Sons of the Desert - Period Reviews
"The team is especially fortunate in its supporting cast. Mae Busch does herself proud as Hardy's wife, and Dorothy Christy is a good match for her as Laurel's spouse. Lucien Littlefield has a small but telling part, and Charley Chase adds some comedy all his own.
"It might be a good idea to cut some of the doorbell ringing in the first sequences. The picture was a little slow getting under way.
"Laurel & Hardy are grand in this film. Laurel is not so completely and continuously squelched, and the two seem to work together even more deftly than usual. William A. Seiter's direction was pointed for comedy, Kenneth Peach's photography is good, and Byron Morgan's story is different.
"Don't worry about this picture wherever Laurel & Hardy are liked. It is good, adequate, dependable comedy."
Credit for the story should have gone to Frank Craven. It would appear the filmmakers were not guided by advice to trim the footage devoted to doorbell ringing. And where is it that Laurel & Hardy were not liked?
The daily edition of VARIETY (inexplicably declaring a running time of only 61 minutes) was more critical in its November 10 review: "Latest Laurel & Hardy feature is a prolonged two-reeler, however gags are paced so that there are sufficient laughs to hold up throughout. Nevertheless those not L. & H. fans are liable to get tired of the pratt falls and grimaces of the pair.
"Gags are the usual run-of-the-mill laugh getters used by the comics. They do everything from falling in the water to getting in the way of a shot gun. William Seiter has handled the team well, has managed to keep them in hand where they might have gone overboard on mugging. Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy as the wives give good support, particularly Miss Busch who can take it with the best of the male comics. Charles Chase and Lucien Littlefield are in for bits, do okay. Sets and photography are of the usual standard."
A couple months later, about a week after the release date, other trade reviews began to appear. On January 6 THE FILM DAILY notice seemed to have been written in direct counterpoint to VARIETY: "With Laurel & Hardy supported by Charley Chase and other topnotch funmakers, this Hal Roach production is more than just an elongated two-reeler. It is typical Laurel-Hardy tomfoolery, but with a plot that sustains interest very nicely to the finish. And for those who want laughs, it is a generous feast....Should click especially with Laurel-Hardy and Charley Chase fans."
The January 9 weekly edition of VARIETY weighed in with its always tough but perceptive opinion: "Announced as an original, this appears to be a blowup of a two-reel comedy, WE FAW DOWN, in which this team was seen three or four years ago. In the original the comedians used a visit to a vaudeville theatre as an alibi for their dalliance. They describe the performance at length to their wives only to be confronted with a newspaper telling of the destruction of the theatre by fire during the performance they were supposed to have witnessed. In the longer version it's a trip to a lodge convention, with a supposed voyage to Honolulu as a cover.
"Stretched to feature length, with no additional plot material, the story is thin to the point of attenuation....It will get laughs, but no new business and will have to be satisfied with sub-normal receipts in a majority of the important spots.
"There is nothing to give offense, and the fez-wearers will not be around clamoring for the excision of this or that....Charley Chase is in to give movement to the more deliberate comedy of the stars. He's the exuberant practical joker, and he works hard -- too hard....Pre-Code Hawaiian dance in a cafe set is led by a highly personable young woman who knows it pays to advertise."
Censor reports indicate this (then) suggestive footage was excised in key venues, both domestic and overseas. VARIETY was the only publication to correctly pinpoint WE FAW DOWN as the story's root antecedent. The prediction of sub-par grosses was not correct, however, as the picture was a huge commercial success, surprising many.
On January 20, BOXOFFICE hailed SONS OF THE DESERT as "a miniature sandstorm of mirth...continuous merriment and hilarity. It can't miss."
It didn't. The same date, MOTION PICTURE HERALD reported, "The picture is always perfectly obvious and of the pie-heaving school of the comic, and as such, at the showing at the Rialto Theatre on Broadway in New York, the audience gave considerable and repeated evidence of definite enjoyment, chuckling at frequent intervals, laughing heartily on occasion. Let that be something of a guide for the exhibitor in selling the picture....Take what selling advantage lies in the husbands-lodge-convention theme, and concentrate on the drawing power of the Laurel & Hardy names. It is material for the entire family. Midweek is suggested as a playing position."
