Double Take: Sons of the Desert (1933)

Double Take has gotten themselves into another fine mess: If one Steve is going to discuss Laurel and Hardy's Sons of the Desert alone, the other Steve is going to do it with him.
1933-12-29 (General)

Steve Leftridge: This film is hard to watch because, obviously, it’s a harrowing depiction of domestic violence. It is clearly one of cinema’s darkest, most devastating depictions of spousal abuse, and the escalation of the assaults at the end — the dishware massacre — is chilling. So I’m sure, like me, you watched this one through your fingers. But you didn’t find anything funny about this merciless examination of marriage, did you, Steve?

Steve Pick: Hah! Laurel and Hardy as prime influences on Bergman and Cassavetes, huh? Seriously, though, this is a genuine laugh riot, albeit one based on the all-too common idea of wives keeping their husbands from having any fun. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had been teamed for years by this point, starting in silent comedies, and would hold on to their partnership for some time to come. Their personas were well established, and all they had to do was apply their impeccable comic timing to any situation. In their hands, something as simple as trying to get each into their adjoining flats could become hilarious.

The plot, such as it is, hinges on the fact that the boys want to go to a lodge convention in Chicago, but Oliver’s wife has other plans. No problem, as they concoct a ludicrous plan to pretend to take a slow boat to Honolulu while really jetting to Chicago for a weekend, where they encounter a crazed conventioneer played by the great silent comedian Charlie Chase. When the boat sinks in a typhoon, the wives wait out the casualty list in a movie theater, where the short subject before the picture covers the convention, with entirely too many close-ups of our heroes. Meanwhile, Laurel & Hardy arrive home too soon, and have to hide in the attic. For half a century, these kinds of mix-ups were staples of American comedy, but the genius of people like Stan & Ollie could transcend the situations, making gold out of stock hay. Where do you want to begin talking about how much you laughed at this film?

Leftridge: I was watching Sons of the Desert with my eight-year-old daughter, who asked me, “Which of them is the dumbest?” She intuitively got to the heart of Laurel and Hardy’s comedic approach. Their sheer daftness — especially Stan’s, too dense to know that the apple he’s eating is made of wax — set them apart from the other great slapstick comics like, say, Chaplin, who was naive and sweet but not necessarily defined by outrageous ineptitude. But Stan and Ollie: I’ve heard of people who don’t know anything; these two don’t even suspect anything. Stupidity-as-comedy is, of course, a glorious tradition, from the Three Stooges and Grand Ole Opry comedians to The Jerk and Dumb and Dumber, and you can see in any of these examples the hapless buffoonery that Stan and Ollie helped inspire.

So, yes, their idiocy gets them into some fine messes. Where did I start laughing? At the opening Sons of the Desert meeting, as soon as the “exhausted” leader, with his solemn under-lighting and ridiculous desert-sheik headwear, leads the member in an oath to attend the Chicago convention. (I love the flim-flam about the mandatory attendance due to some urgent crisis, even though once they get to the conference, it’s all grabass and hijinks.) Stan is already crying his way through the oath, knowing that, henpecked as he is, his wife is never going to let him go. Ollie rides Stan for letting Betty (Dorothy Christy), his duck-hunting wife, wear the pants in the family. In one of the film’s many reversals, it’s actually Ollie’s wife, Lotty (Mae Busch), who throws the fit — and the dishes — over the conference, while Betty gives Stan permission to go. Which prompts me to circle back to my original statement. Comedy, to work well, has to be based on some truths, and the truth here is that men are afraid of their wives. I need your take on this. Is this really a universal thing? And has this dynamic changed since 1933?

Pick: Wow, I was rolling on the floor before you, as the long take of Stan and Ollie making their way through the seated lodge members to the front row was hysterical. But to answer your question, the trope of women being the dominant partner in relationships has been around for a long, long time. It’s still a staple in sitcoms today, though it has been tweaked into women being the responsible ones while men remain less competent. I don’t know when it was originated, but it seems to me to be a patriarchal fantasy, one where even the slightest opposition to masculine pride gets caricatured as a world in which the men have no power. In reality, in 1933, men had almost all the power in marriage, as they did in almost every aspect of society. Things have changed since then, but it’s still way easier to be a white male than any other role you could name.

So, I think the truth here is that men control their wives, but part of the control is to pretend they don’t. I don’t mean Stan and Ollie’s characters are in charge, but I do believe the power of this trope depends on the ability for most men watching to believe they are far superior to Laurel and Hardy, and for most women watching to believe that, in some hidden ways, they do have some power. That’s some serious thematic shit to lay on a comedy, but because it’s so pervasive in the culture of the time (and remains so), we can safely be impressed by the actual humor of the situations. All of the real laughs come not from the male-female power struggle, but from the elaborate complexity of Ollie’s attempts to keep Stan and himself in the illusion of control. It’s just always going to be funny to have a guy like Hardy pretending to be sick, to the extent of having Laurel hire a veterinarian to prescribe an ocean voyage after giving him a pill the way he would force an animal to take one.

