Charley Chase is, I suppose, fated to remain outside the first rank of silent comics, and that's probably fair enough: leading the second rank is no disgrace, especially in a field containing authentic geniuses like Chaplin and Keaton. The problem is simply one of amnesia: a lot of people, even among hardcore cinephiles, simply don't have time for anything outside the elite circle of the very best. That's understandable: life is short and film history is both long and broad, but if you're missing Chase you're missing some serious hysteria in your life.
What should help the Chase case is his work with Leo McCarey, an auteur whose star is on the rise, thanks to the availability (at last!) of melancholy masterpiece Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) and the Timeless Classic status of Duck Soup, The Awful Truth and several others. With a bit of scrounging around, official releases can be found containing a decent number of the McCarey-Chase collaborations.
Uncollected thus far, I believe, The Uneasy Three (1925) delights first because its title spoofs the Lon Chaney-Tod Browning weirdie The Unholy Three, released that same year, and second, third and fourth because of its slick farce plotting, boldly stylized perfs, and wonderful surreal imagery. McCarey may only have fully embraced madness in his Marx Bros picture, but he's flirting pretty outrageously with it here.
Chase, a smooth criminal in tux and topper, and his crooked cohorts, vamp Katherine Grant and strong-arm/weak-mind Bull Montana, crash a swank party disguised as musicians in order to steal a priceless broach. Private dick Fred Kelsey (the classic bulldog detective stereotype—Tex Avery even drew him as a bulldog in the MGM cartoon Who Killed Who?) sniffs around suspiciously but can't detect anything definitely fishy with this avant-garde music trio, despite Charley's miming at a player piano, Bull's clueless strumming of a harp ("What is dis? A radio?") and Grant's enthusiastic hooch dance.
Unfortunately, the sought-after jewel is swallowed by a toddler. The ever-practical Bull absconds with the tot in a small suitcase and brings his prize back to the criminals' lair. Now, with every cop in the city seeking the kidnapped kid, our crooks must try their best to keep the mite entertained, for his wails will bring the heavy hand of law enforcement down upon their collarbones...
Highlights include Charley's hat trouble: purchasing a balloon to entertain his little prisoner, he has to hide it in his topper to avoid attracting the suspicions of a policeman. And so he has to keep catching his brim as the hat floats serenely from his brow. And then McCarey stages the whole gag again with a hatful of goldfish flipping Charley's lid. Apeman Bull Montana is really funny, and as the third in the Uneasy Three, the glamorous Katherine Grant makes the most of her short time in the spotlight.
This is fast, silly, clever and skilled entertainment. Just because it was designed to be disposable doesn't mean we shouldn't treasure it.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.