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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
(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.
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.
" 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.