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Laurel & Hardy




Hal Roach - MGM, 1934.  Directed by William A. Seiter.  Camera:  Kenneth Peach.  With Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase, Mae Busch, Dorothy Christie, Lucien Littlefield, John Elliott, John Merton.

Stan and 0llie are sworn to attend a fraternal convention, but the wives have other ideas.  Pretending sickness, Oliver has a doctor order him on a long sea voyage, with Stan in attendance.  The ruse works, and they are off to the convention.  The very day that they return, however, word is received that "their" ship has been wrecked.  Grief stricken, and to pass the time while waiting for news, the wives go to a movie—where they see a newsreel in which their husbands cavort gaily for cameras covering the convention.  The boys, at home, discover the news of the shipwreck for themselves and manage to hide in the attic just before the wives return home.  Forced onto the roof and into the rain by the wives' exploration of the house, they finally "arrive" at the front door with a fantastic tale of their escape from a watery grave.  Laurel breaks down under the stern eye of his spouse and confesses the truth, to be rewarded with luxury and comfort, while poor 0llie, who has tried to brazen it out to the end, feels the full fury of his wife's wrath.

Although a reworking of a theme that the comedians used quite frequently, Sons of the Desert, is a thoroughly fresh and delightful comedy, quite certainly the best and the subtlest of all their features.  Straightforward slapstick is limited to a relatively few gags, and the humor derives principally from situations and characterizations.  Flawlessly timed, with ruthless (and profitable) pruning of the footage allotted to any one gag, the film is a particularly felicitous collaboration between Laurel & Hardy and director William A. Seiter, a specialist in romantic comedy and human drama.  Unexpectedly, he turns out to have been the ideal director for them, polishing their own comedy values with his own wit, charm and taste. It is a great pity that this was to be his only film with them.

The material throughout is slight, but Seiter makes the most of every gag, without milking any of them.  The solemn meeting of the Sons of the Desert, done in low-key lighting, serves as an admirable background for Laurel & Hardy's entrance.  They are late, of course.  They arrive shamefaced and embarrassed, miss each other at the door, stumble over assorted feet, and finally find empty seats, which they fill as hurriedly as possible, while the Exalted Ruler waits impatiently for the interruption to be over so that he can continue.  Hardy smiles apologetically, and indicates that the speech should go on.  But Laurel, shifting his chair sideways to be nearer his friend, crunches Oliver's fingers between the two chairs, and a mighty howl further interrupts the proceedings.  Finally, all is serene, and the burnoosed Ruler goes on to explain the dread responsibilities of the Order.  "The strong must help the weak!" he intones, while Oliver pointedly looks at Stanley in mute and rather proud acknowledgement of his own personal duty!  For awhile, the film maintains this rather gentle even keel—Hardy's broaching of the convention to his wife (Mae Busch); a vehement turndown; growing marital discord; and an odd sequence where Laurel determinedly chews away at some wax fruit. "So you're the one who's been eating all my fruit!" snorts Mae, catching him in the act and removing the rest of it from temptation!

The mood switches to furious slapstick temporarily, with Hardy's attempt to convince his wife that he is ill.  With a simple prop—a metal tub full of hot water—a short, economical, yet riotously funny sequence is built.  Initially, just Hardy's feet rest in the water, but in the course of a brief slapstick ballet, Mae is soaked by the hot water and Laurel's head is dunked into it beneath the weight of Hardy's body.  The phony doctor called in to "diagnose" is a veterinarian, who proceeds to treat Hardy and to talk condescendingly to him as he would to a dog.  The actual convention sequence is brief, yet riotously funny, with Charley Chase scoring as an irrepressible practical joker, and a "Honolulu Baby" musical number offering a devastating satire of crooner Dick Powell.

And despite the sight gags inherent in the final third of the film—Laurel & Hardy trying to sleep quietly in hammocks in the attic; being caught in the rain in their nightshirts—it is dialogue that for once carries most of the comedy.  Hardy's use of the phrase "like two peas in a pod," and his instruction to Laurel in the pronunciation of the word "pod," results in a running gag that is far better heard than described.  Laurel is all for confessing the whole hoax, but Hardy, knowing the fate in store for him, will have none of it and threatens blackmail: "If you do, I'll tell your wife about the time I caught you smoking a cigarette!"  Laurel is at first brazen, but then genuinely worried: "Would you really tell her that?"

The final showdown with the wives, in which the boys sink deeper and deeper into the morass of their own absurd story of escape (they came in ahead of the rescue boats by ship-hiking) is one of the funniest dialogue sequences they ever had.  Sons of the Desert has fewer virtuoso comedy episodes than such other major features as Block-Heads and Way Out West, but thanks largely to Seiter's handling, it has that indefinable quality of charm which broadens its appeal quite beyond the legions of Laurel & Hardy devotees.  Just as many of Seiter's films of the twenties, never considered either major works of art or important box office contenders, prove to be amazingly durable today and of more value than many of their more highly regarded contemporaries, so I suspect in years to come will Sons of the Desert come to be regarded as one of the most accomplished comedies of the early 30's.

The Films of Laurel and Hardy
by William K. Everson
The Citadel Press, 1967

Detailed information about this film is available from
the AFI Catalog of Feature Films at
AFI.com, or by clicking here.