Always of interest were the raw and unvarnished comments of exhibitors contributing to the publication's WHAT THE PICTURE DID FOR ME feature. To guide others, a representative of The Silver Family Theatre in Greenville, Michigan wrote in and stated his or her opinion of SONS OF THE DESERT : "A very funny picture. Gave good satisfaction. One of the best comedies we have yet played."
From the Lyric Theatre in Greenville, Illinois: "Patrons enjoyed this picture better than any one I have shown all winter. It continues to draw fine and everyone is pleased. Class this as the best from these two stars."
From the Rialto Theatre in New York, obviously a key venue: "I never saw people laugh so hard. Large numbers of kids also came."
From the Ideal Theatre in Burns, Oregon: "Not much drawing power but the show was fine. Got lots of laughs. Lots of people do not like this kind of comedy. They think this pair silly and you couldn't possibly drag these people in. But for those that like these comedians, it will surely please and then some."
From the Owl Theatre in Lebanon, Kansas: "The best feature from this team. It went over big here, as nearly everyone likes that kind of show. Charley Chase very good in his role."
From the Columbia Theatre, in Columbia City, Indiana: "Well, the boys have done it, and I did not think they could. This latest of theirs is a knockout comedy, ably assisted by Mae Busch, whom we have not seen for some time....Good story and plenty of laughs. Better than ordinary business and that is saying something, for there has been a definite recession in towns like this since the Christmas holiday."
From the Majestic and Adelaide Theatres, in Nampa, Idaho: "Laurel & Hardy -- one of the best from this pair. But failed to gross as it should." Again, an exception, since the worldwide film rentals would place SONS OF THE DESERT as one of the top ten boxoffice draws for the year!
Then came local newspapers written for the average moviegoer, as opposed to publications serving industry professionals engaged in producing, distributing and exhibiting motion pictures. On February 1, the critic for the HOLLYWOOD CITIZEN NEWS (not everyone in town was employed by the studios) assessed SONS OF THE DESERT, by commenting on PACK UP YOUR TROUBLES: "The high point in the career of Stanley Laurel, one of the better grade of Hollywood pantomimists, is still that sequence in an earlier picture when he was lulled to sleep by a lisping child telling him the story of three bears. He has another big moment, however, in SONS OF THE DESERT, current at the Pantages Theater, when he eats a basket of decorative wax apples and is never quite able to comprehend what the trouble is.
"Dorothy Christy, Mae Busch and Charley Chase have supporting roles. The last named, a featured comedian in his own right, manages to steal the show from both Laurel and Hardy in one of the sequences at the convention."
Several important reviewers expressed similar sentiments with respect to the ever-underrated Charley Chase.
The LOS ANGELES EXAMINER began its February 2 criticism, "If the thought occurs that Laurel & Hardy in a feature length movie may be too much of a good thing -- dismiss it. The boys prove again that they can provide laughs in six reels just as readily and easily as in two.
"There are plenty of very funny moments. Charley Chase contributes marvelously to one sequence."
Excerpt from a key review also published on February 2 in the LOS ANGELES TIMES: "Good old slapstick, with Laurel and Hardy on the receiving end and their film wives, Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy, dishing it out, unfolds on the Pantages Theater screen this week. The production is somewhat misleading, since the two comedians don't set foot on the burning sands but belong to a lodge of that name.
"Those theatergoers who relish slapstick, and especially from Laurel and Hardy, will make no mistake to see SONS OF THE DESERT. Personally, I like their two-reelers better, since the material affords faster action. In feature length comedies, the two jovial funsters can grow a bit wearisome."
Such was becoming the litmus test for true, deep-dyed devotees of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy; would fans embrace the feature films, or just the shorts, "the early, funny ones," as Woody Allen once put it in an analogous situation.
What is particularly interesting about these reviews written for the general public, again as opposed to the hard-bitten trade criticism composed for and aimed at the industry, is that most of the newspaper notices were penned by women. So that while such local critics, and their readership, were both less discriminating, the reviews were often in fact harder on Laurel & Hardy. Why? Simply because grown women, by nature, have always failed to respond to the comedy team as favorably as men.
As a general rule, women cannot possibly identify, or be pleased with the shrewish wives portrayed in L & H films. Nor can they feel comfortable with the depiction of Stan and Ollie as protagonists, constantly battling against the female sex as represented by nagging spouses, grasping whores, or scheming golddiggers! Unless the child-like qualities of Laurel & Hardy invoked their maternal instincts, women in the audience, and writing at the critic's desk, would quite naturally resent such portrayals of both sexes! To the extent this prejudiced female reviewers, even on a subconscious level, or influenced a mother's selection of the family's entertainment at the movies on any given day, Laurel & Hardy's boxoffice appeal narrowed and suffered.
