Filmed: October 5th to October 9th, 1931
Released: December 26th, 1931
Produced by Hal Roach, Directed by Hal Roach
Photographed by Len Powers, Dialogue by H.M. Walker
Main Cast: ZaSu Pitts, Thelma Todd, John Loder, Claud Allister, William Gilbert, Charlie Hall, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy
By late 1931, Stan and Babe were no strangers to making cameo appearances. Back in 1927, just as their career together was getting going, they were crow-barred into the Max Davidson short, Call of the Cuckoo, seemingly just for the sake, or at the very least to give the boys some extra exposure in front of theatre audiences. Two years later, they were loaned out to MGM to appear in the ‘star-studded’ extravaganza that was The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and were easily the best thing in the picture. Although technically not a cameo, in 1930 and at the eleventh hour, movie giants, MGM, hired Stan and Babe from Roach, to bring some much-needed comic relief to The Rogue Song. Then, the following year, Stan and Babe made a fleeting appearance in 1931’s charity fundraiser, The Stolen Jools, and, once again, their performance, small though it was, stood out as being arguably the highlight of the entire movie.
In the early thirties, Laurel and Hardy were incredibly bankable, box office certainties, and an undeniably major asset to the Hal Roach Studios. It was arguably inevitable, therefore, that the boys would be given cameos in more movies going forward, and sure enough at the close of 1931, they popped up again in what, to theatre audiences, would likely have been a surprise appearance in On the Loose, a picture from the Roach series starring ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd.
However, rather than being another opportunistic bit of crow-barring by the studio, Stan and Babe’s appearance was apparently all part of a carefully planned ‘new comedy production system‘, as detailed by Hal Roach himself, writing in The Film Daily, November 29th, 1931:
“Our studios recently inaugurated what I consider the most forward steps in comedy construction and production since the advent of sound pictures. I refer to our alternating directorial system and our innovation of placing more big names in all pictures.
The alternating directorial system provides two directors for each of our five comedy units. While one director is engaged in the production of a picture which he has previously prepared, the second director is busy preparing, in conjunction with our staff writers and gag men, the story for the next production for that unit. This results in each story having the benefit of at least four weeks of preparation in advance of the actual shooting schedule. This keeps all five units working with no time lost because of unprepared scripts. The directors are assigned to the five units comprised of Laurel and Hardy; ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd; Charley Chase; Our Gang and The Boy Friends.
Our new policy of putting more big names in all comedies means that various comedy stars under contract will appear in the supporting casts of pictures with other stars in addition to starring in the units with which they are already identified. Laurel and Hardy, for instance, appear with Pitts and Todd in one of their pictures; Thelma Todd will appear with Charley Chase in his next. The effort will thus be made to utilize our players so as to inject the utmost entertainment value into all comedy releases. It is only because of the large number of stars under contract to us that we are enabled to do this.
Right now, more than ever, comedies are being given greater credit for their true worth. I believe that exhibitors are beginning to appreciate that good comedies will build a show of greater entertainment value than it is possible to produce through double featuring weak feature pictures. It is this fact that inspires us to redouble our efforts to produce the finest comedy product that it is possible to create.”
Mr. Roach’s vision sounds quite impressive when all laid out here, but in essence, surely this is merely a dressed-up attempt to re-start and re-brand the Roach All-Stars , a contracted group of players, including the pre-teamed Stan and Babe, that were alternated in their own series of pictures? In addition, and reading between Roach’s written lines, the possible driving force behind this ‘new production system‘ that “keeps all five units working with no time lost because of unprepared scripts”, could arguably have been a certain Mr. Henry Ginsberg.
Joining the Roach staff in 1931, as a precondition to a financial loan from the Bank of America, Ginsberg is a much-maligned figure connected to the studios. As Richard Lewis Ward, author of A History of the Hal Roach Studios, expertly notes, Ginsberg:
“…considered the traditionally relaxed creative atmosphere at Roach a waste of time and money and insisted on tighter discipline and stricter adherence to shooting scripts and schedules.”
Ginsberg was awarded the position of General Manager at Roach’s ‘Lot of Fun’ and was tasked with keeping a firm control on the studio’s expenditure, which earned him the reputation of a tight-fisted party-pooper. Being new to the team, Ginsberg did not have the emotional attachment to the ‘old ways’ of the studio and its friendly, ‘family’ atmosphere, and with a dogged determination to keep costs low, the following months saw many of the old ways and, saddeningly, old faces, including cameraman Geroge Stevens, editor Richard Currier and chief recording engineer, Elmer Raguse fall to Ginsberg’s axe. The new broom was sweeping clean.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, Stan was not a fan of Ginsberg. His steely grip on the purse strings would affect, not only the leisurely, creative atmosphere at the studio but also elaborate and costly gags would soon become a thing of the past too. In an interview with Randy Skretvedt, reproduced in his book, Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, Anita Garvin recalled Stan’s attitude towards his new General Manager:
“Stan used to call Henry Ginsberg ‘The Expediter’. He was always trying to get everyone to work as quickly as possible. One day, Ginsberg came down to the Laurel and Hardy set to see how things were moving along. Well, Stan virtually called a halt to the production – he slowed everything way down, delaying everything as much as possible, until Ginsberg finally got the message and left.”
