Thursday, April 30, 2015

Classic Movie Blog Association’s Fabulous Films of the 1930s Blogathon: Sons of the Desert (1933)

The following essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Fabulous Films of the 1930’s Blogathon, hosted by The Classic Movie Blog Association and currently underway from April 27-May 1, 2015.  For a list of the participating blogs and the movies/topics discussed, click here.

By the 1920’s, comedy producer Mack Sennett had begun to cede ground to the man he once acknowledged as his only true rival in the field of movie comedy shorts production: Hal Roach.  Roach, who established his “Lot of Fun” back in 1915 producing comedies starring his friend Harold Lloyd, had usurped Sennett by creating a new style of movie mirth that, while certainly not skimping on physical comedy, phased out the manic Keystone slapstick in favor of what we might now acknowledge as the antecedent of the modern situation comedy.  Roach’s roster of funsters included Lloyd, Charley Chase, Our Gang (The Little Rascals)…and two men that begun their acting careers in the 1910s until appearing together briefly in a 1921 comedy entitled Lucky Dog: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

Five years later, the two men would appear in a Roach “Comedy All-Stars” production entitled 45 Minutes from Hollywood—and several short comedies later, Laurel & Hardy would go on to become the biggest stars at Hal Roach’s studio.  Not only did they make a series of hilarious silent two-reel comedies that still win over the audiences today (Two Tars, Big Business), they successfully transitioned into talkies—with their natural speaking voices causing them no problems the way sound derailed the careers of other stars from the silent era.  Even though displaying their names on a theater marquee guaranteed that customers would pay admission just to chortle at their antics, Stan and Ollie’s careers faced a formidable threat with the onslaught of the Great Depression.

The figures for movie theater attendance plummeted once owners realized people were forced to cut back their time spent at the “flickers” in favor of luxuries like food, clothing and shelter.  To compensate for the loss, studios stepped up their production of “B” pictures in order to be able to offer a “two-for-one” experience at the movies.  As such, the traditional theater program of a main feature supplemented by “extras” like cartoons, newsreels and serial chapters began to vanish from some venues…and that also included two-reel comedies, which were Hal Roach’s bread-and-butter.  Roach was able to keep his studio afloat by phasing Laurel & Hardy into feature films, such as their 1931 starring debut Pardon Us.  Hal continued to star The Boys in at least two full-length features a year (while their two-reel subjects continued until 1935), and for those employees who weren’t able to duplicate L&H’s success, they were forced to find work elsewhere.

Sons of the Desert was the second of the two Laurel & Hardy feature films released in 1933 (the first was the comic operetta The Devil’s Brother, also known as Fra Diavolo).  The title refers to a fraternal lodge of which Stan and Ollie are loyal members, and during a special meeting the Exalted Ruler (John Elliott)—Stan humorously refers to him as the “Exhausted Ruler”—calls for the membership to swear a solemn oath: that all brothers in good standing will attend the annual “Sons of the Desert” convention in Chicago.  On their way home from the meeting, Stan is worried: he shouldn’t have taken the oath, because he’s not certain his wife Betty (Dorothy Christy) will let him go.

Ollie is incredulous—Mrs. Laurel is going to have to let Stan go, since he swore an oath.  (Oliver: “Do you have to ask your wife everything?”  Stan: “Well, if I didn’t ask her I wouldn’t know what she wanted me to do.”)  Oliver suggests that his pal pattern his life after his own; in the Hardy household, he is “king of his [own] castle.”  The only problem is, Mrs. Lottie Hardy (Mae Busch) appears to have usurped her husband’s scepter; she informs him he is most certainly not going to Chicago—the two of them will vacation in the mountains.  When Oliver protests, he winds up on the receiving end of crockery aimed at his cranium…courtesy of the little woman.

So Ollie resorts to a bit of subterfuge: he pretends to be ill from a nervous breakdown, and he’s enlisted Stan to find a doctor (Lucien Littlefield) to prescribe the remedy in the form of a sea voyage to Honolulu.  (Stan rounds up a veterinarian by mistake; Oliver: “Why did you get a veterinarian?” Stan: “Well, I didn’t think his religion would make any difference…”) Dr. Littlefield diagnoses Ollie with “Canis Delirious,” and tells Mrs. Hardy that Honolulu is the only thing that will cure him.  Mrs. H hates the sea, so Oliver suggests that Stan go with him.  (This is the point in the narrative where Stan refuses…only because his wife has said “yes” to his attending the convention, and he plans to go.)

