Tag Archives: Charley Chase

Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton

Update: Mystery solved! The truth about Charlie Chaplin and Universal

The Mail on Sunday ran a news story about Charlie Chaplin last weekend. I missed it at the time, but the story came to my attention when it was featured on Have I Got News For You (for non-Brits, that’s a satirical news quiz on the BBC). Panellist Paul Merton, who knows a thing or two about Chaplin, pulled quite a face when he heard it. You may too, when you read on.

The story, written by David Wigg, who seems to be an occasional correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, mostly on showbiz stories, is about a set of correspondence from 1912. The papers were discovered in the archive of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and concern one of the society’s most famous members, Charlie Chaplin.

The story goes, and please put down your tea before continuing, that Charlie Austin of the Water Rats, well-connected in London theatre circles, had recommended Chaplin to the Universal film studio in America. The executives there wanted to replace Buster Keaton, as he had become far too demanding. A reply from Universal voices several concerns about Austin’s suggestion of Chaplin as a potential film star. He would, the letter says, have to change his appearance, his act and his name. The year, I remind you, is 1912.

The studio wrote: ‘The moustache must go and Chaplin will have to change name. Too easily confused with another comic Charlie Chase. Also Chaplin sounds Jewish.’

The memo added: ‘Please send in new ideas and new name in case tests are successful. Also, do not allow Chaplin to walk comically. This may look alright on English Music Hall stages but for mass audience we must try to avoid offending people who are bow- legged or cripples. DO NOT let him over-act. Try other hats and caps, possibly even beret.’

Hold up. Yes, I know.

In a further letter, Austin says that Chaplin “strongly objects” to changing his makeup and style (as if he has discussed the offer with the actor). Undeterred, Universal pays for Chaplin to travel to the US for a screen test in January 1913, but finds him to be unsuitable for screen work even though he apparently changed his “act” for the occasion:

Universal’s verdict was scathing: ‘Test unsatisfactory. Very bland style, no personality and too short. Please keep looking for comics. Keaton becoming impossible.’

It’s a classic story of the star who got away, like Dick Rowe turning down the Beatles, or that possibly apocryphal MGM screen test for Fred Astaire, which summarised: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” It also paints an unattractive picture of Hollywood types as both absurdly politically correct (concerns about mocking “cripples”) and either anti-Semitic or at least worried about pandering to that prejudice. It’s fun to look back with hindsight at fools in days gone by who couldn’t appreciate the talent that is clear to us now.

But if you have any knowledge of the facts of Chaplin’s life or of early Hollywood, this story is pretty much bilge from beginning to end – with just a smear of truth to make it believable. It’s almost impossible to know where to start with this nonsense. But let’s begin with this:

Continue reading Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton

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Slapstick at speed: the 2016 festival on fast-forward

After two whistlestop days at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival I am on the train back to London already, but the laughter is still ringing in my ears. Through the fug of good company, great films and fabulous music I can still pick out some details … just about. Here are the five best moments that I will treasure from this year.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

Charley v Charley

Friday night’s silent comedy gala had plenty to recommend it, of course, but when it comes to slapstick there was one standout moment for me. The fight sequence in Mighty Like a Moose (1926), in which Charley Chase battles himself, with costume changes of course, is a special pleasure. Can I place a standing order to see this every Friday night from now on please?

Chicago-1
Chicago (1927)

The many faces of Phyllis Haver

Cecil B DeMille’s Chicago (1927) is seedy, brutal, and hilarious. Like all the best nights out. The most deliciously cynical sequence must be Roxie Hart’s trial, though. As Hart’s lawyer sells her virtues (as it were) to the jury, Phyllis Haver moves through a cycle of poses that are as funny as they are strangely convincing. This devious minx flicks her features from “brave” to “sweet” to “shrinking” to “noble” faster than a flapper can roll her stockings.

The Awful Truth (1937)
The Awful Truth (1937)

Cary doffs his hat to Buster

If Bristol had done no more than to bring us Pauline Kael’s “slapstick prince charming” himself, we would still love this city. Watching Cary Grant in screwball masterpiece The Awful Truth (1937) at Slapstick this year was an absolute hoot. But the moment in this fizzy film when Grant is perched on the handlebars of a motorbike, Sherlock Jr-style, and touches his collapsed opera hat to his forehead in imitation of the great Buster Keaton? Priceless.

