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SPECIAL SCREENINGS

Charley Chase Funny Beyond Words

September 20, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To celebrate the upcoming centennial of the birth of Charley Chase, the Silent Movie is presenting at 8 p.m. on Wednesday a two-hour program of '20s two-reelers starring this delightful but often overlooked comedian. The shorts were produced by Hal Roach, who hired him as a writer-director in 1921.

By 1924, Chase--who started with Mack Sennett a decade earlier--was back in front of the camera, playing shy or intimidated types who finally gather the courage to assert themselves. Chase never quite attained the heights of the classic silent clowns, perhaps because he was a little too similar to Harold Lloyd--both were slim and handsome, although Lloyd deliberately played down his good looks by wearing his trademark nerdy glasses. More significant, surely, is that Chase never got to do full-length features until the advent of sound. For awhile Chase flourished in the early talkie era, but died in 1940 of a heart attack.

At his best, however, Chase could hold his own with the competition. Two of the shorts in the program are virtually classics of inspired silent comedy, and all of them were directed by Leo McCarey, soon to become a major director. "Mighty Like a Moose" asks us to believe that a husband (Chase) who has had his buck teeth fixed and a wife (Vivian Oakland) who's had a nose job no longer recognize each other. "Mighty Like a Moose" is such fun it's easy to suspend disbelief as these two people find themselves attracted to each other to the extent of being tempted to overlook the fact that both are already married.

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"Innocent Husbands" carries the results of a wife's jealousy to sublime comic heights. Chase plays such a model husband that his wife (Katherine Grant) finds herself compelled to suspect that he's just got to be unfaithful. Her actions--and his reactions--culminate in a seance in her living room during which she's supposed to learn the truth about her husband's faithfulness or lack of same once and for all, while he sleeps in the adjacent bedroom. Meanwhile, he's actually trying to escape the clutches of a plump but determined vamp (Kay de Lys).

"Bad Boy" finds Chase working his way up at his father's iron foundry, courting the pretty girl (Martha Sleeper) who works in the diner across the street--and pleasing his social-climbing mother by appearing in an Isadora Duncan-like Greek dance at a lawn party; "Be Your Age" finds him hornswoggled by his boss into courting an amorous rich widow old enough to be his mother--her own goofy son is played by none other than Oliver Hardy.

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On Friday and Saturday, the Silent Movie will present "So's Your Old Man" (1926), one of W. C. Fields' funniest, in a pristine print borrowed from the Library of Congress (which will receive a percentage of the box-office take for silent film preservation). Fields plays the exuberantly uninhibited inventor of an unbreakable windshield who has terrible luck cashing in until he crosses paths with an elegant Spanish princess (Alice Joyce), whose descent upon the small-minded community in his behalf provides some sharp, hilarious social satire. Directed by the esteemed Gregory La Cava, this gem is proof that Fields didn't need his trademark voice to come across as a comic genius.

Information: (213) 653-2389.

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In its final week, LACMA's "1933" series will present perhaps the most unusual of its offerings of Hollywood pictures made that year on Friday at 1 p.m. and again at 8 p.m. It is "The Kiss Before the Mirror," directed by James Whale from an adaptation of a play by Laszlo Fodor. Frank Morgan stars as a Viennese attorney who is defending his best friend (Paul Lukas) for killing his much-younger wife (Gloria Stuart), caught in the arms of her lover (a decidedly pre-Mr. Miniver Walter Pidgeon). Morgan then starts suspecting that his own young wife (Nancy Carroll) is cheating on him. The film is highly theatrical but Whale brings to it the same elegance and unsettling emotional intensity as his famous horror pictures--"Frankenstein" and "The Old Dark House." Also playing is "The Masquerader," with Ronald Colman in a dual role.

Information: (213) 857-6010.

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