I’ve read that this very funny one-reeler is just the surviving half of a two-reeler, but nothing connected to the DVD release of this film indicates that it is incomplete. Given the fact that some of its elements seem pretty disjointed, learning for sure that there was more than currently meets the eye would come as no surprise.
Charley Chase was among the most popular stars of short comedies in the late 1920s. Some have written that he was the most popular after Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd moved on to features. It’s easy to see why his style of comedy outshone that of the Sennett stable. The A-listers working for Hal Roach all fell under the influence of Leo McCarey, who appreciated situation comedy rather than the slapstick for which Mack Sennett is best remembered. McCarey’s approach could be riotous enough when called for, but he could also take his time and allow a story, simple though it usually was, to unfold. Watch the slow build in a McCarey silent with Chase or Laurel and Hardy, then compare it to the pacing of “The Awful Truth” or even “Going My Way.” Even the Marx Brothers, in “Duck Soup,” took some advantage of McCarey’s deliberation. Check out the scenes with Edgar Kennedy.
“All Wet” (1924) opens in a family boarding house, a species of communal domicile perhaps unknown to young viewers today. Think of it as a combination apartment complex and hotel. We’re told that this is “One of those places where you can tell what day of the week it is by looking at the tablecloth.” (A different meal was served every day, but it was the same meal every Monday, every Tuesday, etc.)
A telegram arrives, which, of course, means bad news. Who would pay the cost of a telegram to send good tidings? “Somebody must have died,” one of the elderly lady boarders says to another. “I hope it wasn’t serious.”
Everyone abandons lunch, rushing upstairs to deliver as a group the message to young go-getter Jimmie Jump. (This is just one of the dozen Jimmie Jump comedies Chase made in 1924, among his 30 films from that year. He’d been in pictures for ten years, and this was his 110th.) Jimmie is as nervous as everyone else as he tears open the envelope, and then laughs heartily when he finds out that he is to pick up a litter of puppies at the train station at 2:40 Wednesday afternoon. These dogs have no bearing on anything and are either just a means of getting him out of the house or are an indication that some film footage indeed is missing.
As his disappointed neighbors go mumbling back to their meals, Jimmie grabs his hat and leaves the house.
Chase, whose real name was Charles Joseph Parrott, was a thin 6-footer. Not spectacularly handsome, he had a long, open face that was better at conveying realistic laughter than tears. Usually dressed in a light suit and boater and wearing a reasonable mustache, he was an outgoing everyman, not quite as boyish as Harold Lloyd but never as serious as Keaton. His screen character was consistently the victim of the kind of bad luck that forced him into embarrassing situations. The comedy of humiliation and frustration was his specialty.
And Jimmie’s bad luck begins as soon as he leaves the shelter of his home and ventures out into a world full of thoughtlessness and trickery.
He steps off the sidewalk and gives the handle of a parked car a quick twist. As he stands erect to enter the vehicle and drive away, another motorist (William Gillespie) scoots in ahead of him and drives away. Jimmie’s chance for the last laugh comes quickly as he, in the right car, catches up to the man whose auto is now stuck in a mud puddle.
This must have been a fairly common occurrence on the streets of L.A. at that time as Jimmie, too nice a guy to revel in this jerk’s misfortune, is prepared with a tow rope. He tosses it to the other man, who ties it around his windshield. Jimmie slowly ooches forward, freeing the other car. Then, when Jimmie finds himself stuck, the other man tells him that he has an appointment and no time to give him a hand. Rather than flying into a rage, Jimmie seems to accept this as just another instance of ingratitude. His reaction is low-key and realistic.
Jimmie gets out to push his own car and slips into the mud. There is a feel of familiarity here as JJ reacts normally to wet and slush. Here is another perfect opportunity for over reaction but, once again, McCarey and Chase let it go.
Next comes a pure McCarey bit. A piano mover (Jack Gavin) comes along carrying a piano on one shoulder. JJ calls him and he drops the instrument on the grass. Our stranded motorist gives him a silver dollar to push the car out, and when he does the machine inches forward only far enough to slip into a sinkhole and disappear. The two men watch the car go under in the kind of careful, long take from mid-long range that Laurel and Hardy would make their own. Cut to the men’s accepting faces and hold for a beat before the mover returns the dollar and walks off.
This action is being watched by a kid sitting in front of a garage. When he sees that Jimmie is still stuck, he calls out, “Another sucker,” and a man in a tow truck (Martin Wolfkiel) pulls out of the garage. He backs up to the edge of the puddle and offers to retrieve Jimmie’s car. Since JJ is already soaked, he agrees to go into the water to attach a tow line to the submerged car. Rescue seems inevitable, but the tow truck mechanic only reels in JJ’s rear wheels.
Now Jimmie has to re-enter the water, dive under, and re-attach the wheels. The following segment lasts about 90 seconds and its zany surrealism comes as a complete reversal of the everyday reality that has preceded it.
As JJ works underwater, the mechanic sits on dry land. Jimmie’s hand emerges and points to a wrench, which the mechanic gives him. Hand goes back under. Comes up again and points to a hammer. Back under. Pause. Re-surfaces and points to another wrench. As the mechanic reaches for it, the hand waves him off and more emphatically points to another one. Back under. Pause. The mechanic, wanting to light his pipe, calls for a match. JJ’s hand reaches from below with a match. The mechanic accepts it, lights it, and fires up the pipe. He then asks for the time. Hand up. The mechanic takes a look at Jimmie’s watch, nods his thanks and receives a wave in response.
It’s a gag sequence that elicits laughter not just because it’s funny but because it seems to come out of nowhere. We haven’t been prepared for anything this off the wall. It’s a moment of classic absurdity performed to perfection by an actor we can’t even see, although Chase will vanish in other films and allow his hands alone to carry the scene.
Jimmie’s final frustration comes when he arrives at the train station and asks a worker there the inane question, “What time does the 2:40 come in on Wednesday?” The man replies without missing a beat, “2:40 tomorrow. This is Tuesday.”
This little gem of a one-reeler was photographed by Len Powers, who would do the same job for Laurel and Hardy in 1932 when he shot “The Music Box,” the Boys’ only Oscar winner. Somewhere among the boarding house’s inhabitants is an uncredited Janet Gaynor.
Little movies like this one, especially when they feature comedians whose stars have since waned, are easy to overlook in our enthusiasm for big themes in big stories, but there’s much to be said for the little guys. And while we may never be able to identify with the mania of the Keystone Kops, locating what we have in common with a genial fella who suffers from wretchedly bad luck for most of an afternoon is as easy as getting stuck in the mud.