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William V. Mong
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 »
It's not so terrible when there's a good comedy to boost your spirits
Charley Chase fans will enjoy this silent two-reeler from his mid-'20s heyday, but viewers unfamiliar with his work should be aware that proper appreciation of this film will depend on one's taste for the Comedy of Escalating Frustration: i.e., the sort of comedy where the humor depends on everything --and I mean, absolutely everything-- going wrong. It takes a special kind of sensibility (combining empathy with just a touch of sadism) to chuckle while the comedian on screen suffers through the worst day of his life, but if you liked Buster Keaton's The Boat or Laurel & Hardy's Perfect Day, you'll probably get a kick out of this one as well.
Charley plays a middle-class guy with a wife, daughter, and a lazy brother-in-law with a bogus heart condition he constantly cites to avoid doing any heavy lifting. (The brother-in-law is played by a very youthful-looking Oliver Hardy, who has a number of good moments throughout.) Charley's the kind of guy who can't get any yard-work done without getting assailed by chickens, and can't even help a neighbor pack for a camping trip without the situation backfiring on him. At his wife's urging Charley signs up for a contest, seeing as how his own family is in serious need of a vacation: whoever sells the most pens wins a free trip to the Tabasco Islands. Charley's adventures as a door- to-door pen salesman begin at the foot of what appears to be the same flight of steps later used by Laurel & Hardy in Hats Off! and The Music Box, seen here only briefly. The highlight of the sequence comes when Charley attempts to sell a pen to an attractive young woman (17 year-old Fay Wray) but succeeds only in squirting himself in the face. Fay's barely-suppressed laughter appears to be quite genuine.
Charley somehow wins the contest, but the family's voyage is just as plagued with problems as their life on shore. At the dock their daughter gets separated from the group and --in a highly unlikely switch-- is replaced by an African American girl of similar size, wearing a large, floppy hat. Watching this sequence the first time I braced myself for unpleasant racial gags typical of the period, but the treatment of the black girl is quite benign; surprisingly, she is accepted as part of the family group, and even saves Charley from falling overboard. The ship itself is an old tub that barely survives the voyage, and the crew members we see inspire little confidence. There are lots of gags, some predictable (such as the inevitable seasickness bit) and others less so (such as the startling outcome of a struggle with the stuck dresser drawer in Charley's cabin). Somehow the ship reaches the Tabasco Islands, and the story climaxes with a bizarre, macabre closing bit that may remind viewers of the "freak" gags Laurel & Hardy would sometimes employ in later years to end their comedies.
In sum, while Isn't Life Terrible? may not be the best thing Charley Chase ever did, it's a pretty good example of his style that provides a number of laughs, a surprise or two, and other elements of interest for silent comedy buffs.
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