The rehearsals and performance of my orchestral score for the Charley Chase short “Dog Shy” in February were probably the first time I’d watched the film several times in a while. My participation in the NYC Physical Comedy Lab in the time that has passed since the score premiered three years ago is probably why I noticed something I’d never paid much attention to before.
The NYC Physical Comedy Lab is a bi-weekly, formerly weekly, opportunity for circus and physical comedy performers to gather on a drop-in basis and play, skill-share, try out new stuff, and sometimes develop new gags together. I’ve learned some basics of hat manipulation, of trips and falls, comedy slaps and hits, walks, character stuff, and on and on. I’ve even gotten to try out some undercranking tests with physical comedy that have further proved my theories and understanding of how silent comedy films were made.
There is a moment at the end of a scene in Dog Shy that clearly needed some kind of a little button, to the minds of the folks making the film — Chase, Leo McCarey, and any of the other gag-men on set. Charley has been mistaken for the new butler hired by the father of the young woman Charley has met on an inadvertent phone conversation. The man she does not want to be involved with, whom her parents do, has just shown up at the front gate of her house, where Charley and her father have just met.
The nobleman (Stuart Holmes) and the father (William Orlamond) have greeted one another, and together with Chase head off toward the house and the scene fades out. Story point made.
Someone on set — Chase? McCarey? — must have thought they needed a little button on the scene. But what to do? The plot development point has been made and there’s nothing else to add. There’s no way to know for sure without a time machine, but perhaps veteran vaudevillian Charles Parrott (now Chase), moving through the scene, instinctively threw in something any physical comedian has in their back pocket…a trip.
Performed simply, by hooking the front of one foot on the back of the other while taking a step, followed by a reaction to it of some sort, is something that’s been around forever. It’s something I learned how to do in the Lab, along with stumbling and doing the trip while going up a couple of stairs.
It’s not a Keaton fall or anything spectacular, and watching the film on a monitor by yourself or in your living room on an old 16mm print, it may not have much of an effect. It’s not organic to the event that’s just happened in the story.
But, in front of an audience of around 750 in the Egyptian Theatre in Boise, darned if it doesn’t get a bit of a laugh as the image fades to black before we cut to the title card that introduces the next scene.