In the interest of balance, however, author Craig Calman, who spent months pouring over the Hal Roach archives whilst researching for his book, 100 Years of Brodies with Hal Roach, saw another side to Mr Ginsberg:
“…he is revealed through this correspondence to have been a dedicated and faithful executive faced with tackling the economic challenges of the Great Depression…Ginsberg was directly responsible for suggesting the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences create a category for Short Subjects in 1932…and he also singlehandedly saved Our Gang from extinction when some MGM higher ups wanted to axe the series in 1933!”.
So, in keeping with the ‘new production system’, Stan and Babe were added to the cast list of the Pitts-Todd vehicle On the Loose, a picture that has all the hallmarks of a classic Hal Roach/Laurel and Hardy short. Directed by Hal Roach himself and featuring a score by the great LeRoy Shield, edited by Richard Currier and with dialogue by H.M. Walker and appearances by Billy Gilbert and Charlie Hall, this arguably should have been a funfest. Unfortunately, however, it falls rather flat. In fact, author, Randy Skredvedt, describes On the Loose as “One of the best of the Pitts and Todd series“, which, without wanting to be uncharitable, doesn’t say much for the rest.
The basic premise of the picture is that the girls are totally cheesed-off with guys taking them on dates to the well-known amusement park, Coney Island. They’ve been so many times before that they now know all the rides and attractions like the backs of their hands and they swear to each other that they will never set foot in the place again. The following day a passing motorist, played by an Englishman named John Loder, drives his car through a puddle and splashes the girls, covering their clothes in muddy water. He immediately leaps to their aid, as any good Englishmen would, and after saying how “frightfully sorry” he is, takes them off to a boutique to buy them brand new outfits. Loder, as wooden as he is English, takes the girls to see dress designer, Pierre, played by Laurel and Hardy regular Billy Gilbert. Gilbert’s performance is great, beginning as a rather effeminate and embarrassed designer, talking to the ladies about which outfit would suit them best, but then behind the scenes, he is shown to be an aggressive and coarsely spoken bully towards his shop assistants.
The girls, having had new designer outfits bought for them, now complain that they’re all dressed up with nowhere to go (how ungrateful can you get?). So, Loder promises that he will round up one of his pals and take them both out for a date – somewhere “smart and original”. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the smart and original place, it takes him all week to come up with, is Coney Island. What makes matters, and unfortunately the film, much worse is that Loder’s friend, played by Claud Allister, is perhaps the most annoying guy ever portrayed on celluloid. According to Randy Skretvedt, Allister played the same type of English nit-wit for practically his entire film career. I, for one, won’t be seeking out any more of his work, based on this. His performance is so irritating that there is a moment of real irony as Allister looks just off camera and says, “I say, come along! Isn’t this conveyance getting kind-of monotonous?“, to which the answer can only be – YES, It certainly is!!
The film’s Coney Island sequences share a number of similarities with the second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s, Sugar Daddies (1927) and the same location, Venice Pier, as identified by locations expert, John Bengtson, appears to have been used for both. A number of gags around fun fair attractions appear in both pictures, such as the rotating tunnel and the house of fun. Along the way the quartet, or more specifically, Claud Allister, starts to annoy another funmaker, played by Otto Fries. Fries’ character was that of a brash bully and who ultimately (and understandably) wanted to knock Allister’s block off. Fries appeared in an uncredited role, which was a fairly common occurrence for him, as he also went uncredited for small roles in The Second 100 Years, Call of the Cuckoo, Leave ‘Em Laughing, From Soup to Nuts and Pardon Us. Fries’ association with the boys began even earlier, appearing in a couple of Stan’s solo films, produced by Broncho ‘Billy’ Anderson, The Weak-End Party (1922), and The Handy Man (1923).
Laurel and Hardy fans have to wait until the very final scene of the picture for the boys to show up and it is, for me at least, the highlight of the whole picture. Thelma and ZaSu are lounging in their apartment, glad that they are at home and not at Coney Island, when there comes a knock at the door. In walk Stan and Ollie, polite as ever, and Ollie says: “We thought if you girls weren’t doing anything this afternoon, you’d like to go with us”. When ZaSu enquires as to where the boys are going, Stan innocently and cheerfully replies, “We’re going to Coney Island”.
The girls don’t answer, but instead begin to hurl all the pottery they can lay their hands on, in the direction of Stan and Ollie’s heads. The boys turn and flee, out of the door and down the stairs, completely non-plussed by the whole incident, but not sticking around to ask questions.
The one thing that this film does, is to demonstrate just how good and natural Laurel and Hardy were, and how effortless they made their craft look. Even given the exact same ingredients, the films of Pitts and Todd, or later Todd and Patsy Kelly, could not replicate the magic and hilarity that Stan and Babe brought to the screen. Both Todd and Pitts were clearly very talented and brought much to the pictures they were in, especially Thelma Todd as a supporting player to Stan and Babe. So, if ever there was any doubt as to just how good Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were as actors and comedians, these small cameo appearances give us stark and undeniable clarity of exactly that.
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