If you've ever wondered what the cartoons of Bob Clampett or Tex Avery might have looked like if they'd featured actual people instead of animals who talk and act like lunatics, you should take a look at some of Charley Chase's early one-reel comedies, the ones made when he was still known as "Jimmy Jump." They vary in quality of course, but the best of them have an engagingly crazy atmosphere, very cartoon-like, and the ten-minute running time feels exactly right. Like most of his contemporaries Chase came to realize eventually that longer films would call for more realism in the plotting, but when they were making these one-reel shorts Charley and his crew would throw in any gag that struck their fancy, no matter how odd, macabre, or off-the-wall it might be, and when ten minutes were up, they'd stop.
Case in point: The Rat's Knuckles, one of the most enjoyable of the Jimmy Jumps I've seen. Here Charley plays the inventor of a humane mousetrap, convinced it will mean his fortune. Jimmy (i.e. Charley) boasts of his idea to anyone who will listen, although, significantly, the demonstration of the device is saved for the final scene. When he romances his girlfriend (played by the adorable Martha Sleeper) he waxes eloquent about the riches they will share when she is his wife, living in luxury in their stately mansion built by his mousetrap profits. This fantasy sequence is the highlight: Professor James Jump and his Missus, dressed to the nines, step grandly outside their mansion, where the path is lined with newsreel cameramen who eagerly record their every move. The front lawn is decorated with an enormous plaster mouse sculpture; Jimmy's gold-headed cane has a handle in the shape of a mouse; and on his wife's face is a mouse-shaped beauty mark. During this scene I found myself thinking of Walt Disney, the man whose fortune actually was attributable to a mouse, or at least, to a mouse-inspired act of creativity, although this film was made several years before the birth of Mickey.
In any event, reality intervenes, and Jimmy finds to his dismay that the gentleman at the patent office isn't as impressed with his ingenuity as he'd anticipated. When we finally see the device demonstrated we understand why, although I feel Jimmy deserves brownie points for thinking outside the box. The ending of this short is startlingly abrupt, and startlingly funny, but not the sort of thing Chase would use later on. Like the entire film, the finale has a breezy, what-the-hell quality that is amusing and wears well after all these years. The Rat's Knuckles was created to amuse viewers for ten minutes or so, and that's exactly what it accomplishes.
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