For instance, although she actually loved the film, the critic for the HOLLYWOOD LOWDOWN began her review, "The moral squeezed in between laughs in SONS OF THE DESERT is not that men must not deceive their wives -- but that men must confess afterward!" A subtle comment born out of social engineering long before the Feminist Era was conceived!
Across the country to Boston, where Laurel & Hardy were booked into the Loew's Orpheum. The verdict of the BOSTON HERALD: "Slap-stick humor is the peculiar province of the movies. An actor on the stage cannot, night after night, submit to having a platter shattered over his skull; but the movies can take one shot of it and imprison the action in celluloid forever. And, after all, the filming of one good slap-stick farce is worth any quantity of lavish screen musicals. In the capable hands of Laurel & Hardy, SONS OF THE DESERT is not allowed to slip from its comic pedestal for a moment. The story is an agreeable surprise to anyone expecting to see some preposterous parody of Moroccan sheiks."
One can hope the action will remain imprisoned on celluloid forever. Because SONS OF THE DESERT certainly is "worth any quantity of lavish screen musicals."
As reported in the BOSTON GLOBE: "That uproariously funny pair, witless Stanley Laurel and ponderous Oliver Hardy, are back on the screen with another feature length talkie, and let it be said that this new picture -- SONS OF THE DESERT -- is just about the funniest they have ever done. The audience at Loew's Orpheum yesterday howled, roared and all but toppled into the aisles.
"Charley Chase, a great comedian in his own right, participates in the best shot: Chase, meeting his fraternal mates under decidedly convivial circumstances, decides to call up his sister. She turns out to be Hardy's wife and Hardy, unwittingly, talks with her."
The CHICAGO ILLUSTRATED TIMES: "Laurel & Hardy, who, every so often, come across with a feature picture, cavort in their usual fashion through SONS OF THE DESERT -- a film which bears a close resemblance to their shorter comedies. It's mildly entertaining, and addicts of this pair are liable to find it funny. But it would have been just as funny in fewer reels.
"Charley Chase, who also hails from the short-reel comedies, joins forces with the Laurel & Hardy team to inject a little excitement into the night-club scenes. He appears as one of those noisy nuisances, the 'life of the party' type -- a 'Son of the Desert' who hails from Texas, greets his fellow-members loudly, plays practical jokes on them, laughs obstreperously at his own humor.
"Mae Busch (it's been a long time since you've seen her) has a grim job as the tyrannical Mrs. Hardy, plays the role grimly enough to frighten any errant husband. Dorothy Christy is Stan's gun-toting mate who decides to forgive all when he breaks down and whimpers the truth to her."
The CHICAGO HERALD-EXAMINER: "You might think, at first blush, that Laurel & Hardy had gone and made another Foreign Legion picture, but that isn't the case....It is, may we say at the start, one of their funniest pictures and a full meal for those who can't get enough of the boys in their two-reelers.
"Perhaps the most difficult problem in the movies is a full length comedy, for even Charlie Chaplin can't be continuously funny for an hour and a half. In this one the comedy is nicely sustained, the laughs being judiciously scattered throughout the footage.
"The plot of a comedy is always its most unimportant item, though this one is more connected than most. One especially delirious moment is when the two wives, learning that their husbands haven't been drowned, see them in a newsreel shot of the Chicago convention, gesturing and capering before the camera as yokels always do in newsreel shots of crowds."
It was a good sign that reviewers picked so many different favorite moments in the film.
From the CHICAGO TRIBUNE: "Judging from the roars of laughter -- adult and adolescent -- that are greeting this number, SONS OF THE DESERT is a Laurel & Hardy success. There were hordes of youngsters at the Saturday matinee -- and were they having a good time!
"Charley Chase, who here makes his debut in a full length feature, is a decided asset. His entrance is brief but telling. Mae Busch (a blonde now) and Dorothy Christy qualify ably as wives of the stars."
Actually Charley Chase, and also as Charles Parrott, had starred or been featured in at least three features by this point, excluding the expanded foreign language export editions of some of his early sound shorts.
