Written July - September, 1933. Filmed October, 1933. Released by MGM, December, 1933. Produced by Hal Roach. Directed by William A. Seiter. 68 minutes.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Mae Busch, Dorothy Christie, Charlie Chase, Lucien Littlefield, Billy Gilbert (voice only).
STORY: Stan and Ollie have taken a sacred vow to attend the international convention of their lodge, the Sons of the Desert, in Chicago. Their wives have other ideas and demand The Boys take them on a vacation to the mountains. Ollie fakes an illness for which the only cure is an ocean voyage to Honolulu. He and Stan announce they are setting sail for Hawaii, but sneak off to the Chicago convention, where they have a wonderful time. The wives are distraught when they receive word that the Hawaiian liner on which L&H are supposedly traveling has sunk. The jig is up, however, when the wives see newsreel footage of the Sons of the Desert convention, featuring their husbands merrily cavorting for the cameras. After hiding out in the attic and on the roof, Stan and Ollie confront their wives. Ollie attempts to maintain the ruse, but Stan eventually breaks down and tells the whole ugly truth. Stan's reward for his honesty is an evening of romantic bliss with his wife; Ollie, on the other hand, is the recipient of various flying projectiles aimed squarely at his head.
JL: Laurel and Hardy fans may sic Barnaby and the Bogeymen on me for
this, but recent viewings have convinced me that SONS OF THE DESERT
fails to live up to its reputation. It's a fine film, to be
and perhaps even ranks as a minor classic of the early 1930s.
it has been praised for so many years as L&H's greatest
figure it's time for someone to come forward and say "It isn't."
There are more weak stretches and fewer inspired moments in SONS than in either of the features I'd rank higher, WAY OUT WEST and BLOCK-HEADS. It's also a less well-constructed film than the more polished and better directed FRA DIAVOLO and OUR RELATIONS. Fortunately, there are enough hilarious moments in SONS to qualify it as one of the Boys' best efforts, but I have to dock it a few quality points for not fulfilling the potential of the script or the premise.
The most glaring stretch of unfulfilled promise comes in the extended scene in which Ollie fakes an illness in order to finagle the Boys' trip to the Chicago convention. There are funny moments, but even more moments that are not as funny as they should be. The scene seems under-rehearsed, as if the actors are slightly unsure of their blocking -- most evident when Stan and Mae Busch keep colliding with one another. Their timing seems a split second off, as if they're still uncertain as to when the big reactions should come. And it appears they tried to compensate for their uncertainty with forced energy, utilizing lots of yelling and broad gestures to cover the flaws. Compare the stiff sense of timing in this scene with the similar frenetic scene -- also between Stan, Ollie, and Ollie's wife -- in BLOCK-HEADS (the neighbor lady-as-a-chair scene). The smoothness of the pacing and the confidence of the performers in the later film makes for a glaring contrast.
This and other scenes in SONS also suffer from the direction of the much-lauded William A. Seiter. Perhaps it's just that the tempo of this film hasn't dated well, but I find Seiter's direction to be more pedestrian and nondescript than the work of the usual gang of L&H's nondescript directors. What Seiter did well is to capture the look and feel of L&H's short films better than in any other feature. But the film suffers from moments during which Seiter's uninspired camera angles compel the actors to play everything face-front as if on a stage, the above-discussed scene being a prime example. A few varied camera angles and some creative editing might have strengthened certain awkward moments, but Seiter seems content to let everything rest on the strength of the actors' performances. I am not that familiar with Seiter's other films, but I am aware that his reputation was pretty much that of a dependable journeyman. The only other Seiter film I know well, the Marx Brothers' ROOM SERVICE, also suffers from staginess and awkward pacing. True, ROOM SERVICE was originally a stage play, but skilled directors have created good films from plays without "opening" them up much for film purposes. In addition, ROOM SERVICE, in its stage incarnation, is lightning-paced, door-slamming farce, yet Seiter (working with the most lightning-paced comedy team in the business) paces things as if it were a Eugene O'Neill tragedy. I also see this in SONS, a film marked by repressed energy.
A film such as WAY OUT WEST also features some of the most charming musical moments ever performed by the Boys. The musical highlight of SONS is "Honolulu Baby," perhaps the catchiest original tune in any L&H film, but featured in a sequence that again suffers from lackluster staging. The overweight "Hawaiian" chorus girls (who probably had names like Molly O'Brien and Rhonda Feinberg) make for some campy fun, but it's the song itself that carries the scene, rather than what's done with the song. When you've got such a great song, why not let a great singer (Oliver Hardy) and a couple of great eccentric dancers (both of them) share in the fun? Imagine the fun that could be had if a couple of chorus girls came over to Stan and Ollie's table and coaxed them up on stage. Another SONS moment of missed opportunity.
Yet, despite my grousing, I still love this film. It's tightly-plotted, has loads of classic moments, great supporting performances by all concerned (especially Charlie Chase), and delves deeper into Stan and Ollie's relationship than any film that came before. But I feel that a reevaluation of SONS is long overdue. I often get the impression that people regard this as their best film because the more prominent Laurel & Hardy authors (beginning with Barr and Everson in the 1960s) say so. I enjoy the film for what it is, but long for what it could have been. Imagine SONS OF THE DESERT performed with the pace and energy of BLOCK-HEADS and you'll see what I mean.
