Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review - Sons of the Desert

January 16, 2014

Sons of the Desert – US, 1933

For their third feature film, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy returned to their usual shtick – slapstick with a touch here and there of verbal comedy, errant behavior on their part and violent-prone wives, one of whom never met a plate that she wasn’t willing to smash over her husband’s head. I say returned, for their previous full-length film, 1932’s Pack Up Your Bags, had been somewhat of a departure for them. While retaining many elements of a standard Laurel & Hardy picture, the film had also included dramatic elements involving the pair’s heartfelt attempt to unite a little girl with her grandfather after the death of her father in the First World War. This storyline had given the film a degree of importance that many of their other films lacked, and the inclusion of child actress Jacquie Lyn had opened up new possibilities for the two comedians. Released just a year later, Sons of the Desert, while containing more genuinely humorous moments than the earlier film, has the unfortunate feel of a retreat, as if someone higher up the corporate ladder had suddenly pulled back the reigns, cried, “Enough of that!” and hit rewind.

With an introduction like that, it should come as no surprise that Sons of the Desert does not break any comic ground for the famous duo. It features themes that will be familiar to pretty much anyone who has seen their earlier short films, in particular 1928’s Be Big! That short features Hardy feigning illness so that he and Stan can attend a party being thrown in their honor. Sons of the Desert brushes that plotline off, makes slight adjustments to it, and presents it as a combination of something old and something new. That it retains a degree of freshness and remains as funny as it does is a credit to both Laurel and Hardy, as well as the film’s writer Frank Craven.  

In Sons of the Desert, Laurel and Hardy play members of a lodge known as the Sons of the Desert. As the film begins, the California chapter of the group is being lectured to on the need for each member of their brotherhood to make the voyage to San Diego for the group’s annual convention. The way the obligation is spoken of is reminiscent of the manner in which the leader of a cult delivers a sermon to his devotees. In fact, the way the scene is shot, I half-expected Boris Karloff to be delivering the message. Wouldn’t that have been something? As expected, his warning of the sacredness of the oath is enough to give Laurel second thoughts – not about being in the group, but about committing himself to attending the convention. His reason: His wife might not let him go. In truth, he has good reason to be concerned. This is a woman who totes a shotgun in practically every scene and has so much authority that the names outside their apartment read “Mrs. and Mr. Stan Laurel.” This all leads to one of Hardy’s stirring and hilarious speeches imploring his friend to be like him and be “the king of his castle.”

It is not hard to predict where this one goes. In fact, there’s so little the film can do that it extends its running time by including an entire musical number featuring a group of scantily-clad dancers shaking in pre-code fashion to the song “Honolulu Baby.” A nice diversion, but not entirely necessary. There’s also a bit involving a fellow lodge member from Texas, played by the great Charlie Chase, to whom Hardy has a surprise connection. Strangely, this storyline offers some rather juicy opportunities for originality, and yet it is exhausted almost as quickly as it is brought up and ultimately has little in the way of a payoff other than a few mild chuckles.

This is not to say that the film is not humorous or fun, for it is. Stan Laurel is at the top of his game in the film, and his frequent moments of bewilderment and confusion are simply classic. The same can be said for Oliver Hardy, whose delivery of speeches ranging from the role of the man in the home to those intended to deceive his wife are perfectly delivered. Plus, there may never have been someone who could flip a tie in quite the same way that he could. Add to that some nice work by the two wives in the film, Mae Busch and Dorothy Christie, and you have a film that is truly enjoyable. Yet as much as I took pleasure in watching Sons of the Desert, I can’t help being somewhat let down by what it represents – the avoidance of risk and true originality. The film’s legendary team is clearly in their comfort zone, but sometimes it just makes sense to take a chance and try something bold. Pack Up Your Bags hinted at this possibility. This film, as good as it is, is a step backward. Yet I must say it is a rather enjoyable one. (on DVD as part of Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection)

3 and a half stars

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