The two men wind up in Chicago, marching in a parade, enjoying good fellowship…and sampling a generous helping of champagne and dancing girls.  On the day they’re due back home in Los Angeles, a local newspaper screams out the headline: “Honolulu Liner Sinking! Floundering in Typhoon!”  Well…here’s another nice mess they’ve gotten themselves into.
Film historian Leonard Maltin, one of the first film critics to champion the cinematic cause of Laurel & Hardy, is unabashed in his praise for Sons of the Desert, calling it “the best feature the team ever did.”  He continues:  “It manages to take the kind of material used in the Laurel & Hardy two-reelers and expand it to feature-length without padding or musical subplots.  It remains one-hundred per cent pure Laurel & Hardy.”  L&H fans enjoy all of the team’s features, but admit that many of them feature unnecessary musical interludes and romantic subplots in order to expand the material beyond the duo's usual two-reel comedy comfort.  Though the script treatment for Desert was written by character actor Frank Craven (a member of Oliver Hardy’s golfing foursome, and best known as the pipe-smoking narrator of the movie adaptation of Our Town [1940], which he co-scripted with the play’s original author Thornton Wilder), much of the inspiration for the film comes from an earlier silent short The Boys starred in, We Faw Down (1928).

Still, one of the pleasures of Desert is that you don’t have to be familiar with the history of Laurel & Hardy to enjoy the film, because their beloved personalities are immediately established after the opening credits roll.  Stan and Ollie are kids that have never completely grown up; both of them are also not very bright—it’s just that Ollie maintains a sense of superiority that he’s the smarter of the two (except he isn’t), and Stan is blissfully content to be his partner’s one man fan club.  Critic Danny Peary mused in an essay on the film that the duo were in some ways an adult version of Hal Roach’s Our Gang, and if you’ve ever seen any of the Little Rascals shorts that feature byplay with George “Spanky” McFarland and Scotty Beckett (and later Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer), you’ll notice that much of their dialogue and mannerisms mirror those of Stan and Ollie.

Oliver Hardy gets big laughs in Sons of the Desert asserting that he’s boss of his household when he’s anything but.  In his arguments with his wife, he’s always wearing the look of a kid too embarrassed to admit the truth to his mother or he fidgets nervously, drawing circles on the walls and table with his index finger.  He calls Lottie “Sugar” and isn’t opposed to using baby-talk to soften his wife’s anger.  Stan is just as childlike: when he refuses to back Oliver’s tall tale that the two of them really were in Honolulu the entire time (despite the published newspaper evidence to the contrary), Ollie blackmails his pal by threatening to tell Mrs. Laurel that Stan was smoking a cigarette.  “All right, go ahead and tell her,” declares his friend.  Would you tell her that?” Stan then asks after a pause, on the verge of tears.

Before her name became a catchphrase for Jackie Gleason’s Stanley R. Sogg character (“The ever popular Mae Busch!”) the real Mae enjoyed a prolific career in silent movies such as Foolish Wives (1922) and The Unholy Three (1925).  Most classic film fans love Mae for her work with Laurel & Hardy, however; she played Ollie’s wife in the duo’s first talkie, Unaccustomed as We Are (1929), and later in Their First Mistake (1932) and The Bohemian Girl (1936).  While Mae may have perfected the battle-axe stereotype working alongside Stan and Ollie, she still displayed enough versatility to play other characters in L&H comedies like Chickens Come Home (1931—she’s a woman from Ollie’s past who threatens to torpedo his political ambitions) and Oliver the Eighth (1934—as a murderous widow who marries men named “Oliver”…and then dispatches them to the Great Beyond).  Dorothy Christie excels equally as non-harridan Mrs. Laurel; Dorothy worked with such legendary comedians in the likes of So This is Paris (1930; with Will Rogers) and Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931; with Buster Keaton).

L&H fans have another motivation for their love of Sons of the Desert: Stan and Ollie’s fellow employee Charley Chase appears in a hilarious turn as an obnoxious conventioneer.  Aside from the occasional feature film like The King of the Wild Horses (1924) or Modern Love (1929), Chase’s domain was pretty much the short subject, and when it came time for Hal Roach to phase out two-reel comedies his longtime shorts star bore the brunt of this decision, becoming briefly unemployed until he was hired by Columbia’s short subjects department in 1937 (being a major studio, Columbia was able to continue cranking out two-reel comedies because they weren’t dependent on them as Hal was for their bottom line).  So it’s a treat to see the three men interact in this comedy—it wasn’t the first time they worked together (Hardy played the heavy in many of Charley’s two-reelers before he was teamed with Stan, and the trio appeared in 1927's Now We'll Tell One and the Max Davidson short Call of the Cuckoo), but with the exception of an L&H cameo in one of Roach’s last two-reel Chase comedies, On the Wrong Trek (1936), Desert would function as their swan song.  Charley is unquestionably in his element as the convention’s merry prankster, swatting attendees’ behinds with a paddle and executing lame practical jokes like the old “squirting flower” routine.