Continue reading Slapstick at speed: the 2016 festival on fast-forward

The 11 best silent movie dance sequences

Silents by numbersThis is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

Our Dancing Daughters (1928)
Our Dancing Daughters (1928)

Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)

The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.

Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)

The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.

Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)

Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)

Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend.  The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.

(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)

That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)

Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle.  In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!

Continue reading The 11 best silent movie dance sequences

Charley Chase films at the Barbican, 22 January 2012

Charley Chase
Charley Chase

You’re all over Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. Roscoe Arbuckle, Laurel and Hardy too. But there’s more to silent comedy than those big, big names, and this January, the Barbican offers a chance to get to know another fantastic funnyman from the early days of cinema, the dapper, charming Charley Chase – a comic as hilarious as his moustache is thin and elegant.

Charles Parrott started out in vaudeville, like so many silent comedians, but he went to work for Mack Sennett at Keystone in the early teens. While there, he appeared in a few films with Mr Chaplin and moved into directing as well. He directed several more films at Hal Roach’s studios, and after Harold Lloyd deaprted those premises he began starring in his own short films, under the name Charley Chase.

Chase’s silent movies were generally two-reelers, and the most famous of them were directed by Leo McCarey – three of which will be showing at the Barbican. Chase’s speciality is the comedy of embarrassment – character-driven farce as much as pure slapstick. In His Wooden Wedding, Chase is tricked, by a love rival, into believing his bride has a wooden leg. Mighty Like a Moose features a married couple who both undergo extreme makeovers courtesy of a plastic surgeon and then subsequently fail to recognise each other. Oliver Hardy takes a small role in Crazy Like a Fox, in which Chase pretends to be mad in order to avoid an arranged marriage. In each case, of course, mortifying complications ensue.

Crazy Like a Fox (1926), His Wooden Wedding (1925) and Mighty Like a Moose (1926) screen at the Barbican on 22 January at 3pm. Piano accompaniment will be provided by John Sweeney. Tickets start at £7.50 and are available from the Barbican website here.

  • There will also be a chance to see some Charley Chase classics at the Slapstick Festival in Bristol next month – so check that out too.

Slapstick Festival, Bristol, 26-29 January 2012

I hate to admit it, but there are good reasons to leave London sometimes. Bristol, for example, can lay a good claim to being the capital of silent cinema in this country, thanks mostly to the year-round efforts of the marvellous people at Bristol Silents. Indeed, come January there is nowhere finer for the discerning silent comedy fan to be. The annual Slapstick Festival is a four-day, multi-venue extravaganza of comedy, mostly of the silent era, presented by comedians and experts – and accompanied by live music.

The 2012 Slapstick Festival will take place from 26-29 January 2012, and the full lineup has just been announced. Yes, there will be some more recent comedy courtesy of gala screenings featuring Dad’s Army, Monty Python and the French film-maker Pierre Étaix. But Slapstick Festival is noted for its passionate endorsement of silent comedy, and it’s here in spades.

Buster Keaton in The General (1926)
Buster Keaton in The General (1926)

Kevin Brownlow will be talking about Buster Keaton and showing footage from his documentary A Hard Act to Follow, while Griff Rhys-Jones will introduce a night of silent comedy including a screening of The General at Colston Hall with music from Günter Buchwald and performed by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. On the last day of the festival, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Ian Lavender and Barry Cryer will also introduce their favourite Buster Keaton shorts.

The Slapstick Festival team
The Slapstick Festival team: Neil Innes, Chris Serle and Ian Lavender (back row); Paul McGann, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Barry Cryer

Historian David Robinson will give an illustrated lecture, with clips, on Charlie Chaplin and also discuss his work with fan and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar; Barry Cryer will present a Harold Lloyd double-bill and Graeme Garden will make a case for the debonair Charley Chase. David Wyatt will give two presentations: one talking about lesser-known silent comics such as Max Davidson and Larry Semon and the other on the spoofs and parodies rife in silent-era comedy.

Slapstick Festival events will take place in Colston Hall, the Watershed Cinema and the Arnolfini Arts Centre, Bristol from 26-29 January 2012. See the Slapstick Festival website for more details and to book tickets.

  • And don’t forget, the Slapstick Festival has its own real ale, brewed locally, especially for the event. The launch of the Slapstick Beer takes place at the Victoria Pub, Clifton on Friday 9 December at 7.30pm. Details on Facebook.