Smile When the Raindrops Fall: The Story of Charley Chase

Dear friends, we are gathered together for a Charley Chase revival meeting. Let us rejoice in the release of the first full biography on this prolific funnyman, arguably the world’s most famous, forgotten screen comedian of the 1920s and ’30s. Smile When the Raindrops Fall: The Story of Charley Chase is a fond and frenetic look back at Hollywood during the golden age of silent and sound films. This was the time when every studio desperately wanted to cash in by producing the most popular and perennial of pictures – the two-reel comedy. There were dozens of also-rans, but all were hard pressed to successfully compete with the two biggest producers of funny business – Mack Sennett and Hal Roach. Charley Chase (a.k.a. Charles Parrott) worked extensively for both producers.

Young Charles Parrott began his career dancing and singing on the street corners of Baltimore. After a short stint in vaudeville, he entered films as a most opportune time – when the industry was young and it was possible to crash the gates. He appeared on the screen as early as 1913 in Al Christy comedies and joined Sennett’s Keystone in 1914. Soon he began writing, directing and starring in his own one and two-reelers. It was de riguer in those early Sennett days for the best and brightest of the lot: comedians Dell Henderson, Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and Chase to have creative control – as long as the funny stuff amply displayed the Sennett knockabout style.

By the mid-1920s, Chase became a major influence at the Roach Studio. His signature character became fully realized during this period: an affable (and feisty if necessary) “everyman,” infused with a zany edge and cartoonish surrealism. He displayed a lanky physique, highly polished hair parted in the middle, a dapper mustache and a facial expression for every occasion. His m.o.: perfectly constructed misunderstandings and heartily embarrassing situations – with just the right amount of slapstick.

Chase’s film output was extensive in his 26 years on the screen. This is not to say that every production was solid gold. Cranking out two-reelers to meet quotas superseded creating masterpieces. Chase more than met his quota, but he should not be written off as a minor league comedian. He was a professor in the world of comedians who inspired and coached other artisans to locate the audience’s funny bone and give it a hilarious whack. Although the two-reelers established his popularity, in the long run would they keep him from competing with the big four, Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon, who had all graduated to feature-length films. Chase had the talent, the creative energy and the drive of an autuer. Although not formally educated, he possessed a quick and brilliant mind. He spoke several languages, played a variety of musical instruments and wrote popular songs (however, the title of this book is taken from a composition he sang in What a Bozo! (Roach/M-G-M, 1931) but did not write). Even after he had proved himself a major cog in the comedy industry, he remained a loyal company man. Like many company men, his work was under-appreciated by the long shadow cast by the studio. In Chase’s case, it was the inscrutable comedy mogul Hal Roach, himself.

Roach’s success in the late silent and early sound era could be directly traced to his secret weapon – Charley Chase. The greatest comedies of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang came out of the Roach studio. They may have borne the Hal Roach stamp, but the creative juices in which the gags simmered belonged to Chase. He spent his most successful years with Roach acting, writing and directing. Ironically, the man who placed Chase at his highest pinnacle would also stunt his career growth. Even during the comedian’s peak years, between 1925 and 1936, Roach would never allow Chase complete creative control, nor the opportunity to go into features as he allowed Laurel and Hardy to do. Chase gave Roach his best years and his best gags. In gratitude, Roach canceled Chase’s contract in 1936. The long, professional relationship between the two men is deeply explored in Smile When the Raindrops Fall. Roach, a tough old bird who outlasted ’em all, was interviewed for the book. Even his declining years had not softened his outlook, he gave a very direct and unsparing assessment of the comedy business. It is not surprising that Roach’s ambition and success allowed him to surpass his greatest rival – Mack Sennett, the “King of Comedy.”

