many of the overlapping films.
If you are a fan, by all means pick this up. You get to see some "new" Chase films, you get a great image version of BAD BOY, the best version of INNOCENT HUSBANDS, the excellent WHAT PRICE GOOFY, and good alternative versions of LONG FLIV THE KING and MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE, so it's well worth the money. Think about it: this DVD set is not much more than the cost of a nice lunch for two. Just try to take a date to five hours of movies for this price!
While not the fiasco which is Milestone's simultaneous Mary Pickford release, this DVD set is not without its problems.
Most of these films look pretty good, with the usual scratches and missing frames expected of silent films of this era. That said, "April Fool" (the first film in the package) looks pretty rough. "Charley My Boy", which the DVD case advises was taken from a 16mm print, looks even rougher. None of them are unwatchable, however, so they are still superior to what you might be used to of a public domain print for a silent film.
Music throughout is scene-specific, with the majority being piano only. Some of the piano music becomes monotonous at times, but it still does the trick. Personally, I also found the music on "Innocent Husbands" by Donald Sosin to be a little to startling, but another reviewer here thinks otherwise, so I guess it is "to each their own". Anything is better than the modern music that plagues some silent movie DVD's.
Concerning the DVD production, immediately, one is struck with the poor menu design, which places two of the eight selections on each DVD on a second page. Additionally, the menu always returns to the first film in the list upon the conclusion of each short, even if you are playing a short on the second page. Very inconvenient. Otherwise, the menus just have an amateurish look to them.
Milestone has windowboxed some of these movies so extensively that even on an old set with plenty of overscan, the movies take up but a small portion of the screen. This is nothing more than incompetent production on Milestone's part. Unlike another reviewer on here, I understand the reasoning behind windowboxing....and in fact support it wholeheartedly. But they took it WAY too far on some of these films!
One other visual issue I encountered was digital noise at the top of the screen throughout much of "Charley My Boy". It looked a little like the old television sets when the vertical hold was a little off. I noticed it very briefly on one other film, but it became quite distracting on "Charley My Boy", especially since the original source was so poor to begin with.
All in all, a pretty disappointing experience. It is a pure joy to see these shorts for the first time, but the sloppy production prevents me from recommending this set without reservation. If you can pick it up cheap enough, go for it. I intend to purchase at least the VCI set, as only two shorts on that set are on this one. Hopefully the transfers on that set are done with a little more care.
Also, if you AREN'T familiar with Charley Chase's work, you certainly won't find anything out about him or the history of these films from this release, as there is no insert/booklet/pamphlet included. You're on your own if you want to know more. (Mackinac did a wonderful job on their Fatty Arbuckle release, providing a small booklet with loads of info on Fatty. I don't understand why more companies don't put forth that effort.)