On The Loose with Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts

ZaSu Pitts. Not really a household name anymore, although at least a name you sometimes heard, when I was growing up. Probably it’s from the way the syllables fall together. What I wouldn’t realize until I got into old-time radio was that she was, to me, the perfect expression of a particular type of comic actor. I was surely primed for that by the imitations and impersonations of her, especially in the way Olive Oyl has always been played. Thelma Todd, I admit, I thought about less. She had a less catchy name, even if she was in some of the Marx Brothers’ best movies. And she died longer ago.

Nevertheless, they’re both solidly funny people. And Hal Roach, looking as ever for good comic pairings, tried them out together. One of the results is the short I want to show off this week, On The Loose. It was originally released the 26th of December, 1931, which seems like a strange release date to me. That’s because the short is mostly a trip to Coney Island.

The Coney Island thread is what drew my attention to this short. I’d been thinking of amusement parks and movies which feature them. The premise is that Pitts and Todd — playing themselves, or at least the Screen Versions of themselves — are stuck always being taken to Coney Island for dates and are fed up with it. This does inspire the question of whether anyone in a live-action short goes to an amusement park for fun or whether it’s all frustration and anxiety. But never mind that.

What most fascinates me here is the accidental-documentary nature of it. The rides and attractions as shown are more or less what you could really experience in Coney Island in the 30s, at least by reports, down to, yes, sitting in stands watching people come out of the funhouse and get jabbed by clowns. They were different times, is what we have to remember. And I love getting to see the rides that may not have been the biggest draws or the most famous stunts but were just normal and unremarkable and, happily, preserved on film.


Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

2 thoughts on “On The Loose with Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts”

  1. I remember ZaSu Pitts well, but didn’t think she was particularly funny in the typecast role she played in films such as this. Unfortunately the script she had to work with here wasn’t the greatest, nor does it ‘wear well’ (bad pun intended), But the Coney Island scenes are indeed fascinating for their “accidental-documentary nature.”

    Another interesting character in this film is Billy Gilbert (billed as William Gilbert), who is much too silly here, but given the right parts and material (as in his films with Laurel & Hardy and W.C. Fields), showed the difference good writing can make.


    1. I agree the script doesn’t give Pitts (or Todd) much to work with, but that makes me more impressed by how funny she gets to be. I confess I may just be an easy touch. It’s hard not to be impressed by an actor you like.

      Besides Billy Gilbert, and the Laurel and Hardy appearances, there’s several other notable Laurel-and-Hardy linked actors, including Charlie Hall as the shooting gallery attendant, Otto Fries as the obnoxious boyfriend. It’s a good use of the available players.


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