The Dark Side of an Everyman

The Gods often play tricks on talented mortals of comedy who have charmed, uplifted and, on occasion, cured the inborn depression of the masses. For them, it is as if the Gods have decreed: If one makes a living making people forget their troubles with jest, the jester shall never be content with themselves. Many comedians seem to be immune to the healing powers of their own humor. Creating successful comedy has always been a serious business and the best moments of their lives were reserved for public exhibition.

Up until recently, very little was known about the private Charley Chase. Even the most devoted of his fans did not know he was married or had two daughters. There was no way to know what went through the mind of this very creative and hard-working comedian. It is through his daughter June Chase Hargis (Chase’s other daughter Polly died at the age of 41 in 1957), a gracious and handsome woman who inherited Charley’s long and lean physique, that we come to know the complexities of her father’s world. Many children of the famous had no relationship to speak of with their famous parent, but June tempers her candid honesty with love and admiration for a father she knew well. She collaborated extensively on this book, and her contributions are the centerpiece. June provided many rare photos to illustrate the family man Chase kept totally protected and private. Looking through the book’s photos is like sitting on the sofa and looking through the family album together.

Chase worked and played hard, and, according to June, he strictly separated his professional life from his home life with an iron resolve. He was a good father who was proud of his daughters and created a close bond with them. He even enjoyed being a grandfather. The comedian also was a social creature and forged many friendships. These extended from hobnobbing with the most anonymous of crew members to fishing and horsing around with the likes of Stan Laurel, a close friend. However, it wasn’t satisfying enough to work for the industry in which he was gainfully employed, be supported by a loving family or appreciation from his fellow comedians.

There was a feeling in his gut that made his heart burn, and it wasn’t indigestion. It was the smoldering disappointment he felt at his inability to garner the world fame his contemporaries did. Charley Chase was no flash-in-the-pan. He worked many years for a kind of recognition that never came in his lifetime. Yet, the Gods do not always bestow equal fame and fortune, even upon those who work very hard for it. Chase was respected, but what he really wanted was Chaplin-like adoration. Financially, he was comfortable and provided generously for his family, but he was not a millionaire. For Chase, this all amounted a bitter pill that he continuously washed down with a bottomless flask of alcohol.

Yeah, Charley drank. Alcohol addiction was the occupational hazard of Hollywood, an unwritten clause in the job description and, ultimately, the fatal disease of many industry people. If lightning could strike twice in the same place, it did for Charley and his brother Jimmy Parrott (1898 – 1939). Jimmy was not a performer, but, like his older brother, he was also a professor of comedy. He directed several shorts starring his brother and directed scores of films for the likes of Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang. The Brothers were very close. So close, that the same lightning bolt that stuck them with success also caused irreparable damage to their psyches. They shared a similar self-destructive temperament in dealing with their emotional disappointments. Both would pass away prematurely, within 13 months of one another.

In spite of all his frustrations and bitterness, Charley Chase deftly entertained his audiences and made them laugh. He did it by way of his vintage two-reelers, like His Wooden Wedding (Roach, for Pathe, 1925) and Mighty Like a Moose (Roach, for Pathe, 1926), in his domestic comedy talkies, when he was teamed with “Hot Toddy” Thelma Todd, and most memorably in his comedic support as the fraternal pal to “The Boys” in their beloved classic The Sons of the Desert (Roach, for M-G-M, 1933). For the uninitiated, many of Chase’s films, both silent and sound, are available on video.

Author and Charley Chase buff Brian Anthony presents his idol, warts and all. However, he has done Charley justice combining excellent research and dedicated attention to detail. Co-author Andy Edmonds contributed her vast knowledge of the era and provided a rich three-dimensional portrait of Chase and his times. She did this in much the same vein as her compelling bio of star-crossed comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in Frame-Up! The Untold Story of Fatty Arbuckle (Morrow, 1991). It took many years of preparation (and much anticipation on the part of Chase’s fans) to bring Smile When the Raindrops Fall to fruition. Dear friends, it was worth the wait – put ‘er there, Charley; we’re glad to finally know ya!

Madison Morrison