Featuring Charley Chase and that miraculous wonder substance, alum
Charley Chase had a long and illustrious career as a screen comedian, but he really hit his stride in the mid- to late 1920s. The two-reel shorts he made for the Hal Roach studio during this period are usually enjoyable at the very least, sometimes superb, and generally rank with the best comedy output of the era. This is when Chase perfected his style of character-driven, semi-realistic farce comedy, often based on themes of embarrassment and frustration. A prime example is Are Brunettes Safe?, one of the seemingly effortless 18-minute gems he and the Roach crew crafted during this period. (It's also one of many with a quizzical title, one that poses an absurd rhetorical question that has little or nothing to do with the actual content of the film; you might say these titles count as a bonus gag.)
On this occasion Charley is a newspaper advice columnist. One day he gets a letter from an older lady who lives in a small town and hasn't seen her son in years, but hopes to be reunited with him. She includes a photo, and the son, Bud Martin by name, is the very image of Charley. Charley's boss encourages him to go to the lady's town and pose as her son, for a human interest story. What could possibly go wrong? Since this is a Charley Chase comedy we're talking about, plenty, and fast.
When Charley arrives at the train station in the town where the lady lives, he is disturbed to find that the townsfolk react with surprise and fear when they see him, and run away. All he knows about Martin, at this point, is that the man walks with a limp. There's some nice comic business as Charley struggles to limp correctly, and a great tracking shot as he hobbles down the street, while business owners react with horror, close their shops, pull in their goods, etc. As he passes a girls' school, a schoolmarm grabs the girls and yanks them inside. (We might start to suspect that Bud Martin isn't such a nice guy, or an ideal subject to impersonate, but our innocent hero seems oblivious.) Charley reaches Mrs. Martin's house at last and meets a nice young lady in the garden. They flirt, and hit it off. When Charley greets the older lady she accepts him as her son, hugs him and says she knew he would come back some day—and fight the charges against him! Only now does our hero begin to feel queasy about his impersonation. Worse still, he learns that the young lady he just met is "his" sister, but she hasn't seen her brother in such a long time she didn't recognize him. They're both dismayed, of course.
Most of the rest of the film takes place at the village box social, which is something like an indoor carnival. Bud's family enters a pie in the bakery competition, plus there is live entertainment, dancing, a merry-go-round, etc. At the party Charley is promptly mistaken for Bud by one of Bud's old cronies, a low-life floozy (Polly Moran) who insists on pulling him onto the dance floor. Chase was a terrific dancer, and in many of his films a comic dance is the high point; this tussle with Moran is one of the best, as Charley struggles to dance despite his gimp leg. Soon afterward, just before he's called upon to sing, he accidentally swallows alum.
I need to pause for a quick sidebar about alum. I've never purchased it, or had it on hand in any household where I've lived, and yet, thanks to its constant use in the old cartoons and short comedies I grew up seeing on TV, I feel like this mystery substance (a "colorless astringent compound that is a hydrated double sulfate of aluminum and potassium, used in solution medicinally and in dyeing and tanning" according to the dictionary) which seems to make people pucker uncontrollably, is as familiar as an old friend, one who always makes me laugh. And if there were to be a trophy awarded for Best Use of Alum for Comic Purposes, this comedy would definitely be in the running for top honors.
Anyhow, Charley must sing after he's swallowed the stuff, and this results in a priceless routine as he struggles to get the words out while helplessly puckered. But the hoax cannot last, of course. Inevitably, the real Bud Martin arrives in town, and finds his way to the box social. The expected confusions ensue. Charley and Bud encounter each other briefly, in a nicely handled split-screen effect. All is revealed, and the mix-ups are straightened out just in time for the fade-out. Happily, Charley and Bud's sister are now free to canoodle, and no longer have to worry about breaking any taboos.
Are Brunettes Safe? is a terrific comedy. My only quibble is that, after that great dance sequence and the business with the alum, the last few minutes of the short feel a bit rushed. This is one occasion when it might have behooved Mr. Chase to go for a longer running time. But why quibble? Plot concerns are secondary. I'm just glad this short has survived, and can still be enjoyed today. Leave them laughing, after all.
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