Sons of the Desert - In the Cast

While making SONS OF THE DESERT, Babe Hardy was dating the mother of Our Gang's Dorothy DeBorba. For the scene where the wives watched that newsreel in the theatre, extras were needed to fill all the seats. Hardy strolled over to the Rascals' set, grabbed red-headed Lillian DeBorba by the hand and said, "Come on with me, Red, we need you as an extra." Anyone who knows Dorothy DeBorba today can easily spot her mother sitting in front of Mae Busch in this scene.

Also in the cast: Billy Gilbert, although not easily spotted. Practically impossible. He can be heard doing a voice-over, but not seen. Robert Cummings can be neither seen -- at least not so far -- nor heard, but did collect a fee for serving as a crowd extra during the radiogram sequence.

Lucien Littlefield's sporadic appearances in Hal Roach comedies spanned pretty much the entire history of the studio while located in Culver City. Here he plays a veterinarian, Dr. Horace Meddick.

In the opening scenes are two ubiquitous horse opera actors, each making his lone appearance in a Laurel & Hardy film: John Elliott and John Merton.

Elliott portrayed the "Exhausted" Ruler. After making at least a hundred more low budget, action shoot-'em-ups, he was exhausted for good in 1956. Down through the centuries of time, there seems to be no recorded commentary of any kind concerning Mr. Elliott (which well qualified him to hold court over a secret society), until now. He worked often in cheap outdoors oaters with Johnny Mack Brown, who told motion picture exhibitor Harold Smith, "I can tell you one thing -- John Elliott was a fine old gentleman and a better poker player. I can't say I ever did win a hand with that man."

Once seen, never forgotten, John Merton's visage was stern, serious looking, and never seemed to change. Merton of so many movies worked constantly -- almost exclusively as a mustachioed heavy -- in cheap serials, westerns, and poverty row civilian programmers. He took every acting job available. Ace Republic Pictures director William Witney has written, "Because (Merton) had five kids, he was always at the top of the panic list." Witney said John Merton was "quiet and gentlemanly." He's certainly quiet in SONS OF THE DESERT. He has no lines.

There's someone else in SONS about whom the media was quiet -- virtually nothing has ever been written about this actress, anywhere. Dorothy Christy, who played the gun-toting Mrs. Betty Laurel, appeared in her share of westerns, too. But not before first prominently supporting Will Rogers in SO THIS IS LONDON (1930), Maurice Chevalier in PLAYBOY OF PARIS (1930), Buster Keaton in PARLOR, BEDROOM AND BATH (1931), William Powell in LAWYER MAN (1933), and Shirley Temple in BRIGHT EYES (1934). All were distinguished credits.

The part of Stan Laurel's wife in SONS OF THE DESERT was originally intended for Patsy Kelly. She had recently been signed by Hal Roach and was then on loan to M-G-M for the William Randolph Hearst Cosmopolitan production of GOING HOLLYWOOD starring Marion Davies and Bing Crosby. Hearst and Davies were close friends of Hal and Margaret Roach, so he just looked the other way when Davies' casual attitude towards the picture's production schedule caused delays, tying up the services of Patsy Kelly when she was needed for SONS OF THE DESERT.

On October 4, 1933 during the first week of SONS shooting, VARIETY announced that Dorothy Christy had been signed to replace Patsy Kelly. Who would have been, as always, terrific. Patsy Kelly was funny, skilled, lifted mediocre material, and could steal effortlessly most any scene she appeared in. But the 33 year-old Dorothy Christy (at the time claiming to be 27) was then beautiful, understated, and not one of the usual Hal Roach stock types. She brought a wonderful reserved and dignified quality to the picture that helped elevate it well beyond what audiences were accustomed to seeing in Laurel & Hardy marital relationships.

Mike Polacek was a rabid Laurel & Hardy fan in the 1950s and 1960s; he is the man to whom Stan Laurel gave the 16mm kinescope print and film projector presented him in consideration of appearing on the 1954 television program THIS IS YOUR LIFE. Mr. Polacek used to send still photos to Stan Laurel at his Santa Monica home with attached notes, asking questions, and for autographs. Across a SONS photo picturing Dorothy Christy, Stan Laurel wrote, "My most beautiful wife -- isn't she sweet!"

Of course both on and off screen, Stan Laurel had many wives. The second phrase inscribed was a line his character spoke (in mock derision) during HELPMATES.

Actually, unlike her unsympathetic roles in so many other films, in SONS OF THE DESERT Dorothy Christy is both attractive and caring. Apart from being dominant. And, despite her line, delivered with assured deliberation, "Stanley wouldn't dare lie to me; I hate to think what would happen, if he e-v-e-r ... d-i-d," she is sweet. She is. Look at how she rewards Stan (or as Mae Busch says to Dorothy, "that wax eater of yours") for telling the truth -- pampering him with every luxury and comfort she can summon. And when it appeared as though the boys really had perished at sea, the wives -- even Mae Busch! -- showed their vulnerability and insecurity. It seemed they really loved their husbands. Where else does that happen in the world of Laurel & Hardy? Wives who sincerely miss them and display touching concern? We have director Bill Seiter to thank for the added dimension he brought to the domestic lives of Laurel & Hardy.

