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Convention May: Sons of the Desert (1933)

It is May, convention month, time to anticipate our pending event. This month we watch movies featuring conventions.

RODNEY BOWCOCK:  Here’s a film that likely needs no introduction to friends and followers of the Picture Show.  Sons of the Desert (1933) is ubiquitous among attendees of our show, and one that I often hear quoted throughout the weekend.  As Laurel & Hardy films are a long-standing tradition at the Columbus film festivals (you may even recall the boys being featured by name on an old Cinevent t-shirt), it seemed fitting for us to review this film (for me at least, the umpteenth time) as we anticipate another fun Memorial Day weekend spent in the dark.

If you don’t know the plot, here’s how it goes down.  Stan and Ollie are members of a fraternal association, The Sons of the Desert. 

SAMANTHA GLASSER: A cult-like organization if there ever was one.

RB: The Sons are hosting a convention in Chicago and the boys are determined to go.

SG: Stan is afraid to promise he will be there, but Ollie browbeats him.

RB: The wives aren’t up for their two husbands trekking across the country for a wild weekend with the fellas, though.  So Ollie hatches a plan; all he has to do is pretend to be so ill that the only thing that could cure him is a long ocean cruise and he needs Stan to go along as his caretaker. 

SG: Stan can't go, because he is going to the convention. Ollie sets him right.

RB: With the wives blissfully unaware, our two heroes trek to Chicago for a weekend of camaraderie with their lodgemates.  They didn’t plan on newsreel cameras and natural disasters, unfortunately.

SG: There are many familiar L&H elements in this film. Their houses are next door to each other and they enter them and exit them freely as if it is a normal occurrence for them to be together at almost all times. If it weren't for the code, I'm sure there would be an inevitable scene of them entering the men's room together and having hijinks at adjacent urinals. Their wives are used to their shenanigans and have built up strong defenses against them. Stan and Ollie find the comedy in the most mundane of actions, from opening a door to sitting down. Motion Picture Daily’s reviewer agreed saying of the director, “Seiter has the faculty of building up to a gag, giving it plenty, then letting down just long enough to deliver the next jolt.” The scenes in the attic where the boys try and fail miserably not to make noise are hysterical.

RB: Sons works on a level that few Laurel and Hardy features approach.  The duo are firing on all cylinders in a way that they achieved on their finest short subjects.  Their previous feature length efforts had been marred by a patchiness in pacing, sort of like a connected series of shorts, and there would be a tendency to make the boys secondary characters in their own films before long (see the string of ‘comic operas’ that Roach was so fond of), but this time out, they’re the focus and their characters are so fully formed and familiar to audiences that little introduction is necessary, which allows the brisk 65 minute running time to be spent exclusively on funny business.  Even the sole musical number figures heavily into the plot.

SG: It took two months to plan the film because Stan and Ollie (mostly Stan) wanted to get the pacing exactly right. They accomplished that. There are no slow bits, no wasted scenes, no obvious joints that hold the parts together. It flows beautifully and keeps the laughs coming throughout. Laurel and Hardy knew how to build a gag; take for example when Stan stands up and hits his head on the rafters in the attic. Slapstick is funny. But he makes it better by rubbing his backside instead of his head. Brilliant.

“Honolulu Baby” was a song I knew prior to seeing this film because of Our Gang. It is one of the musical numbers in the very funny Beginner’s Luck. Seeing this film enhanced the comedy in that one where children in hula skirts and a boy in a sailor’s uniform dance to the song in hopes of winning a prize. Here a curvy woman in a skimpy hula dress shimmies while a crooner sailor praises her beauty; it has a wholly different effect. Marvin Hatley, who did many of the themes heard throughout Hal Roach comedies including the Laurel and Hardy theme “Dance of the Cuckoos,” wrote the song.

RB: The film is packed with delightfully familiar members of the Roach stock company, including Mae Busch as Ollie’s wife, the sort of role that she’s likely best known for today, although she really had a very varied and versatile career before she began appearing in Hal Roach two-reelers. Her performance in this movie wildly pivoting from violently angry to sweet and concerned for her husband’s health is both astounding and a caricature.  Shrewish wives are not exactly new in the world of Laurel and Hardy, but Busch’s performance in this film sets the standard by which all others are judged.  Initially, Patsy Kelly was to be in the cast as Stan’s wife, but had been loaned out for Going Hollywood (another film worth seeking out) and wasn’t available.  The casting of Dorothy Christy was at the suggestion of director, William Seiter, who had worked with her on Big Business Girl in 1931.

SG: The women in Hal Roach films are a testament that women can be very funny.

Motion Picture Review’s assessment made me laugh in a way that I hope was unintentional when the writer said, “Charlie [sic] Chase and Lucien Littlefield are excellent as fellow conventioneers and Mae Busch and Dorothy Christie [sic] are the wives.”

RB: We’d, of course, be remiss not to mention the appearance of another Picture Show regular in this film, the memorable turn by Charley Chase as a wildly extroverted conventioneer.  Randy Skretvedt points out that the pressbook stated that Chase had begged director William Seiter for the part, but in all likelihood, that was just pressbook hoopla.  Probably, Chase was in the film because Hal Roach told him that he had to.  Roach was very concerned that the short subject market was drying up as more and more theaters moved to double-feature scheduling, and major studios were making their own shorts thereby allowing them to control the budgets and keep all of the profits to themselves.  Roach wanted Chase to become a familiar presence to audiences in feature films, which never really happened, unfortunately for us.  The super obnoxious character that Chase plays here isn’t completely unfamiliar, but also isn’t really a role that he was particularly fond of.  Charley’s daughter, June, told Chase biographer Brian Anthony that her and her sister were actually forbidden from watching the film because Chase felt that his appearance in the film was so annoying and mean.

SG: He’s a frat boy, playing ill-natured pranks on the other delegates. (The English title of the film was Fraternally Yours.) One of my first exposures to Chase was in The Heckler, where he plays an even more obnoxious character. That short was remade as Mr. Noisy with another Picture Show favorite Shemp Howard.

RB: The Stan and Ollie feature preceding this one, The Devil’s Brother, was a patchwork comic opera that was nevertheless very successful in its day.  Sons of the Desert was also very popular with audiences, albeit not as much as The Devil’s Brother was.  Variety didn’t like it, but, they never really liked much of anything that Laurel and Hardy did.  Local exhibitors were overall very enthusiastic, noting that while the boys didn’t appeal to everyone, this film would go over well among those that do like them.  “A wow at the box-office.  People flocked to see these two.  Not up to Devil’s Brother but very comical,” confirmed B.R. McLendon of the New State Theatre in Idabel, OK.

Sons of the Desert is regarded as the very best feature among a long line of beloved films starring what may be the very best comedy duo of all time.  We love Laurel and Hardy, and many of us regard them as old friends.  This film is a perfect example of why.  An enthusiastic five stars for one of my favorite movies of all time.

SG: I want to thank Cinevent for introducing me to Laurel and Hardy. Before attending the show, I had never seen one of their films, and I was delighted by the shorts I saw. The one title that everyone told me I needed to see was Sons of the Desert. On my honeymoon in 2011, my husband ordered my copy of the Laurel and Hardy DVD boxed set and I was able to fill in the gaps.

It isn’t really clear what the Sons of the Desert stand for, but that’s okay. The boys seem to be having the time of their lives at the convention, which is just what we do at the Picture Show. It is no wonder this film is such a hit with our audience. Five exuberant stars.

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