William A Seiter: Sons of the Desert

Sons-of-the-Desert-001Not everybody finds Laurel and Hardy funny. Those who do, however, adore them. I am one of that number – the greater fan because, as a small boy, I met them in their dressing room during their post-war tour of Britain. They entertained me with tea, buns and jokes for nearly an hour and I’ve never forgotten it.

At that time, they had rather gone out of fashion. The hall was only half full, which was perhaps why they were grateful for a young fan. Now they have become recognised as two of the greatest of cinematic clowns, whose ‘duet of incompetence’ inspired dozens of two-reelers and a posse of admittedly more uneven features. The best of them was Sons of the Desert, although some would nominate Way Out West.

As for the shorts, look at the Academy Award-winning The Music Box and you’ll see comic genius. As a generalisation, it could be said that the British-born Stan Laurel was the ideas man who thought up gags, planned stories and wanted a hand in direction, while Oliver Hardy was the fall guy who, the director Leo McCarey once said, had difficulty finding his way to the studio, generally from the golf course. Laurel was paid more than Hardy.

The situation, however, was often reversed on screen. Laurel in squeaky, complaining tears was wonderful, but nobody could do a double-take or manage a pearler like Ollie. It wasn’t just the impeccable timing. It was the sense of upended dignity he invariably conveyed. He was the daintiest fat man ever, capable of portraying a world of appalling injustice in one long look.

Sons of the Desert provides some fodder for the idea that the pair had a misogynistic view of women. In it, both their wives are aggressive and unsympathetic. Mae Bush’s Mrs Hardy is not averse to throwing kitchenware, while Mrs Laurel (Dorothy Christie) feels she has to act like a duck-hunting male to compensate for the feebleness of her husband. The two men spend half of the film avoiding the consequences of their actions as far as the two women are concerned.

Their main subterfuge is to persuade their wives that Ollie has to go on a vacation to Honolulu for health reasons. “I think he’s suffering from a nervous shakedown,” says Stan.

Sons-of-the-Desert-002In fact, they are off to the Chicago annual meeting of the Sons of the Desert, an organisation parodying both the Masons and a Shriner’s convention.

The comedy is based on character rather than many of the comic routines that made the pair famous in the silent days, and the dialogue isn’t so much witty as totally dependent on their capacity to portray rather glorious fools.

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” says Ollie, as if he thought up the phrase himself in attempting to persuade his wife to let him go. But the whole thing is ruined when Stan says: “Jack who?”. It’s not the words but the pantomime that’s important.

The whole tightly controlled film shows the pair at their best, fighting to maintain their dignity in a world almost as absurd as they are. Few comedy duos created and maintained characters of such lovable dimensions. They seemed almost married to one another – a fact that led some critics to suggest homosexuality. Sex, however, was never on their agenda like it was on that of the Marx Brothers or Crosby and Hope.

Instead, there was a long-suffering affection between the two, a kind of wounded liaison against the world which was not only exceedingly funny but also somehow pertinent.