Sons of the Desert - Music Notes

The opening composition called TITLE MUSIC was borrowed from M-G-M's library of stock themes. This important-sounding piece (part of which was reworked from the 1812 OVERTURE by Russian composer Tchaikovsky) can be heard elsewhere in several top Metro releases, including the 1932 Marion Davies vehicle BLONDIE OF THE FOLLIES. But the music was never used again on any Roach picture.

In SONS OF THE DESERT, Marvin Hatley had a wonderful opportunity, which he capitalized on. With fellow composer LeRoy Shield unavailable in Chicago, it was Hatley who wrote the words and music to one of the most popular tunes ever to come out of a Laurel & Hardy picture, HONOLULU BABY. Certainly, today, every Laurel & Hardy fan knows this song well.

"That number ... gee it's funny to think of now," Hatley explained in 1979, "but it took me only twenty minutes to compose. Luckily for me, it wasn't hard work at all, for a change. They told me they needed a song for a scene in a nightclub. They had a young man dressed as a sailor to sing it, and he was supposed to be on the beach in Honolulu. Charley Chase was also going to be in that scene, and he was one of my favorite actors, so I talked it over with Charley before I went to work. In another day or two we recorded that tune right there on the set with an eight piece band.

"Stan Laurel always wanted lively music, lively music, except when we caught the cues, you know, the action cues when somebody threw a pie in his face; we had to catch all those. So this was lively music all right and people liked it. And then when so many began singing the song all over the lot, day after day, it brought a big smile to my face. They didn't know I was coming, that I was listening. I think they really liked it and sang it because the melody was catchy and the story was cute. That was HONOLULU BABY."

The immediate enthusiasm for Hatley's HONOLULU BABY generated an instant item in the October 10 edition of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, which ran during production: "Song will accompany a line of hula dancers in a cabaret scene and studio feels it will be a hit." And yet, for whatever reasons, the only commercial release originated in Japan, a 1934 recording by the Weintraub Syncopaters for Columbia.

During the 1950s and 1960s when the Laurel & Hardy films were incredibly popular on American television, Stan Laurel received regular requests from fans hoping to buy a 45 RPM record with the HONOLULU BABY song. In 1960 Mr. Laurel answered a letter from Jim White to tell him, "The HONOLULU BABY song you mention was never published, the only way you could get it is from the film, so am afraid I can't help you on that."

Some confusion has arisen over the use of HONOLULU BABY in NIGHT OWLS, made three years before SONS OF THE DESERT. When Film Classics reissued the Roach sound films in the mid-1940s, the company remade most of the opening title sections (to obliterate the Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer trademarks) and often tampered with the corresponding original musical fanfares also. This explains how an instrumental excerpt of HONOLULU BABY replaced MUSICAL JUG and UNDER THE UNHAUSER BUSCH on most prints surviving in circulation today.

These were the lyrics to HONOLULU BABY, as sung on camera by tenor Ty Parvis, in SONS OF THE DESERT:

While down on a south sea island,
underneath the beauty of the stars,
I strayed upon some maidens,
who were strumming on their guitars.

A hula maid was dancing,
and I knew I'd found my paradise.
So this is what I told her,
as I gazed into her eyes....

Honolulu baby, where'd you get those eyes?
And the dark complexion, I just idolize.
Honolulu baby, where'd you get that style?
And those pretty red lips, and that sunny smile!

When you start to dance, your hula hips entrance,
then you shake it up and down.
You shake a little here, you shake a little there,
well you've got the boys going to town.

Honolulu baby, sure know your stuff,
Honolulu baby, gonna call your bluff.

It became a signature song for Hatley (who can be seen on camera behind the piano performing with the orchestra). He was always surprised that people who couldn't tell Laurel from Hardy knew at least some of these words and their melody. During the 1970s and 1980s, Hatley enjoyed playing and singing this and other tunes at gatherings of the group designed to propagate the spirit and genius of Laurel & Hardy, and named for the film aimed squarely at kidding all such fraternal organizations, SONS OF THE DESERT.

Today most "Sons" meetings are marked by an opening ceremony of sorts where members stand, cross arms, clasp hands and sing a different song from the film SONS OF THE DESERT. Officially, the title is TRAMP TRAMP TRAMP, but most fans just call it THE SONS OF THE DESERT SONG. Here are the words to this anthem...

We are The Sons of the Desert,
having the time of our lives.
Marching along, two-thousand strong,
Far from our sweethearts and wives,
God bless them.
Tramp tramp tramp the boys are marching
and dancing to this melody ...
uhm, uhm, uhm, uhm, uhm,
uhm, uhm, uhm, uhm, uhm, uhm, uhm ...
Sons of the Desert are we!

According to Stan Laurel, writing to John McCabe in 1963, both words and music for this number were supplied by Frank Terry, also known as Nat Clifford, and as La Petit Franklin, among other aliases. Hal Roach had introduced the two during Laurel's first week at the studio back in 1918. All three worked together off and on for two decades.

Frank Terry "had a fantastic life story," said Laurel. Former boxer, pimp, bigamist, songwriter, card sharp, and overseas escaped prisoner, Terry was a writer and gag man on SONS OF THE DESERT, occasionally he did acting roles (despite being a wanted man) in things like MIDNIGHT PATROL and ME AND MY PAL, and in 1919 he accidentally handed the prop bomb to Harold Lloyd that was live after all and tore away half the comedy star's hand. One other occupation: "(Terry) suddenly took up religion," Laurel explained in a 1961 letter to McCabe, "and became a missionary in Hawaii. For a while he was a chaplain on some Leper Island Colony there, then he opened up a little mission house in Honolulu."

While there, did he stray upon some maidens, who were strumming on their guitars? In helping to construct the SONS screenplay, did he advise or discuss any of this with Marvin Hatley? Was the whole Honolulu story angle suggested by none other than Frank Terry?

In the deathless words of Harry Bernard, uttered to Billy Gilbert in SHIVER MY TIMBERS, "We don't know, Captain."

-- by Richard W. Bann --