Leftridge: Right. I’m not sure I would ever tire of watching Ollie fall ass-first into a tub of scalding water. The slapstick choreography in this scene is great, but, again, much of it comes back to Ollie’s wife, Lottie, exacting violence — whether by slapping her husband in the face (when she think he’s touched her rear) or by hurling a the metal washtub at Stan (“You wax eater!”) across the apartment and onto Ollie’s head. Your examination of these husband-wife roles as a patriarchal fantasy rather than reality makes some sense, particularly in 1933, when the sign outside Ollie’s apartment still reads, “Mr. Oliver Hardy & Wife.” Still, that trope certainly exists today, satirized recently in a popular Key & Peele skit in which two husbands fantasize about telling their wives off but fearfully cower from them in ever-remote locations. So I think the trope of the angry wife and the frightened, chidden husband is one that actually hits genuine home for plenty of viewers.

Granted, men often screw up and leave wives with a disproportionate amount of the burden of raising children and maintaining the home, so I see how the trope is devolving into a sitcom stereotype in which the husband is an incompetent schlub: the Homer Simpson model. But I also still see comedy attempted today via women physically assaulting men (although that’s mostly in contemporary country music videos). Turning back to Sons of the Desert, it’s still fascinating that this patriarchal structure you mention allows us to laugh at a wife ceramic-ing her husband within an inch of his life, but the film wouldn’t dare attempt to play the opposite for laughs. Male-on-male violence, though, is fair game, and the old wallet-on-the-floor/paddle-on-the-ass trick is always hilarious, especially with those Our Gang-esque exaggerated sound effects.

So in terms of this battle of the sexes, where did your loyalties lie when watching the film? Did you cringe and hope that Lottie failed to recognize Ollie’s voice on the phone at the convention? Did you root for the men to get away with the Honolulu subterfuge? Did you hope they were able to go undiscovered in the attic?

Pick: My loyalties lay entirely in the desire for laughter, whatever absurdity could come to play. In fact, my favorite scene in the attic came after Stan tucked himself into their makeshift swinging bed, and after Ollie asked to be helped in, Stan got out, walked around, and gave him the push he needed, then simply climbed back in himself. That doesn’t sound funny, and maybe it wouldn’t be if played by anybody else, but the sheer literal-minded nature of Stan Laurel’s character is profoundly hilarious.

For me, the scene with Ollie talking to Lottie on the phone was simply painfully funny, as almost any time Oliver Hardy’s ridiculous confidence in his ability to impress is displayed, the happier I am. The Honolulu subterfuge was impossibly poorly thought out, since it would take many more days for an ocean voyage than a simple weekend trip to Chicago, but I was all in favor of any excuse to have them employ deception, especially since in Stan’s case, it wasn’t even necessary. As for the attic scene, the longer they could stay undiscovered while the wives wandered below, the better, because that meant there would be more laughs. I wasn’t particularly invested in what would happen when they were caught, because that meant the inevitable confrontation and restoration of the status quo antebellum would take the smile from my face.

Before we leave this scene, I’m curious as to your take about the lodge in general. It’s a trope which has passed away from American humor, the idea that men would be members of ridiculously elaborate fraternal organizations. Pretty much after The Flintstones and their Order of Water Buffaloes, you don’t see this sort of thing any more. Often, the depiction of these lodges goes about as we saw it Sons of the Desert, with odd rituals, intimations of infidelity, and horrific practical jokes. What do you think was the appeal, and did Laurel and Hardy make themselves more connected to the average man by appearing to be part of this brotherhood?

Leftridge: I have fond memories of Fred and Barney attending meetings at the Lodge of the Water Buffaloes on The Flintstones, itself an homage to The Honeymooners, on which Ralph and Ed were members of the Raccoons Lodge. I grew up watching Happy Days, on which Mr. Cunningham was an active Leopard. So, yes, all of these shows tapped into the fact that every town in America has a fraternal order, which provides men the opportunity to get together, have meetings, slip each other the secret handshake, and, most important, get out of the house a couple times a month. One of the aspects that made these orders good fodder for sitcoms, and for Laurel and Hardy, is the organization’s’ solemn facades — the rituals, the secrecy, the philanthropy, the office holding — and the gravity of these rites contrasted with the fact that these were grown men were wearing raccoons on their heads. For example, in Sons of the Desert, the men have to take a solemn oath due to some serious crisis within the order, which just seems to be a cover for partying, pranking, and womanizing. Or, in the case of the Chicago convention, gay singing sailors.

So like so many of these fictional fraternities, Stan and Ollie are family men who want to be taken seriously, to be respected members of the community. At the same time, the Order gives the men a chance to carouse and subsequently get in Dutch with their wives. One of the funniest bits in the film is when Ollie’s wife sits in the movie theater fearing that her husband has died en route from Hawaii, lamenting, “I wish I could just see him one more time.” She gets her wish, of course, courtesy of newsreel footage from Chicago.

By the way, I had “Honolulu Baby”, the song Ollie sings when the duo gets home pretending to be fresh from Hawaii, stuck in my head for days. It’s one of many hilarious bits that remind me to watch more Laurel and Hardy movies, no matter what my wife says. After all, as Stan would say, life isn’t short enough.