Sons of the Desert
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Synopsis: Laurel and Hardy take a solemn vow at a "Sons of the Desert" lodge meeting to attend the annual convention in Chicago, but they still have to contend with their wives at home. While Stan's wife Betty grants permission, Ollie's wife Lottie categorically forbids him, stating that she had already planned a trip for them to the mountains. Ollie feigns a nervous breakdown to play on his wife's sympathies, and has Stan bribe a doctor to declare that he needs a vacation to Hawaii in order to recover. Stan and Ollie go to the convention in Chicago as originally planned and live it up, unaware that their lie has been betrayed by the sinking of the very ocean liner that was supposed to have brought them home from Hawaii.
Sons of the Desert (1933) is usually regarded today as the finest Laurel and Hardy feature. It certainly has its share of slapstick, including Stan eating a piece of wax fruit, the duo's fumbling with a tub of hot water, and their disastrous attempt to climb down a drainpipe, but these gags are balanced with verbal comedy such as Stan Laurel's malapropisms and more subtle, character-based interplay between the duo and their wives. Insofar as it was a pre-Code feature, Sons of the Desert also has juicy adult comedy such as the male singer's innuendo during his performance of "Honolulu Baby," to say nothing of the unforgettable epithet that Charley Chase uses for Mae Busch while speaking to her over the phone. Elsewhere, the comic team's full range of talent sometimes tended to get buried in operettas and kiddy material.
Principal photography on the film lasted from October 2 to October 23, 1933; the working title was Fraternally Yours. Originally Patsy Kelly was slated for the role of "Betty Laurel," but production delays on another film, Going Hollywood (1933), resulted in her being replaced by Dorothy Christy. Considering how well Christy and Busch play together as the wives, few would complain about the results. Extras in the film included real-life "lodge" members from the American Legion and the Elks. As has often been noted, the basic idea for the story dates back to the 1928 Laurel and Hardy short We Faw Down, in which the boys sneak out for a night of poker, telling their wives that they've been invited out to the theater that evening. When the theater catches on fire and makes newspaper headlines the next day, they're caught in their lie and have to face the music from their wives. Stan's shotgun-toting wife similarly recalls the two-reeler Blotto (1930). However, on the official Laurel and Hardy website Richard Bann argues that another possible influence on the story was Convention City (1933), a notorious (and now lost) pre-Code comedy about lascivious conventioneers which was made at approximately the same time.
Sons of the Desert was the only feature that prolific director William A. Seiter (1890-1964) made with Laurel and Hardy. Film historian William K. Everson has described Seiter as "the ideal director" for Laurel and Hardy since he "makes the most out of every gag, without milking any of them" and relies on "situations and characterizations" to drive the narrative rather than a simple string of gags. Seiter was also known for directing a series of Reginald Denny films for Universal in the 1920s, a few Wheeler and Woolsey films for RKO in the early Thirties, the Fred Astaire vehicles Roberta (1935) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942), as well as films with Shirley Temple, the Marx Brothers and Deanna Durbin.
Australian-born Mae Busch (1891-1946), who plays Hardy's sharp-tongued and dish-throwing wife, got her start in theater before moving into film as one of Mack Sennett's "bathing beauties" in the 1910s. Erich von Stroheim subsequently cast her in The Devil's Passkey (1920, now lost) and Foolish Wives (1922). During the 1920s she signed up with MGM, though she left mid-contract out of frustration with the unimaginative roles she was given; after this she worked instead for smaller companies such as the Hal Roach Studios. Her first appearance with Laurel and Hardy was in the 2-reel short Love 'Em and Weep (1927); other notable films with the comedy duo include the shorts Chickens Come Home (1931) and Oliver the Eighth (1934), as well as the feature The Bohemian Girl (1936). The character actor Dorothy Christy (1906-1977), who plays Betty Laurel, previously appeared in the Will Rogers vehicle So This Is London (1930) and Buster Keaton's Parlor, Bedroom and Bath (1931). However, her most famous--or infamous--role is that of Queen Tika in the sci-fi/Western serial The Phantom Empire (1935). The popular silent comedian Charley Chase also has a memorable role as an insufferable conventioneer from Texas who just happens to be Lottie's long-lost brother.
When Sons of the Desert was released at the end of December 1933, it became one of the top-grossing films of the year. While the reviewer for Variety did not consider the material particularly fresh, he displayed distinct relish in the "pre-Code Hawaiian dance [...] led by a woman who knows it pays to advertise." He also rightly praised Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy's chemistry together as the wives, noting that "there's the real makings here of a real comedy femme team." The reviewer for The New York Times was far more appreciative, noting the enthusiastic audience response and praising the execution of the gags. The esteem with which Sons of the Desert is held today by Laurel and Hardy fans is indicated by the fact that "Sons of the Desert" has become the name of The International Laurel and Hardy Appreciation Society and that the lodge's anthem, albeit with new lyrics, has been adopted by organization as well.
Producer: Hal Roach
Director: William A. Seiter
Story: Frank Craven
Photography: Kenneth Peach
Editor: Bert Jordan
Song "Honolulu Baby": words and music by Marvin Hatley
Principal Cast: Stan Laurel (as himself), Oliver Hardy (as himself), Mae Busch (Lottie Hardy), Dorothy Christy (Betty Laurel), Charley Chase (Charley), Lucien Littlefield (Dr. Horace Meddick), John Elliott (Exalted Exhausted Ruler), Charita (Lead hula dancer).
by James Steffen