Laurel's second wife, Virginia Ruth Rogers, appears as an extra in a SONS crowd scene. She was present the day they shot the sequence on the roof, in the rain. "It wasn't real rain, but it looked like it," she explained. "They get out on the roof and the rain is blowing and they get soaked....I was waiting off camera with (Stan's) double, Ham Kinsey, and threw a blanket around him, then we rushed him into his dressing room and I grabbed a bottle of whiskey and put some lemon and sugar in it. You know, a hot toddy. And we had the shower running, and Stan took the hot toddy and started to cry. Then he said, 'Baby Ruth, as long as I was married to Lois, she never took an interest in my work. She didn't care what I did. She never treated me this way.' "

Virginia Ruth Rogers didn't suggest this, but there is reason to suspect the incident described sparked the concept for the way in which the film's ending was rewritten during shooting. Stan's tearful confession, followed by Dorothy Christy's grateful fussing and pampering, was not in the script when cameras first rolled.

Dorothy Christy was less sensitive in what was probably her most famous role, at least among film buffs. She played the Muranian leader, Queen Tika, in Gene Autry's fantastic and weird science-fiction serial PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935). As Queen Tika, she ruled a lost city, deep underground, which constituted an advanced subterranean kingdom! Six years later Dorothy Christy worked with Autry again, in a picture called SIERRA SUE (1941) in which the actress says to the cowboy hero, "I've seen you before. Was it in this world or the world below?" Such inside jokes almost never surfaced in serials or B-westerns.

In 1939 Dorothy Christy and John Merton appeared in Roy Rogers' ROUGH RIDERS ROUND-UP. In 1944 she, along with Lucien Littlefield, again supported Rogers in THE COWBOY AND THE SENORITA.

Another of her Roy Rogers vehicles was SUNSET ON THE DESERT (1942) with the Sons of the Pioneers, who first took their name when a radio announcer mistakenly but on purpose introduced the Pioneer Trio (Roy Rogers, Tim Spencer and Bob Nolan) as the Sons of the Pioneers. After the program, the announcer told the fellows, who were demanding an explanation, that they were too young to be termed "pioneers," but they could be rightfully called "Sons of the Pioneers." It cannot be coincidental that SONS OF THE DESERT was then at the height of its release pattern in theatres across the country. Can it? Almost exactly a year later, Hal Roach personally directed (without credit) a two-reeler set in a radio station. Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers appeared as themselves. The short was entitled SLIGHTLY STATIC, part of the Todd-Kelly series. Miss Kelly had finally finished GOING HOLLYWOOD.

During her career, Dorothy Christy gave her birth date as May 26, 1906. "Honesty was the best politics," Stan quoted her character saying in the film. Vanity usually trumps everything else, and probably did make for smart politics. She was actually born in 1900, in Reading, Pennsylvania. Her first husband was a song writer named Harold Christy, sometimes misspelled "Christie." Perhaps the confusion arose because of the way Al and Charles Christie, of the Christie comedies, spelled their name.

The daughter of actor Conrad Nagel (co-founder and former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) obtained Dorothy Christy's signature for her autograph book during the 1930s. There the actress spelled her name "Christie." Her billing in SONS OF THE DESERT was "Dorothy Christy," but four years (and some thirty pounds) later, she returned to Roach for a small part as a nurse at the end of TOPPER. The same studio now spelled her name "Dorothy Christie" on the still photo captions.

It was the same problem for Charley Chase. Owing to the similar alliteration, did people really confuse him with Charlie Chaplin? The pressbook for SONS OF THE DESERT spells Chase's first name both ways -- Charley, and also Charlie. "It's disgraceful," as Stan says in the film, "never heard of such goings off -- on."

Dorothy Christy married a second time, to Rolin Rucker. That union produced her only child, at age forty, in 1940, Creed Rucker, now sixty. "We lived very nicely, in Brentwood, with servants," the actress's son recalls. "My mother, however, downplayed every aspect of being in the movie industry. We had this big, beautiful home, and you could walk through every room in the house and never guess the profession of my parents. There were certainly no movie photos on the walls.

"After she died, I found a box with some few photos, and mementos, all just thrown in there. That was it. She saved very little. Pretty much she didn't care for discussing her work in pictures. She kept to herself about all this stuff, seldom talked much about it.

"I think she got started by auditioning for the Ziegfeld Follies in New York. She was tall, five feet seven inches, and told them she wanted to be a show girl. She was hired immediately. It was so easy she decided the same day she'd try for the movies, too.

" 'What have you done?' they asked.

" 'I'm in the Follies, but I want to get into the movies,' she said.

"They hired her for the movies. She never did show up for the Follies. The Follies was just a stepping stone, as I understand what happened.

"What I got from her about the movies was what hard work it was. The hours were rough. She'd leave at six in the morning, get home at six at night after auditions, rehearsals, shooting, racing around, whatever it was that day. She was also a playwright. I'd come home from school and say, 'Hi' mom.'