The CLEVELAND PLAINDEALER: "As 'Sons of the Desert,' Laurel & Hardy seem to be more amusing than they were in THE DEVIL'S BROTHER. They have to do some strenuous stretching to make it a seven-reeler, and their gags are often lacking in freshness, but it is funny in its wild monetary slapstick tomfoolery done in Mack Sennett's usual manner."
Mack Sennett? ... Mack Sennett. Well, it always tends to undermine the critic's credibility when he doesn't know who made the picture being evaluated.
From the CLEVELAND OHIO NEWS: "Charley Chase, as the lodge member from Texas who plays practical jokes, adds a great deal to the convention hilarity. Laurel & Hardy are exceptionally funny throughout."
The DETROIT FREE PRESS: "Infrequently have Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charley Chase been induced to leave their lucrative field of short features for a long picture, but here they are in an affair that is like several of their less lengthy efforts rolled into one."
The NEW YORK NEWS: "The Rialto seemed packed with Laurel & Hardy fans Wednesday night when their latest feature length comedy opened. To this reviewer the picture isn't as amusing and entertaining as their previous one, THE DEVIL'S BROTHER....SONS OF THE DESERT is based on the familiar Laurel & Hardy theme -- henpecked husbands. Some of the gags are stale but most of them are fresh enough to keep the audience in a continual state of laughter.
The film was directed by William A. Seiter. Although the story is entirely too slow getting started, it soon picks up in action and winds up going full speed. A snappy little tune, 'HULA, HULA, BABY,' is the song hit of the picture."
Close enough. Proving once more how dramatically dramatic critics can disagree, the NEW YORK TIMES declared, "Let it be said at once that the new Laurel & Hardy enterprise has achieved feature length without benefit of the usual distressing formulae of padding and stretching. It is funny all the way through. The mournful and witless Mr. Laurel and the frustrated Mr. Hardy are just as unfitted for the grim realities as they have ever been. A Quixote and Panza in a nightmare world, where even the act of opening a door is filled with hideous perils, they fumble and stumble in the heartiest manner. At the Rialto spectators are checking their dignity with the doorman; an audience yesterday spluttered, howled and sighed in sweet surrender.
"Frank Craven is credited with the story, and that might explain its humor, also its sly and irreverent manner with the general subject of fraternal orders. But the expert timing of the gag situations, the technical dexterity which builds big laughs out of low comedy blueprints, and the straight playing of Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy as the embattled wives are the real answers. Also, Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy."
The critic for the BROOKLYN EAGLE visited the Rialto Theatre as well. He was less articulate but came to a similar conclusion estimating how "a large audience appeared to be constantly in danger of laughing itself to death."
The reviewer at the NEW YORK MORNING TELEGRAPH strung together all the superlatives he could find, and summed up, "Laurel & Hardy have seldom turned in such excellent work ... a truly amusing comedy."
The NEW YORK SUN tempered its enthusiasm, "The film is done well, but this theme must be brilliantly handled, or freshly handled, to make any impression on this department. Last night's audience at the Rialto chuckled at various places without laughing especially loudly -- the way that they should have laughed at a Laurel & Hardy comedy, the way, for instance, that they laughed at the last one, namely, THE DEVIL'S BROTHER, which was quite hilarious.
"And make no mistake about it, Laurel & Hardy are quite excellent in SONS OF THE DESERT. One, rotund and overcome with amazement at the other's simple blankness, and the other nicely and realistically blank, are simply handicapped, principally, by the staleness of the material. The topic is an old one in the annals of American humor. Vaudeville has used it and misused it -- long before the curtain of the silvery screen descended in the Keith houses and turned them into R.-K.-O.'s. Plays have used it and George S. Kaufman once wrote a play about lodges called A GOOD FELLOW.
"I predict a brilliant future for (Laurel & Hardy) in six reelers, this being only their second, in a long career of shorts."
Again, admirably close. The NEW YORK WORLD-TELEGRAM was less sanguine, saying "It's funny enough for two reels. After that, Messrs. Laurel and Hardy cease to be sheiks or shrieks."
It was the opinion of the NEW YORK JOURNAL that "The farcical story is neatly built up and there are plenty of laughs in the slapstick gags and the Laurel & Hardy antics. Charley Chase shares comedy honors with the stars in his role of a boisterous delegate from Texas; Mae Busch and Dorothy Christie enact the domineering wives, and a nightclub episode introduces a tuneful song number called HONOLULU BABY....It's funny."
