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Charley is plagued with failure and with his brother-in-law, who's allergic to labor. When he decides to take the family on a camping trip, his wife learns about a contest sponsored by a pen company, with the first prize being an ocean trip. To win the prize Charley has to sell those pens - surprisingly he wins, but the ship turns out to be a wreck on it's last trip to the scrapyard. To make things worse they accidentally leave their young daughter on the dock and the ship sails without her. What else can go wrong on this trip? Written by
Stephan Eichenberg <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Except for Charley Chase, whose name appears above the title, there is no cast list. Actors are introduced by inter-title cards just before they appear on the screen. The IMDb cast list therefore uses this "order of appearance" sequence. See more »
Although slapstick heroes such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy remain household names even today, they were only the front runners among dozens of silent comics, most of whom are now forgotten. A lot of them of course weren't very good in the first place. You also get someone like Harry Langdon who is remembered better than he ought to be simply because he made feature-length movies, two of which were directed by Frank Capra. And then there is Charley Chase, who only ever made short comedies, never graduating onto features, and yet he was very popular in his day, and deserving of more recognition now. Isn't Life Terrible?, one of his finest two-reelers, demonstrates why.
Chase isn't one of the more athletic slapstick comics as Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd were. In fact, you can see a few of his "stunts" here are sewn up with camera trickery, such as when he leaps off his deckchair onto the ceiling. But Chase is a great reactor, a master of the brilliantly-timed double take. His horrified or bemused expressions are sometimes enough to make some of the more pedestrian gags laugh-out-loud funny. Unlike shy romantics Chaplin and Lloyd, Chase often played the put-upon family man, the kind of figure we now know very well from modern sitcoms but quite a rarity in silent comedy. Chase had the right demeanour for this niche, and the right capacity for consternation to make it funny. For this short, he is supported by a pre-"Laurel and Hardy" Oliver Hardy. The character Hardy plays is a workshy buffoon, a little different to his familiar persona but still one he can manage. One might expect him to upstage Chase, but he doesn't. And this isn't because Hardy is bad, it's just that Charley Chase is good enough to carry the picture himself.
A major contributing factor to Isn't Life Terrible? is that the director is Leo McCarey, later an Oscar winner for his dramas, but at this point a key man at the Hal Roach studios. McCarey's formula for comedy direction was often to push an idea to the point of absurdity. Take the opening scene, where Chase twice has a chicken thrown over his fence, twice throws it back, and then suddenly has about a dozen chickens come plopping over at once. This doesn't make much sense, and it's not even clear who's throwing the birds, but it's a funny bit of nonsense all the same. Like Chaplin, McCarey is often puts his characters in the background and has the chaos they cause in the foreground, such as when Chase hurls a suitcase on top of a car, only to have it crashing down on the other side, in front of the camera. Our distance from the players makes it look more like some street scene we have inadvertently witnessed, and much funnier as a result. And although the pace of Isn't Life Terrible? is quite fast, McCarey isn't afraid to let things play out slowly if needed, for example Chase and co.'s stunned response as their trunk is accidentally dumped in the sea.
The only major weak spot to Isn't Life Terrible? is its story and structure. The sudden switch half-way through from Charley selling fountain pens to taking his family on a cruise makes it look as if two separate story ideas have been awkwardly spliced. The linking device of Charley winning the cruise by selling the most pens doesn't makes sense because, as we are shown, he isn't a very good salesman. And it's important for comedy to be well-plotted. After all, Chaplin only really took off when he started developing his little sketches into meaningful comic stories. What saves Isn't Life Terrible? is that sense of the ridiculous that Chase and McCarey had, that ability to build funny business out of nothing very much. This was a real advantage of the Roach studios, where there wasn't some all-controlling writer-director-star, and everyone in the team was welcome to throw in their ideas. There are dozens of blink-and-miss-it sight gags to watch out for here, and although Chase lacks the spark of genius, not to mention the ambition of his better-known contemporaries, he is undoubtedly a professional comedian who knows how to keep us laughing.
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