Wednesday 30 September 2009

Mama Behave (1926)

Director: Leo McCarey
Star: Charley Chase
I have no idea how to dance the Charleston, which if this film is anything to go by would have made me a worthless husband in 1926. Charley Chase would appear to be one too, because he can't dance the Charleston without falling over, but he's just fooling to get away from taking his wife out every night of the week, a demand she'd be happy to impose if she thought it would be worth it. In reality he's positively as light as the breeze on his feet, because the successful silent comedian just had to be. Fortunately he has a twin brother, distinguishable to the eye only by the addition of a fancy suit and the removal of a pair of glasses, and brother Jim can dance!

So after Charley's butler overhears a comment his wife lets slip to her friend Miss D'Arcy while he's within earshot, Charley dresses himself up as his brother Jim to sneak her out for an evening of dancing at the Cafe Riskae. What a great opportunity to surreptitiously find out whatever he can about his dear wife. Of course, being a silent comedy, this doesn't quite go as well as he might have hoped. There are some genuinely funny scenes as Charley, in the guise of Jim, tries his utmost to seduce 'his brother's wife', scenes that turn into overblown spoofs of silent horror movies.

Mildred Harris, who plays Charley's wife, has an aptly named character. She's Lolita Chase, apt because she's possibly best known as the first Mrs Charlie Chaplin, marrying him at the age of 17 when he was 29. They were divorced five years before this film. Her other chief claim to fame was to introduce Wallis Simpson to the future King Edward VIII when still the Prince of Wales, a powerful anecdote in conversation but perhaps a little unfair given her long career in film. Vivien Oakland is the delightful Miss D'Arcy, Lolita's best friend who lives across the hall and ends up falling for Jim, or at least she thinks so. This was only a couple of years into her real screen career, discounting a single appearance back in 1915, but she'd go on to five decades of films, all the way into the fifties.

As a Charley Chase short, this one's a good one, certainly better than The Uneasy Three. The gags are funnier, the sets better and the choreography more astute. In short, it's much more professionally put together and it stands the test of time, raising laughs over eighty years after it was made. One day I'll get to sit down and watch a slew of Chase films in order to see how he progressed and whether the gems are just dotted here and there because they were due entirely to the law of averages or to whether he had distinguishable peaks and troughs in his career. This makes 28 of his pictures for me, but that's still a drop in the ocean: IMDb credits him with appearances in 277 films.

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