By the oddest of movie coincidences, Charley happens to be the wayward brother of Lottie Hardy, and there’s an amusing sequence where he calls up his sis to catch up on what’s doin’ and eventually puts Ollie on the phone with her.  (The look on Hardy’s face when he realizes whom he’s speaking with is priceless.)  I agree with Danny Peary that Chase’s participation in Desert is all-too-brief; rather than having the wives learn that their spouses deceived them by seeing them cavort in Chicago via a movie newsreel (it’s kind of an awkward plot point, seeing as how Lottie and Betty are concerned about their husbands dying in a shipwreck—who would go to a movie at that time?), it might have been better for Chase’s character to show up in L.A. and spill the beans about seeing Oliver in Chicago.

While I’m quite fond of Sons of the Desert, I’ve never made any bones about the fact that my favorite Laurel & Hardy feature remains Way Out West (1937)…but the economy of Desert’s plot (it’s a time-tested one, which later turned up on TV shows like The Honeymooners), brevity with the musical numbers (the featured tune is “Honolulu Baby,” one of musician Marvin Hatley’s favorite compositions) and its utter lack of pretense make it a firm favorite among the duo’s fans.  Leslie Halliwell called the movie “quintessential” and L&H biographer John McCabe recorded that Stan Laurel’s impression of Desert was that it was the “jolliest” of their collaborations.

Equally jolly was the idea that McCabe presented to Stan Laurel in later years that an organization dedicated to the love of Laurel & Hardy be patterned after the lodge in the film; Stan gave it his blessing, but, as L&H biographer Richard W. Bann explains, “his sole proviso was that the group should, at all times, maintain what he called ‘a half-assed dignity,’ which objective has been met more than halfway! Stan also suggested a motto, to be shown along with a pair of derby hats, to read, ‘Two minds without a single thought.’The “tents” of the Sons of the Desert sweep the United States and worldwide, and are named after the various shorts and feature films starring the duo (for example, the “Berth Marks” tent is located in Augusta, GA).  Over eighty years since it made its appearance in movie theaters, Sons of the Desert remains the apotheosis of Laurel and Hardy’s feature film career, a marvelous testament to the greatest movie comedy team of all time.


Silver Screenings said...

I just picked up a Laurel & Hardy DVD set in a bargain bin (for $5.00!!!) and I'm really oping "Sons of the Desert" is included. After reading your fab post, I'm really excited to see this!

Caftan Woman said...

Now we can really call the blogathon the fabulous films of the 30s. The boys have arrived.

Very much enjoyed the background information on the times at the studio during the making of "Sons of the Desert". It will always warm my heart and make me laugh, however, I am also one who gives the edge to "Way Out West" on the perfection metre.

Don't kick me out of the club, but I've never minded musical interludes. I'm especially fond of Ollie's lovely voice. Okay. Maybe I would have cut a couple of choruses out of Dennis King's big number in the tavern in "Fra Diovolo", but that's it.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Our Lady of Great Caftan spoke!

Don't kick me out of the club, but I've never minded musical interludes. I'm especially fond of Ollie's lovely voice. Okay. Maybe I would have cut a couple of choruses out of Dennis King's big number in the tavern in "Fra Diovolo", but that's it.

Your membership is still safe, your Ladyship. Ollie and Stan's harmonizing on "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" is why Way Out West is my favorite L&H, and I wish there were more of that in other movies, like the great rendition of "Shine On, Harvest Moon" in The Flying Deuces.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I'm with Caftan Woman, give me their musical numbers. And the ever popular Mae Busch. It's been years since I saw this one, but I have fond memories of the local TV station when I was a child having a regular weekly showing of L & H, hosted by the head of the local chapter of the Sons of the Desert. It was an education, and a delight. Great post, Ivan.

FlickChick said...

I concur - the Boys have arrived and all is right with the world. They are ageless, timeless and endlessly joy-inspiring. Great post about a film that never gets old. said...

Great review! I love the tidbit about the real "Sons of the Desert" organization--hilarious! I also really enjoyed the background about Depression audiences and the expansion of the two-reeler. You've made me want to watch this fun movie again!