From the NEW YORK HERALD-TRIBUNE: "It is only fair for me to say that apparently a congress of those who disagree with me in the matter was being held at the Rialto Theatre yesterday, for the house was crowded with ecstatic delegates who showed every sign of regarding themselves as being in an ideal world where there were two Chaplins working in one film."
One would hope a copy of this notice was furnished for Mr. Laurel's pleasure, although it well might have embarrassed him in view of his high regard for Mr. Chaplin.
From the MILWAUKEE JOURNAL: "SONS OF THE DESERT is one of the more amusing Laurel & Hardy comedies. It is full length and does not drag. An extra comedian, Charley Chase, has even been thrown in for good measure."
The MILWAUKEE NEWS: "Chief surviving practitioners of broken plate comedy, fat Oliver Hardy and his melancholic partner, Stanley Laurel, are at it again on the Strand screen this week. Their misadventures, which might well have been suffered in two reels, have to do with their attempts to deceive their wives....The audience squealed particularly over the sight of the hapless husbands plopping into a rain barrel on their escape from their irate spouses."
This last comment serves to remind us of what Stan Laurel and Hal Roach emphasized throughout their professional lives: these films were meant to play in theaters, on a huge screen, in darkness, uninterrupted, unedited, with a large audience. If so, the best of them, such as SONS OF THE DESERT, will generate practically wall to wall laughter that comes in surprising, thunderous waves. Comedy gags or little bits of business we hardly notice, or take for granted watching alone or in small groups at home, will come alive to gales of laughs in a theater. Too many fans, even the most devoted admirers, take these films for granted, until an audience in a theatrical setting shows us all where the scores of gags are, and how much brilliance went into conceiving them and building them -- because they work, as any assembly of people wishing to be entertained will prove again and again, across time and across continents.
From the PHILADELPHIA PUBLIC LEDGER: "One of the funniest and best shots yet shown in a movie comedy was in a Laurel & Hardy feature, SONS OF THE DESERT, but neither Mr. Laurel nor Mr. Hardy was in it. It was a scene of a movie audience watching a supposed newsreel showing one of those so-often-repeated shots of motor cars whizzing across the screen in the Whatsis Speedway classic. You got the entire scene through a shot of the audience. Every head shown turned in unison from right to left with a snap as each car whizzed across the unseen screen. And then, suddenly, everyone straightened up and sighed. The race was over.
"Eisenstein did about the same thing ten years ago in a film, and we called it great art. It is no less art to convey the sense of a scene like that in a comedy."
It may well have been a film by Sergei Eisenstein, but chances are better the Russian film being recalled was actually MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929) directed by Dziga Vertov, which was widely shown in the United States, sometimes under the title MOSCOW TODAY and also LIVING RUSSIA OR THE MAN WITH THE CAMERA.
The PHILADELPHIA BULLETIN: "Even moviegoers who are not partial to this team will enjoy most of the film, for in it the fat Hardy and the crying Laurel do excellent pantomime while not overdoing the slapstick....Laurel's antics nearly always outshine Hardy's in the film."
It is a tribute to their artistry, that both critics and fans, then and now, have seldom expressed a preference for the on-screen performance, appearance, or talent of either Oliver Hardy or Stan Laurel, one over the other. The team is the thing; we view Laurel & Hardy as equals. The parity is remarkable, and represents one more aspect of their work we take completely for granted -- that is, until viewing almost any other comedy partnership, or reading such a misguided assessment as the one quoted.
From the ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS: "If ever two lads were made to attend a dress parade convention, Stan Laurel and his fatty friend, Oliver Hardy, are the two. Their chests and satin ribbons marked 'California Delegation' complement each other.
"The charms of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy have never seemed particularly apparent to me. Out they come usually and fuss around with this and that until audiences are ready to scream. But in SONS OF THE DESERT, the Riviera picture, the strange team is really funny. There's a funny idea back of it all which helps, too."
Something else that's funny: while this particular critic failed to appreciate Laurel & Hardy, their appeal was "particularly apparent" to his successor, a gentleman named Bill Diehl. The film critic and columnist covering the entertainment business for the ST. PAUL PIONEER PRESS throughout most of the second half of the twentieth century, Bill Diehl was the founder, in 1966, of "Block-Heads," the third chapter in the Stan Laurel-sanctioned Laurel & Hardy appreciation society named for a certain mystic fraternity -- what else? -- "The Sons of the Desert."
