As a Laurel and Hardy completist, I’m obligated to watch films where Stan and Ollie only make cameo appearances.
On the Loose (1931) is a good example.
Is it worth sitting through an obscure 1930s short just because you know Laurel and Hardy are going to show up at the very end? Yes it is. Of course it is.
The movie stars Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts, who made a sequence of comedies together in the early 30s. Thelma Todd worked extensively with the Marx Brothers as well as Laurel and Hardy. She was found dead in her car of carbon monoxide poisoning in 1936 at the age of just 29. ZaSu Pitt, who played the nervous, awkward character in this double act, lived long enough to be given a cameo in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963).
What’s the film like? On the Loose? Well, it’s a lot like a 1930s version of Laverne and Shirley.
We meet these two hard working New Yorkers as they collapse exhausted home after a long Saturday, fed up with the fact that every double date they ever go on turns out to be a trip to Coney Island. They are, by now, thoroughly fed up with every nook and cranny of this theme park. One day while out walking, they both get their clothes splashed with mud and water by a wealthy young man who insists that he buys them both new clothes. Having accepted these expensive new replacement outfits hey find it hard to refuse his offer to double date them the following Saturday, only to discover that they’re being taken (yet again) to Coney Island.
Our two heroines might be fed up with Coney Island but the remainder of the film is very concerned that we miss no part of it, as they (and we) are dragged from attraction to attraction. Actually, on the basis of this little movie, it seems that the principle purpose of Coney Island in 1931 was to provide an endless sequence of socially sanctioned opportunities for women’s dresses to fly up. Nobody knows this better than Thelma and ZaSu, and their hostility to being repeatedly dragged to this place seems eminently justified.
And then there’s the punchline at the end. They are back in their shared apartment and the doorbell rings? Who is it? Why it’s Laurel and Hardy of course. Oliver Hardy graciously asks both ladies out on a date with those exquisite hand flourishes that are so hard to resist.
ZaSu and Thelma agree, and ask where they’re going. When Stan immediately blurts out “Coney Island”, Stan and Ollie are immediately chased from the building in a hail of missiles.
You know, one thing that’s even better than watching an engaging (because it is rather engaging) comedy while waiting for Laurel and Hardy to show up, would have been to see it in a movie theatre in 1931, not knowing that Laurel and Hardy were going to show up. Imagine feeling the love in the cinema when they unexpectedly appeared. Just imagine it.
I have some thoughts about a few other Laurel and Hardy films.