In the early 1970s Robert Youngson released 4 Clowns, the last of his feature-length compilations devoted to silent comedy. Three of Youngson's four clowns were headliners in their day and are still widely remembered (i.e. Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Buster Keaton) but the fourth, Charley Chase, was under-appreciated in his time and is all but forgotten now, except to a comparatively small but dedicated corps of fans. I was fortunate enough to see 4 Clowns in a packed theater, and still recall the surprised laughter that greeted a lengthy excerpt from one of Chase's most inventive comedies, Limousine Love. That night, it must be said, Charley more than held his own alongside his better-known colleagues. For years I've wanted to see this film in its entirety, and I finally got the chance at a recent screening of Chase shorts sponsored by the Silent Clowns film series in New York City. It took more than thirty years, but I can honestly say that Limousine Love was worth the wait.
Like many of Chase's best comedies, this one is built on a premise that seems fairly conventional at first but soon turns farcical, then cuckoo. The absurdities escalate until Charley's predicament has become a surreal and strangely sexy comic nightmare. Along the way there's an unlikely coincidence or two, and at least one key character makes a decision that is highly questionable, but in order to enjoy Chase's work you can't be too literal minded about credibility and motivation. In fact, it helps if you forget that stuff! Just roll with it. Charley Chase's method was to create clever, elaborate situations that result in comic embarrassment, and in Limousine Love he reached his apotheosis.
The story is set on the day of Charley's wedding, and he's already running late. When his chauffeur quits in a huff Charley is forced to take the wheel himself, in his formal get-up of tailcoat and top hat, and drive through a remote rural area to the wedding. Meanwhile, a grouchy guy (played by the eternally grouchy Edgar Kennedy) is in the vicinity, teaching his much-younger wife (the delectable Viola Richard) to drive. She makes mistakes, tempers flare, the husband steps out, and the wife drives away. Soon afterward she flips the car over and lands in a muddy ditch, unhurt but soaked to the skin. There are no houses around, but she notices a nearby limousine, parked, unoccupied and apparently abandoned, and decides to hang her clothes on a nearby clothesline and wait for them to dry while sitting in the back seat of this car, buck naked. This is the very moment when Charley, who had briefly stepped away from his car, returns and resumes driving to his wedding, unaware at first that he has a beautiful nude girl riding in the backseat.
Okay, you're probably thinking that no woman in a similar situation would do as Viola does. Who would doff all her clothes in the middle of nowhere, then climb into the back of a stranger's car to dry off? In the real world, no one. But remember the key to enjoying Charley Chase: just roll with it. Trust me, it's funnier that way. Charley soon becomes aware of his passenger and her situation, but the clothesline holding Viola's garments has washed away into a sewer, so there's no retrieving them. Charley hopes to get help from a hitch-hiker and picks him up -- only he turns out to be the lady's husband, Edgar Kennedy. Viola hides her face and Edgar, apprised of the matter, chortles and assumes a jovial boys-will-be-boys bonhomie with Charley, who is now is a rather difficult spot as he approaches the church.
Things get crazier from there, and just when you start to think the gags can't get any more outrageous, they do. By the final sequence the action has turned quite dream-like, and when it's over you feel like you've been lost in some kind of hallucinatory reverie. It's hard to believe that Chase and his colleagues packed so much comic inspiration into a mere two reels of film, and harder still to believe that the man is practically forgotten today. Limousine Love is one of his very best comedies, and with any luck it will be made more widely available, somewhere, somehow. I certainly hope I don't have to wait another thirty years to see it again.
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