Charley Chase meets the woman of his dreams but has to wriggle out of an arranged marriage in order to live happily ever after. His solution is to feign insanity, which backfires in the most hilarious way possible.
Hal Roach comedies in general and Laurel and Hardy in particular have always been a big part of my cinematic life. I was a kid during the VHS era and my father and his brothers would swap tapes of Stan and Ollie back and forth. I envied my oldest uncle enormously because he owned a copy of Sons of the Desert, a title we never quite managed to get our hands on until the DVD revolution. I love everything about the film but I remember the standout for me when I first watched it was a little cameo from Charley Chase.
Chase is not a household name these days but he starred in some of the most charming comedy shorts that producer Hal Roach ever released. More dapper than Stan and Ollie, his persona was more of the Max Linder variety as he could be both a goofball and a creditable romantic lead. (He was no slouch as a director either, working behind the camera under his real name of Charles Parrott.)
In Sons of the Desert, Chase plays a party animal conventioneer; the part is brief but I fell head over heels for his antics. When I started watching more silent comedy, I was fortunate enough to see Mighty Like a Moose as my introduction to Chase’s 1920s work. I immediately snapped up the various Chase collections that had been released and enjoyed them enormously but of all his shorts, I love Crazy Like a Fox the most.
Martha Sleeper plays a young, modern woman whose father (William V. Mong) is trying to talk her into an arranged marriage with the son of an old friend. Martha has never met this fellow but she’s darn well not going to marry him and so she plans to run away via train.
Charley Chase plays a dapper fellow who has just arrived at the train station with his valet, Gloom (Al Hallett). He has an unpleasant interaction with the governor of the state (William Blaisdell) and then has a meet cute with Martha when they mix up their suitcases. It’s love at first sight but Charley has a problem; his father is pressuring him to marry the daughter of an old friend. What to do? (Okay, we can all see this punchline coming but that’s just the setup for even more comedy!)
Gloom suggests that Charley feign madness so that the bride’s family will have nothing to do with him. In spite of his initial reluctance, Charley proves to be a perfect goof and he quickly tests his crazy act out on an innocent passerby (Oliver Hardy). He doesn’t realize that his act was so good that Hardy has called the authorities and asked them to lock up this dangerous lunatic.
Charley arrives at the house and presents Martha’s mother (Milla Davenport) with a letter stating that he has spells of madness but can be called back to sanity with a few tweets on a whistle. And then he goes to work. Words can’t adequately describe Chase’s antics as he twitches his feathered hat, plays with his imaginary Airedale, attempts to kick garden party guests and takes his revenge on the rude governor. Of course, the act works like a dream and Martha’s parents are ready to call the whole thing off when Charley sees exactly who his would be fiancée is and realizes his mistake.
As Charley tries to undo the damage, Martha’s father has been advised to act just as crazy in order to humor this dangerous madman. With the tables turned, Charley gets a dose of his own medicine. Will he mend fences with his in-laws and lady love or is he doomed to be dragged off to the asylum? See Crazy Like a Fox to find out!
I should issue a content warning for this picture: I laughed so hard that I was physically unable to breathe at certain points. Show suitable caution and keep your inhaler close at hand. This picture just tickles my funnybone in every imaginable way.
Charley Chase didn’t go in for pathos or insane stunts. In fact, his funniest moments come when he is just making faces and dancing for the camera; the man was naturally hilarious. This is the great strength of Crazy Like a Fox: it is the perfect delivery vessel for letting Charley be Charley. Chase’s great strength was in contrast: he had a normal appearance complete with dapper mustache but there was always this hint of zaniness lurking below the surface just waiting for a narrative excuse to leap out.
At his best, Chase maintained a delicate balance of romance, good humor, mischief and slapstick. Each ingredient was included in the right amount and the finale of his best films descended into surreal situations that had started out innocently enough but had snowballed out of control.
In Crazy Like a Fox, Chase’s character uses his madness not only to achieve his goal of dumping an unwanted fiancée but also get enjoy some petty paybacks and to just push people’s buttons. It all comes back to bite him when he must backpedal and prove his sanity to everyone he has been teasing for the last reel. While the situation is intentionally ridiculous, Chase is adept at keeping one foot grounded in reality while gaily twitching the other one in Gonzoland.
(I suppose that this is as good a time as any to state that I strongly disagree with the Big Three or Big Four categorization in silent comedy. Proclaiming that all other comedians are automatically smaller potatoes is ridiculous as humor is a matter of taste and I see no point in limiting myself with artificial levels of funny. For the record, I have laughed longer and harder at Chase’s antics than those of any other male silent era comedian.)
The rest of the creative team delivers as well. Leo McCarey’s direction has snap and Beanie Walker’s title cards are as droll as ever. Martha Sleeper, a regular Chase collaborator, is appealing as the leading lady of the picture. She spends most of the picture playing the straightwoman to Chase’s antics but she is game for the job and conveys the right amount of befuddlement. Oliver Hardy is good in his role as Chase’s first victim and it’s fun to see his familiar twiddling fingers in his pre-partnership days. (Chase was a great champion of Hardy’s talents on the Hal Roach lot.)
The standout supporting player of the film is veteran actor William V. Mong, who enthusiastically embraces his character’s mad behavior almost as much as Chase. The scene where the terrified Charley is trying to keep the “mad” Mong at bay is classic and shows excellent comedic chemistry. It’s a shame that the two men did not work together more.
The film’s only real flaw is the unfortunate decision to have Max Asher play his butler role in blackface. (And before we get the tired squeaking about “context” and the ridiculous notion that no one objected to blackface back in the day, let me nip things in the bud. Blackface DID offend people in the silent era, they DID object and we have the entire archive of the Chicago Defender to prove it. Of all the myths about silent films, this is one of the most obnoxious.) Asher’s performance would have been so much better if he had simply performed without the makeup.
Overall, though, Crazy Like a Fox is an utter delight from beginning to end. Chase is in his element, the supporting cast is top notch and the story is a perfect frame to hang the gags on. (Chase later remade it as a talkie.) If you have never seen a Chase silent comedy (or any silent comedy, for that matter), this would be an excellent start. I hope you find the film and Charley as delightful as I do.
Where can I see it?
Crazy Like a Fox is available on DVD as the Charley Chase volume of Kino’s Slapstick Symposium collection (there is also a volume two). It comes with a delightful piano score performed by Neil Brand.
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If your only criterion is laughter, then, yes, anyone can enter the pantheon. But what sets Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon apart is their ability to tell a story that stimulates other emotions besides laughter and which reflects on life the way we experience it while still tickling the funny bone. That ability to transcend jokes is what places the artists above the talented Funmakers.
I think I made it clear that what makes comedies good or great is a matter of personal perspective. YOU view certain elements as important in your comedy favorites and that’s fine but the “pantheon” thing is pure opinion and should be treated as such. Pretending that there is an objective way of measuring such things is, frankly, a bit nonsensical.
In the summer of 1962 I attended a mathematics seminar at University of Rochester. While there I attended some of the screenings of silent comedies at the Eastman Movie Museum and I became an enthusiast for the short silents of Charley Chase and Harold Lloyd, I was already a L&H and Buster Keaton enthusiast, so Chase and Lloyd were welcome additions to my comedy enthusiasms.
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