" 'Quiet,' she'd say. 'I'm doing my lines for tomorrow.'

"It was not a glamorous life. I think that's why she got involved in organizing the Screen Actors Guild in the middle 1930s. She started late in the 1920s, I think, and kept it up into the mid-1950s. Even then she remained active with her many social activities, always on the go.

"I have no idea what she thought of the Laurel & Hardy film. Once in a while I would see one of her films on television. SONS OF THE DESERT was a pretty good film. To see her carrying around that rifle was pretty funny, because duck hunting was the furthest possible thing away from who my mother was! She'd never do that! It was acting."

After SONS OF THE DESERT, Dorothy Christy's next film was BRIGHT EYES at Fox, a Shirley Temple vehicle. The casting department also needed a child actress to play Dorothy Christy's bratty daughter. At Hal Roach Studios, Jane Withers was then set to play the fickle leading lady in the next Our Gang comedy. Here, someone discovered, was surely the definitive demon seed child type. She would be perfect for BRIGHT EYES. So instead of working with Spanky McFarland and the rest of the Rascals, Jane Withers travelled west on Washington Boulevard, and north on Motor Avenue (through all the Our Gang street locations) straight onto the Fox lot. This explains why Jane Withers' replacement, Jacqueline Taylor, was called "Jane" in the classic HI'-NEIGHBOR! (1934). She inherited another's role.

Creed Rucker remembers hearing his mother explain how, in one scene for BRIGHT EYES, she had to slap Jane Withers, but couldn't. Anyone who has ever seen the film would gladly have done so for the actress, but Dorothy Christy couldn't do it. "There was no pretending, and my mother really had to find it in her to slap the kid," Rucker recalls. "Even so, they had to shoot the scene four times before my mother slugged Jane Withers hard enough."

As an indication of how she regarded her film career in general, and PHANTOM EMPIRE, for example, in particular, sixty-six years after it was made, Dorothy Christy's son had never seen the film, nor even heard of it!

Dorothy Christy died five days shy of her seventy-seventh birthday, in Santa Monica, in 1977. Yet she lives on in film, and the Internet too, we are reliably informed. Or so it seems. Unfortunately PHANTOM EMPIRE wasn't the lady's only excursion into the realm of science fiction. A celebrity address web-site located at offers contact information ("Our plan is working out great!") where fans with faces unclouded by thought can send away -- far, far away, evidently -- for personalized autographs inscribed by "Dorothy Christy (veteran actress from the 1930s)."

There's a good trick on somebody. Or, as Oliver Hardy smiled in SONS OF THE DESERT, "...And nobody's any the wiser."

They did spell her name correctly. The service posted a comment, apparently from a satisfied customer: "I sent a self-addressed stamped envelope and photo. She inscribed the photo in purple ink. You must send a S.S.A.E. and photo....Don't make her work too hard folks, she is after all 94." Actually one-hundred. Also, deceased for the last quarter century, "folks," let the record show. Certainly that is hard work indeed, signing autographs above ground, beneath the ground in Murania, or anywhere, after death.

Now who could argue with that?

In the words of Wilfred Lucas, performing in PARDON US, "...And still they come."

Someone ought to submit a Dorothy Christy still to this party for signature, with a balloon, cartoon style, in which is written, "Honest confession is good for the soul. Are you telling the truth? Are you really Dorothy Christy?"

Maybe not. Maybe not.

The late Bill Everson, author, professor, mentor, revered by everyone who knows and cares about great films of the past, was not always as precise as he might have been keeping facts, or the names of actresses straight. As great as he was, he did suffer from having seen too many films. Really, it was an occupational hazard; he saw too many films. Starting in the 1960s, he caused some confusion by mistakenly listing Dorothy Christy (misspelled "Christie) as Mrs. Hardy in THAT'S MY WIFE (1929), and as Mrs. Laurel in BLOTTO (1930). She did appear in a film based upon a Lucien Littlefield ("Dr. Horace Meddick") original story entitled EARLY TO BED (1936), which was not related in any other way to the same-named Laurel & Hardy film. Also, as mentioned, she appeared in SUNSET ON THE DESERT (1942), and in BIG BUSINESS GIRL (1931). This last was ably directed by her friend, Bill Seiter. He was the one who recommended her for the part in SONS OF THE DESERT.

Seiter also used Dorothy Christy later in the previously cited LOVE BIRDS (1934), THE DARING YOUNG MAN (1935), and LITTLE GIANT (1946) starring that other comedy team, Abbott and Costello.

As the years went on, her youth and beauty diminished, and the parts dwindled in number and size in direct proportion. Important credits included Otto Preminger's LAURA (1944) with Gene Tierney, and Ayn Rand's THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949) with Gary Cooper. Unimportant Dorothy Christy credits included Hal Roach's THE FABULOUS JOE (1947) and a string of 1943 Leon Errol shorts for RKO -- as a lethal blonde, although unarmed.

-- by Richard W. Bann --