I apologize for the late notice; I only learned myself a couple hours ago. TCM (United States feed) is spending tonight showing “Leonard Maltin’s Short Film Showcase”. It’s a bunch of short films, as you’d think. Some of them I’ve seen; some are new to me. Many of them are comedies. There are a handful of travelogues, musical shorts, and dramas too.
Robert Benchley gets a couple entries, with “A Night At The Movies” right around … now, Eastern time. Three hours from now, less about ten minutes, Pacific time. Or, “How To Sleep”, sometime after 5 am Eastern and Pacific. Thelma Todd gets four entries, two of them with ZaSu Pitts. I’d recommend any Thelma Todd or ZaSu Pitts piece sight unseen. Some of the shorts, including at least one Thelma Todd one, star Charley Chase. Chase is an interesting person. In the silent era he was one of the second-tier comedians who kept edging his way up into the first tier, right up until he attempted a movie adaptation of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and made basically every choice wrong. That’s not on tonight and you’ll think better of Chase for that. There’s also, somewhere around 12:45 am, “Buzzing Around”, starring Roscoe Arbuckle, about inventing a magic rubber coating that makes things unbreakable. Other miscellaneous things include a bunch of Pete Smith specialties. Pete Smith made a lot of short films, mostly comedy documentaries, all with a reliable American Cornball tone. You’ll either kinda like it or not.
As I say, I don’t know how much of any of this I’ll watch. It is probably good for dipping into as you have ten minutes. One I am warily curious about, and that’s running sometime around 5:20 am, is titled “The Black Network”. The summary: “In this short film, the owner of a shoe polish company sponsors a radio show that showcases black performers”. So this does sound like a chance to see people whose talents were discarded. But, ooh, that mention of shoe polish does not sit well at all. Mm.
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.