Just as Mr. Hardy complements Mr. Laurel, St. Paul complements (but is seldom complimented by) its Twin City of Minneapolis. There, in its review, the MINNEAPOLIS TRIBUNE made its case for Charley Chase, who, the critic stated, "gives the comedy a quickened pace that should, with his two fellow zanies at their funniest, have most of the customers out in the aisle this week. The suspicion is present that it would have been a better picture with more footage allotted to Mr. Chase. Laurel & Hardy are evincing a growing tendency to take too much time with their gags and business. Mr. Laurel is given about two minutes to get a laugh by consuming a wax apple."
The MINNEAPOLIS JOURNAL chimed in with these comments, "Better slink into the Lyric Theatre all alone this week. A companion would only embarrass you while Laurel & Hardy are doing their clowning in SONS OF THE DESERT. It would cramp your style. No person in their right mind would want to be discovered laughing as uproariously as you will laugh when you see their picture. If there's a new trick in the dingbat exhibition from start to finish, I didn't see it but I joined in the general hilarity just as though I didn't know better.
"Of course, some of us, with minds more frail than the rest of you, start guffawing as soon as we see the names of these comedians flashed on the screen, and offer practically no resistance to their mad antics.
"My personal opinion is that Laurel & Hardy are rather talented gentlemen. They can rehabilitate old gags, old stories and make you like it."
It is difficult, practically impossible, for someone from St. Paul to pretty much concur with not only one, but two critiques coming out of Minneapolis, while disagreeing with the assessment from St. Paul. Almost never occurs.
From the OKLAHOMA OKLAHOMAN: "There is little to the picture aside from the antics of Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, and Charley Chase, and the star comedians do not vary their comic routine to any appreciable extent. In the center of the film is a cabaret scene, in which there is a torrid Hawaiian dance, the kind that is being left out under the new Code morality."
Although tame by comparison with so many others (such as BABY FACE, SCARFACE or CONVENTION CITY), SONS OF THE DESERT was likewise a "pre-Code" film, having been made at the end of 1933, right before a new era of more severe censorship was to begin. Had it been produced only six months later, certain scenes and dialogue in SONS OF THE DESERT would have been constructed differently in order to satisfy a more stringent enforcement of the Code. As it was, the picture suffered censorship cuts throughout its initial theatrical release, as indicated in a number of reviews.
For several years, under the guidance of Will Hays, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America had administered a so-called Production Code, a self-regulatory code of ethics, good taste, and morality to be adhered to in movie-making. In practice, however, the general principles, and even the rules of the Code, were more suggested guidelines than requirements backed by sanctions. This was now about to change.
When movies made in 1932 and 1933 offended so many community standards around the country, complaints were filed by conservative and religious groups. People were shocked by what they saw in certain movies, and wanted something done about the issue. Filmmakers were afraid that if they failed to police themselves, the government would take a hand in censoring scripts. As it was, the Catholic Church ushered in its Legion of Decency, which judicial preachment was having an immediate impact on film content. Self-regulation was the preferred alternative, and especially to legislative intervention.
So by the middle of 1934, under the direction of Joseph I. Breen, the Code was being strictly enforced, and the dance number performed and filmed for SONS OF THE DESERT by Charita only months before would most definitely have been prohibited. Certain lines spoken by Charley Chase at the orgiastic convention would have been revised also. Who knows what other seemingly innocuous scenes these seemingly puritanical minds administering the Code might have objected to?
Among notices filed for magazines, the critic for the NEW YORKER was not pleased: "I am annoyed with Laurel & Hardy for not being funnier than they are in SONS OF THE DESERT."
The same column slammed another picture, I WAS A SPY, about Belgium during the war, and suggested that it "really requires as an antidote something as lively and tough as CONVENTION CITY."
More about that picture later. Again, it was one of the most potent reasons leading to the strict enforcement of the Code.
The report in LIBERTY magazine declared, "Whether or not you like this one will depend on whether or not you like Laurel & Hardy, who are sufficiently popular to have twelve pseudonyms in the countries where their pictures are played in foreign languages. They are known as Helan and Halvan (Norway), Gog und Cokke (Germany), Dick and Dof (Hungary), Stan es Pan (Poland), Flip i Flap (Roumania), O Bucha e O Estica (Portugal), Crik and Crok (Italy), Xonapoe & Azsnoe (Greece), El Tikhin & Ouel Roufain (Egypt), Hashamen ve Haraze (Palestine), Siman ve Zaif (Turkey)."