JB: Eight decades have gone by (wow!) since the initial release
of this outstanding little gem, so I guess it's inevitable that SONS OF
THE DESERT, like Big Business and The Music Box, is ripe for criticial
reevaluation. The difficulty in ranking Laurel and Hardy's
features is similar to the difficulty in deciding which Beatles' album
is best - it all depends on what approach you most appreciate. WAY OUT
WEST is hands-down their most entertaining and best produced film,
BLOCK-HEADS their wildest and funniest, FRA DIAVOLO their classiest,
and SONS is their purest. (In Beatles terms, that would be
REVOLVER, THE WHITE ALBUM, ABBEY ROAD and RUBBER SOUL.)
William A. Seiter certainly was a journeyman director, but what I admire about him for this film at least is how he stands back and lets The Boys do what some of the things they do best - get befuddled by doors, engage in long rambling conversations, and scheme their way into ever-deepening trouble with the wives. Sure, he may not dazzle us with his camera placement, but that is not what he was there to do. He was given a story that was little more than an expanded version of the standard Laurel and Hardy domestic short (We Faw Down, Their Purple Moment) and he captured the feel of their best shorts despite having never worked with The Boys previously. Seiter is content to let the camera linger on Stan as he struggles to swallow a wax apple, while at the same time uses some of Stan and Ollie's best reaction shots to break up scenes, including the greatest such shot of all from Ollie when Stan breaks down and spills the beans at the end of the film. SONS OF THE DESERT is not a thing patched together like PARDON US, A CHUMP AT OXFORD or SAPS AT SEA. It is a cohesive Laurel and Hardy tale that takes it times but never lags. In fact, SONS OF THE DESERT proved that, given the right story, Laurel and Hardy were eminently capable of carrying a feature by themselves, without love interests, costumes or production numbers.
SONS also features some things we rarely find in other Laurel and Hardy features. The wives are not the usual one-dimensional banshees from the Hellmouth. "Sugar" Hardy (Mae Busch) is a woman who actually cares about her husband, and gets upset after they have had a spat. When she hears about her husband's ship being lost at sea, she genuinely fears for his safety, whereas most other Hardy screen wives would have said "Serve him right, the big walrus!" Sure, she resorts to throwing crockery when things don't go her way, but she shows remarkable patience with both Ollie and his pal throughout the film. Betty Laurel (Dorothy Christie) is that rare Laurel and Hardy wife that understands her husband's psychological and intellectual shortcomings but appreciates his basic decency and honesty. You've got to fast forward to OUR RELATIONS before you find again find women this sympathetic to The Boys.
SONS also features more quotable dialogue than any other feature. From Ollie's classic piece of bad advice - "Why don't you pattern your life after mine?" through Stan's final mangled aphorism - "Honesty is the best politics" - the dialogue in SONS OF THE DESERT not only ably supports the visual gags, but often surpasses them. There are double-entendres ("You little organ pumper"), mangled metaphors involving Mohammed and the mountains, wrong word choice ("We foundered in a typhoid") and lengthy conversations that not only amuse us but enlighten us on the dynamics of the always fascinating friendship shared between Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. And after one viewing this film, you will never hear the phrase "Two peas in a pod" without automatically replying "Pod-DUH!"
The "Honolulu Baby" production number could have been expanded a bit to include The Boys, but the scene serves its purpose by inspiring Ollie to reveal the Honolulu ruse to fellow conventioneer Charley Chase (who is wonderful in this film.) That leads to Chase's prank phone call to his sister (who just happens to be "Sugar" Hardy), which leads to Mrs. Hardy's growing suspicions that her husband didn't go to Hawaii at all. SONS OF THE DESERT, above all other features except for OUR RELATIONS, rides on its story, and and unlike many other musical moments in Laurel and Hardy (including those wonderful numbers in WAY OUT WEST), "Honolulu Baby" does not stop that story dead in its tracks but instead sets the second half of the film (Hardy's comeuppance) in motion.
I agree the slapstick scene with the water tub could have used a few retakes, but that whole section of the movie is still a highlight, especially with Ollie's over-the-top faking of an illness (and Stan's automatic sympathy pains), the mistaking of a barometer for a thermometer (which reveals Ollie's condition to be "wet and windy") and Stan's hilarious reply to Ollie's question "Why did you get a vetenarian?", a reply I won't reveal hear for those new fans who have never seen this movie. Add to this Lucien Littlefield's babbling about double canis delirus and forcing horse pills down Ollie's throat, and I can overlook a few moments of average slapstick shot at an uninspired angle.
I suppose I could wonder what SONS OF THE DESERT would have been like at a BLOCK-HEADS pace, but that would be like wondering what the WITH THE BEATLES album would be like if it had backwards guitar solos and tape loops. The later Laurel and Hardy films featured mentally denser versions of the Boys and faster-paced storytelling. The Laurel and Hardy of 1933 had not evolved to that yet, so SONS OF THE DESERT is told in the relaxed style of Blotto and PARDON US. If you want slam-bang Laurel and Hardy, you've got WAY OUT WEST and BLOCK-HEADS. If you want vintage short-era Laurel and Hardy, SONS OF THE DESERT fits the bill beautifully.
I do have a few caveats: The dependence on verbal gags for at least half the film's laughs means that on repeated viewings, you tend to admire many of the jokes rather than laugh at them (whereas Stan spilling an entire tub of water on himself is always funny). And SONS would have been even better with a lively LeRoy Shield score. But other than those complaints, I unapologetically declare SONS OF THE DESERT to be one of the greatest comedies of the Thirties, right up there with, IT'S A GIFT and DUCK SOUP.