Sons of the Desert (1933)

From left to right: Mae Busch, Stan Laurel, and Kirsten Dunst.

Since the release of the new Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy biopic Stan & Ollie (which I have also reviewed) I have been having a bit of a Laurel & Hardy phase, revisiting one of the favourite comedy acts of my childhood. This has included today re-watching their 1933 feature film Sons of the Desert (originally released in the UK as Fraternally Yours).

Directed by William A. Seiter, it features Stan and Ollie as members of a fraternal organisation/secret society (the Sons of the Desert, evidently based on the real-life Shriners). After being forbidden from attending the fraternity's annual conference in Chicago by their overbearing wives, the duo concoct a devious scheme to fool their old ladies into thinking they're on a health trip to Honolulu. Hilarity, quite predictably for a Laurel and Hardy film, ensues.

I have heard old-fashioned slapstick comedy criticised for its apparent simplicity. There is no better film to prove how this is not the case at all than Sons of the Desert. The many jokes in this picture, which come thick and fast, some subtle, some bombastic, are cleverly - I would say ingeniously - designed. Evidently a lot of careful thought has gone into both the physical and the verbal humour. Regarding the verbal humour especially, the filmmakers seem to have a very keen understanding of the inherent day-to-day comedy within familiar human relationships, such as those between men and women, husbands and wives, and wives and other wives! They exploit this familiar comedy to their full advantage.

As ever Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy portray their adorable and endearing characters perfectly, and mention should also be made to the other talented performers. Charley Chase plays an obnoxious eccentric prankster, and Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy (a time-travelling Kirsten Dunst) excellently portray Stan & Ollie's threatening domineering wives.

Special mention should be made to the soundtrack, which is actually the reason why I chose to rewatch this film over other Laurel & Hardy classics. You see, there's a charmingly vintage musical number featuring Ty Parvis singing "Honolulu Baby" (composed for the film by the accomplished Marvin Hatley) alongside a troop of flapper hula dancers (led by Charita Alden). The "Honolulu Baby" theme reappears across the film. It's an endearing piece of music which I very much enjoy, although if I'm forced to nitpick I would say it starts off better than its rather conventional, one might say two-dimensional, chorus.

As for criticisms of the film in general, I am hard pressed to find any. Unlike modern feature length comedies, which are with little exception blends of comedy with other genres (such as action comedies or romcoms), Sons of the Desert is an old-fashioned straight comedy which accomplishes everything it sets out to accomplish, which is really just to tickle your funny bone and make you feel good. And the value of that sort of old-fashioned innocent light entertainment cannot be understated in this dark and dreary world.

At a stretch I'd mention a very awkward cut around fifty minutes in. And perhaps it should have been briefly explained why Mrs Laurel and Mrs Hardy go to the cinema when they are supposed to be in mourning (maybe they wanted to see a newsreel on what happened to the ill-fated Honolulu-bound cruiseliner? Just one line of dialogue could have explained this). But overall Sons of the Desert is difficult for a sentimental Laurel and Hardy fan like me to criticise. I can only recommend it heartily.