Mighty Like a Moose
Dir: Leo McCarey
Scr: Charley Chase, H.M. Walker
Pho: Len Powers
Ed: Richard C. Currier
Premiere: July 18, 1926
Charley Chase never got his due, until now. The enterprising writer, director, and producer of and performer in comic movies never achieved the critical estimation that Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd did. He did not sport an eccentric persona – in all his films he is a regular guy, caught up in humorous yet everyday dilemmas. He never graduated to feature films, save as a featured player. He never indulged in slapstick – his humor is that of character and situation.
Yet his humor is as crisp and clear and vital as ever. Mired in the everyday, it still translates well to the benefit of our modern sensibilities. Recently, his films have been collected and released in various packages, and a biography was written about him as well. Slowly, people are getting to know Charley Chase.
Born Charles Parrott, Chase started out in film in 1912, playing bit parts and juvenile leads for Christie, Keystone, and L-KO Kompany, gradually moving behind the camera as a writer and director. In 1920, he began working for the Hal Roach comedy studio. Soon, he was its director-general. After Harold Lloyd left the studio in 1923, he decided to step back in front of the camera again, in the persona of Charley Chase.
Mighty Like a Moose is a fine example of Chase’s work. (The title is a play on the title of the then-popular song, Mighty Lak’ a Rose, a problematic bit of American culture itself due to it being written in a stereotypical and supposed African-American dialect.) The short takes up with a married couple, the Mooses, the husband of which (Charley) has a clinical case of overbite, and a wife with a ship’s prow of a nose. Each secretly gets corrective surgery to surprise the other. Unfortunately, they run into each other immediately after the operations and don’t recognize each other – and they begin to flirt.
Complications ensue. Enlisting expert timing, the two prepare separately for their illicit date at their home, narrowly missing seeing each other, in an intricate comic dance. They go to a party together; the wife is quickly danced away with, so the husband is left to encounter (with a sly, slow pan to the right) a grotesque-looking woman who only knows how to dance the polka. We see their awkward dance three times . . . the third time shot just legs and feet, a witty and remarkable shorthand that the audience can easily understand and participate in, filling out the rest of the image with their imaginations.
The film ends, slightly improbably, with Mr. Moose testing his wife’s fidelity by alternating between the roles of husband and would-be lover, finally staging a drag-out fight for his wife’s benefit. The action is fast and inventive, and ends with a knock-down punch administered by Mrs. Moose.
The film is also a fine example of the early work of director Leo McCarey, who would go on to win three Oscars. McCarey credited Charley Chase as his mentor, stating that “whatever success I have had or may have, I owe to his help because he taught me all I know.” McCarey is noted for his creation of the team of Laurel and Hardy, and he also directed such comedic personalities as the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, and Mae West. In the sound era, he crafted such classics as the screwball comedy The Awful Truth, Going My Way, and An Affair to Remember. Even this early, his style peeks out – the economy of motion, the clear underlining of character, and that unteachable comic skill, timing.
As for Chase, he continued to make comic shorts, into the Sound Era. In 1936, he stopped making his own films, moved to Columbia, and started supervising the short-subject comic output of that studio (yes, he directed the Three Stooges as well. Unfortunately, Chase was a depressive and a severe alcoholic. His heavy drinking led to his premature death in 1940, at the age of only 46.
It took six decades for his work to be reconsidered by the critical community, and now he is perceived properly – as one of the primary craftsmen of American comedy.
The NFR is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time: So’s Your Old Man.