Friday, January 21, 2011

The Slapstick Antics of the Sons of the Desert

To some the comedic antics of Laurel and Hardy is an acquired taste.  Slapstick comedy is not highbrow and reveals nothing about the true meaning of the human condition—but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t good. Take me, for example. Some of my all-time favorite films are The English Patient, Smiles of a Summer Night, The Lovers (Louis Malle’s), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and The Lives of Others, just to name a few—all pretty much categorized by today’s standards as highbrow. Yet, I still enjoy watching a really good slapstick or “crude” comedy. For example, if someone asked me what the 2 best films of 2009 were (can’t do 2010 because I’m poor and can’t afford to pay $10 to see a film in a theater) I’d say The Secret in Their Eyes and The Hangover. Now, if you’ve seen these two films you know that they are in totally different class categories. Still, I cried at both: one from raw emotion (guess which one) and the other from laughing so hard. So, what am I trying to say with this exceedingly long introductory paragraph? Basically this: just because a film doesn’t delve into the human psyche or reveal some inner truth about humankind, that doesn’t mean that it lacks value. That said, let us move on to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy’s clever 1933 film, Sons of the Desert.

This was a remake of the duo’s 1930 film Be Big and was their fourth feature length film.  In it, they are members of an all-male club called the Sons of the Desert (also the later name of the duo’s fan club) who are told by their Exalted Leader (really, that’s what he’s called) that everyone in the club must swear by oath to attend the annual convention in Chicago. Ah, but Stan and stamOllie have wives who aren’t the type to allow their husbands to go off on a trip like this. Of course, Ollie thinks he’s “the king of his own castle” and Stan thinks he has to do everything his wife tells him to do. However, Ollie’s wife, Sugar, no, I mean Lottie (the always funny Mae Busch), is the true ruler of the Hardy household and she wants her husband to go to the mountains with her. Her accuracy with vases, especially towards Ollie’s head, is sharp—just like her words. When Stan's duck-hunting wife Betty (Dorothy Christy) gives Stan permission to go to the convention the boys  have to come up with a plan to get Ollie there too.

The duo hatch a plan that is fool-proof—or so these two fools believe-- with the help of an idiotic veterinarian (Lucien Littlefield) posing as a medical doctor, Ollie is diagnosed as having “canus delirous” (AKA, a nervous breakdown) and prescribed a cruise to Hawaii as a cure. Mrs. Hardy can’t go on the trip with Ollie because she suffers from sea sickness, and so that means that Stan will have to go instead.

sons_of_the_desert011In Chicago we see the boys having a frolicking good time—along with Charley Chase, who has many laughs at their expense with the aid of a paddle and a water-squirting flower. There are scantily clad hula dancers, so in a way Ollie has seen Hawaii in some form. It turns out that Charley is Ollie’s long-lost brother-in-law and they engage in a hilariously risqué long-distance conversation with “Sugar". I especially enjoyed when Charley calls her a great organ pumper.

front_pictureThinking their ruse has worked, the boys head back to Los Angeles unaware that the cruise ship they were supposed to be on has sunk. This sets up two very entertaining scenes. The first is with a taxi driver that is pure slapstick—Stan was always the best physical comedian of the two in my opinion, and this scene showcases this, as well as his wonderful deadpan delivery. The second scene is when the boys return home and learn of the cruise ship disaster and hide from their wives in Stan’s attic. laurel and hady sons of the desert 1Their plan is to hide out until the rescued cruise passengers are brought to shore and then pretend they are amongst the survivors. The problem is the wives go to the cinema to get their minds off the plight of their husbands and see a newsreel of the Sons of the Desert convention in Chicago.

At one point the boys come crashing through the ceiling and find themselves hiding on the roof during a thunderstorm. They end up being apprehended by a policeman who wants to know their addresses…wait for it…to this Ollie remarks to Stan: “Here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.” Presented to their wives, they unknowingly continue to weave some fantastic lie about how they ship-hiked after the typhoon. Basically, it is pure Laurel and Hardy.

laurel%20hardySo what makes Laurel and Hardy work? I think it is the opposites attract thing. Stan is thin, tall, honest, and calm and Ollie is short, fat, dishonest, and anything but calm. Of course, Ollie think he’s so much smarter than Stan—the exasperated looks he gives the camera at certain points throughout their films are a trademark.  And, Stan is pretty oblivious most of the time, so Ollie might have something there. Yet, it is Stan who usually gets the last laugh, as he often proves it is better to be lucky than smart. They just work well together. It isn’t life-affirming cinema, but it is entertaining. And, even if it is closing in on being 80-years-old, it is still funny.


