Sons of the Desert (1933) was made at a time when the Hal Roach Studio was gradually shifting away from two-reel comedies to feature film production. Sons was the fourth feature film starring Laurel & Hardy. They had recently starred in The Devil’s Brother, which we will see later in the series. Like The Music Box, Sons of the Desert is one of the films most associated with Laurel & Hardy, a comedy masterpiece often ranked as one of their finest films. But a great Laurel & Hardy film is more than just the slapstick. Their success was in the characters and the situations we see onscreen.
What separates this film from their previous features is how well the comedy is integrated into the overall storyline. A lot of this has to do with the direction of William Seiter, who knew how to build the story. He had more of an impact on the film than most directors on the lot who usually just followed Stan Laurel’s direction. One of his best known films is the RKO musical Roberta, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Seiter also directed one of Wheeler & Woolsey’s best films, Diplomaniacs, which we’ll see in a few weeks. And he worked with the Marx Brothers on Room Service. In The Films of Laurel & Hardy, William K. Everson writes, “Sons of the Desert has fewer virtuoso comedy episodes than such other major features as Blockheads 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.”
Sons of the Desert was written by Frank Craven with additional dialogue by Frank Terry, who was a gag writer for the studio. Sons was influenced by earlier Laurel & Hardy films like 1928’s We Faw Down. In that film, Laurel & Hardy snuck out of the house to play poker but invented an elaborate excuse about going to the theatre—a theatre, coincidentally, that burns down. In many of their films, marital discord was part of their world. In these domestic comedies, they played hen-pecked husbands whose hot-tempered wives usually went around toting guns or throwing dishes.
Playing Oliver Hardy’s wife is the “ever-popular” Mae Busch, whose career went back to the early days of Mack Sennett comedies. At the time of this film’s production, she was filling in for the unavailable Anita Garvin, who was always the first choice on the lot. Dorothy Christy is Mrs. Laurel, and playing a rowdy practical joker at the Sons of the Desert convention, Charley Chase. Chase was a top comedian in his own right, one of the stars for Hal Roach who had appeared in hundreds of two-reel comedies in the silent and sound eras. Here, he lends some fine support. Chase’s younger brother, James Parrott, was a frequent Laurel & Hardy director and had directed The Music Box.
Although you wouldn’t normally associate a Laurel & Hardy film with the pre-Code era, there are certainly adult elements in Sons of the Desert that made it through the censors. The most famous example is the hula dance at the cabaret which features songwriter Marvin Hatley’s memorable “Honolulu Baby.”
Stan Laurel, who was always the creative force of the team, never believed in analyzing comedy– nor shall we in this series. You can’t analyze the things that make one person laugh louder than someone else. But we can analyze the process of building comedy, how story conferences lead to gags that create magic on the screen. So often was the case that material was simply ad-libbed by the boys– the script only serving as a general outline of the action on-screen. The various deviations between script and what we see in the finished film is a testament to their genius. Inspired bits of business were often created on the set.
What makes the series fun is not just the films themselves, but the experience of seeing these movies with an audience. Comedy needs that group reaction more than any other genre. When you see these films with an audience here tonight, you’ll see just how funny they remain all these years later. In the weeks ahead, we’ll see them the way they were intended.