At least so reported LIBERTY, which also declared in its review of SONS OF THE DESERT ("not a sheik picture!") that Charley Chase received more fan mail than any other comedian in Hollywood.
Overseas in England, where the team was known as "Laurel & Hardy," but the film was known as FRATERNALLY YOURS, the critic for the LONDON STAR called the effort "a disappointment, as have been all their full-length pictures to me. Laurel & Hardy can be, and have been, very funny in 'shorts,' and there are some funny incidents in FRATERNALLY YOURS, but the whole thing is padded and strung out with patches of dullness, and this entirely spoils the whole effect.
"If Hal Roach and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer concentrated on turning out a series of really funny Laurel & Hardy shorts, instead of periodically wasting them in those much-padded long films, I feel sure the Laurel-Hardy public would infinitely prefer it."
While such criticism may have been valid with respect to other Laurel & Hardy features, it cannot apply to SONS OF THE DESERT, and by offering this assessment the writer only betrays his lack of understanding with respect to the business realities facing Hal Roach Studios as the 1930s progressed.
Excerpt from the LONDON DAILY FILM RENTER: "Another round of nonsense from M.-G.-M.'s famous comedy team....Ingenious story leads to wildly silly situations, with stars performing characteristic antics to satisfying degree, though gags noticeably fewer than in their recent feature-length vehicles....Offering that will please star fans and popular patrons immensely.
"So accustomed are we to find Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in the most impossible situations, that it comes as no surprise to find them as members of the 'Sons of the Desert,' one of those secret societies so dear to the heart of the American business man. That our two heroes swear a solemn oath that they will attend means nothing when it is realised that for wives they have two of the most determined women in the United States....The film offers ample opportunities to its two stars to get across much of their characteristic foolery, and this they do to an eminently satisfactory degree. High spots of the action include Stan Laurel's jaw tussle with an apple made of wax, a pan of boiling water into which everyone contrives to fall, the surprising accuracy of Mrs. Hardy's aim with the accumulated family plate, the efforts of the two delinquents to cover up their misdemeanour, their nocturnal adventures in the loft, and the reaction of the two wives to the ultimate disclosure of the truth.
"Apart from occasional lapses, the story maintains a rollicking pace, always with some new absurdity to keep the fun going, and will keep the laughs going with clockwork precision."
Extracted portions of the review which ran in the LONDON FILM WEEKLY: "There is little danger that admirers of Laurel and Hardy as two-reeler comedians will find fault with the subject or style of their fourth full-length feature. It is exactly like one of their 'shorts' in treatment, and while the same story could probably have been told in a 'short,' the stars are ingenious enough to keep the fun going all the time without much suggestion of padding.
"The only scene which could be accused of existing for that purpose is a cabaret act which has really nothing to do with the comedians and is simply interpolated when they visit a night club.
"But the film is over so quickly that until you look at your watch you might imagine it to have been the usual length -- which is the best tribute of all.
"There is nothing sensationally new in their stunts. Laurel is still incredibly slow on the uptake and ready to lapse into an aggrieved wail at a moment's notice. His pantomime of eating wax fruit is a masterpiece. Hardy is masterful and exasperated as usual. They are in good form and with the aid of Charley Chase as one of those 'life of the party' jokers, they allow few lapses in the laughter.
"Unless you dislike Laurel and Hardy (an odd but known ailment) you will get a lot of fun out of their latest absurdities."
From the LONDON KINEMATOGRAPH WEEKLY: "Domestic comedy, a hilarious full-length Laurel and Hardy feature, put over in that robust, straightforward manner which has so firmly established the co-stars' two-reelers in public favour. The humour is a trifle obvious, but it is of the clean, slapstick variety of which the picturegoer never tires.
"Action is brisk, the theme is an ever popular one, and the cunningly timed situations provide ample scope for sidesplitting knockabout humour. Excellent light entertainment, the stars of which are a sure guarantee of big business at the box-office.
"Subtlety is carefully avoided, the producer, wisely profiting by experience, being content to give the resourceful and popular players their heads and let them run into avenues which never fail to lead to riotous amusement.
"The lively domestic situations are backed by a good deal of truth, the Convention sequences are spirited, while the ending is a glorious piece of slapstick fooling. Lighting and photography are very good.