  1. Kim,

    Count me in as a long time Laurel and Hardy fan (my first attempts at film collecting were 8mm copies of some of their shorts that were sold via Blackhawk films. One film I remember buying was “Big Business” which I added a Scott Joplin soundtrack to). While I believe their best work was done in the short two and three reelers, SONS OF THE DESERT, along with WAY OUT WEST, rank up there with the best of. You hit it right on with your thoughts on their appeal being due to the ‘opposites attract thing.’ I also think it has to do with how one gag just builds upon another and another until it is like a snowball rolling down a hill totally out of control. I have been watching a lot of their shorts over the past weeks since TCM had 24 hours of them on as part of their Hal Roach series this month (my DVR is burned out, ha!), and you watch this destruction, or tit for tat, in so many of their shorts (Them Thar Hills, Big Business, Helpmates). It really has been a pleasure to rediscover these gems, including, so far, one I never saw before (Below Zero).

    In SONS OF THE DESERT, I love the way Ollie calls his wife “Sugar” as if there is so much affection in their marriage and that will soften the terror she is about to unleash. As for Stan’s oblivious behavior, I think he is like a child, innocent and yet devious at the same time. The “Honolulu Baby” number is also a highlight and the ending with Stan being treated lovingly by Mrs. Laurel (Dorothy Christy) for confessing after she sternly says “Stanley would never lie to me” just puts poor Ollie into a deeper hole with the excellent Mae Busch as Mrs. Hardy. You did Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy proud.

  2. Kim, this is one of your best reviews! I loved Laurel and Hardy as a kid. I think part of the appeal was that Stan seemed to act like a kid and so I identified with his behavior. In terms of movie comic duos, they certainly set the standard for later teams like Abbott & Costello and Martin & Lewis. I think SONS OF THE DESERT is their best feature-length film, though WAY OUT WEST is funny, too.

  3. I'm also a huge Laurel and Hardy fan as well as the Keystone Kops and Harold Lloyd however I have never enjoyed Abbott & Costello. Although I've haven't seen this film it certainly was a great review.

    Kim, I love the "English Patient" so much and never miss the opportunity to see it again whenever it re-airs. The cinematography is breath taking.

    Also, I'm one of the few who didn't really care for "The Hangover" although I laughed all the way through "The Other Guys" recently even though it was ripped apart by film critics. We all deserve a silly comedy every once in awhile and Laurel & Hardy certainly fits the bill in tickling my funny bone.


  4. ...another Laurel & Hardy fan chiming in! Adore them, have seen "Sons of the Desert" so many times over the decades and it still tickles me.
    Btw, one of my friends has accused me of having...elitist (don't quite remember the word, could've been snobbish) preferences...but I just think I have good taste! Great blog, Kim, enjoyed your take on one of their best...

  5. My input, Kim, will add nothing to this discussion, but I just wanted you to know that, though I know little about Laurel and Hardy, and just as little about the film, this was a most interesting write-up! Well done and a joy to read. In addition to SONS OF THE DESERT, what other L&H films would you recommend?

  6. Sark, without a doubt my favorite is The Music Box (it's a short). I also like Helpmates (another short) and also Way Out West--a feature. Glad you liked the review.

    John, TCM does a great thing when they show shorts...some are a joy to watch. BTW, I laugh every time Ollie says Sugar in this film!

    To everyone else: enjoyed reading your feedback.

  7. Never apologize for loving Laurel and Hardy. A good film is a good film is a good film, regardless of genre. "Sons of the Desert" is a whole lot of fun -- not even a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure! The Music Box is a classic too.

  8. Kim, I am sorry to say that I have never seen a whole Laurel and Hardy movie, only segments of their work that have been shown on tribute shows. Yikes! I loved your write-up and agree that sometimes it is wonderful to just have a good laugh. I love the silliness of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in their Road movies. Great job!