"Points of appeal: Good story, bright treatment, capital humour, riotous slapstick, excellent presentation, and tireless and effective teamwork by box-office stars."
From the LONDON CINEMA: "We always find Laurel and Hardy most amusing in a domestic setting, and, in such circumstances, their two reelers always seem too short. We have the same complaint to make about this feature -- for it is undoubtedly the funniest of all the films they have made. William Seiter would seem to be a most excellent choice as a director, for although he has given the comedians every opportunity to express themselves in their familiar fashion, the story, slight as it is, is not thrown out of balance but treated from a serious angle, which makes the fun three times as hilarious. His handling of the scenes between the husbands and wives is ideal, for he keeps his material within the bounds of possibility, although necessarily exaggerated sufficiently to provoke every possible degree of laughter. Indeed, so admirably has this hilarious sequence of gags been treated, that we have only one small criticism to make -- the inclusion of Hula dancers in the convention scenes is not quite in keeping with the standard of taste usual with Laurel and Hardy productions.
"...The settings, staging, photography, and recording are well up to the famous M.-G.-M. standard and exhibitors need have no hesitation in booking such a feast of fun....ingeniously handled story....time-honoured but excruciatingly funny gags....Winner for all houses."
Not every critic in Stan Laurel's homeland agreed. This assessment of FRATERNALLY YOURS was expressed in a certain London newspaper known as THE TIMES: "Laurel and Hardy were in no very inspired mood when they made this film....Everything that befalls these husbands must have befallen Laurel and Hardy in films without number....We have come to expect from this pair of drolls a livelier inventiveness. The resources of the Laurel and Hardy of FRA DIAVOLO were, in comparison, inexhaustible."
"Laurel & Hardy In Trouble Again -- Hilarious Fun in Full-Length Farce" declared the headline for the review in the GLASGOW BULLETIN. "It is seldom," the critique began, "that material suitable for a two-reel farce can be stretched out to full film length -- at least it has been done, but with disastrous results. A cheerful exception opens at the Empire Cinema next week, however, when Laurel and Hardy appear in FRATERNALLY YOURS."
"Our old friends Laurel and Hardy," declared the ABERDEEN EVENING EXPRESS in its review, "once again tackle the formidable task of spreading themselves over a feature length comedy film, and succeed quite happily in keeping the laughs going at high pressure for a full hour.
"In this valiant effort, FRATERNALLY YOURS, they appear as members of a brotherhood, one of those secret societies which flourish in America, and seem to exist mainly for the purpose of affording married men an excuse for escaping occasionally from their wives to have a good time on their own....Charley Chase is also in the picture, adding to the fun with trick cigarettes and other gadgets."
Reported in the Paris edition, in English, of the NEW YORK HERALD, dated June 12, 1934: "Those giddy comedians, Laurel and Hardy, are clowning more vigorously than ever in LES COMPAGNONS DE LA NOUBA, or SONS OF THE DESERT, which has just opened at the Cinema Madeleine.
"As usual with recent films of these two comics, a judicious choice of scenario does much to put the picture over. SONS OF THE DESERT like FRA DIAVOLO would be good fun even were not Laurel and Hardy in the cast, because of its choice of subject. This picture is really a pretty satire, if a trifle heavy, of the activities of Elks, Masons, Rotarians and other lodge folk. When members of the national order of Sons of the Desert meet for their annual convention in Chicago, William Seiter, the director, has really done a beautiful piece of work of razzing in a kindly way the infantile preoccupations of lodge members on a bender.
"In this picture, as in many former films, the clowns are cast as married men to give an excuse for astonishing the audience with their prowess at supporting onslaughts of crockery. There really isn't much of a line to be drawn between this type of comedy and that of the custard pie era, but the Laurel and Hardy style, plus the scenario, manages to freshen up this old technique until it is quite enjoyable....Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy have the thankless roles of the comics' wives."
After World War II, Film Classics reissued many of the Laurel & Hardy films to movie houses. SONS OF THE DESERT played at the Sunset Theatre in Los Angeles, and THE TIMES approved mightily the "hilarious antics," noting that "Some of the owners of old comedies won't release them, perhaps because they might be afraid of competition for their new efforts."
Whatever the reason, then or now, SONS OF THE DESERT could match the volume and number of laughs generated in any theatre, by any feature length comedy, made anywhere, by anyone, at any time.
-- by Richard W. Bann --