Sons of the Desert - Pressbook Stories

The following poetry, created by the M-G-M publicity department, and printed in the pressbook, was suggested for use in illustrated newspaper ads:

Laurel and Hardy they went to a party,
It was their lodge convention;
They attracted the ladies by raising old Hades,
And also attracted attention.

When they got home, they thought, all alone,
They'd sit down and start reminiscing;
But their wives overheard it
And Stan was near murdered,
While Ollie's front teeth are missing.

So locked out, they groan,
"There's no place like home,"
And if e'er they return to the fold,
They vow not to mention
That blamed old convention
Till the Sons of the Desert grow cold.

Click here to view the Sons of the Desert pressbook

Of Stan Laurel, we learn from the prose portion of the pressbook that "Contrary to his screen character, Laurel is one of the shrewdest, as well as one of the most brilliant, comics in the picture business. He is largely responsible for most of the scenarios he and his rotund partner interpret on the screen. Five feet, ten inches in height, Stan weighs 150 pounds....

"Often while appearing before the camera, he will get an inspiration, a certain gag or piece of business, which, although not appropriate for the film he is working in, could be used in some future production. As soon as the scene he is a part of is completed, he jots the idea down on a pad of paper that is always on hand for just this purpose. At home he elaborates on the idea and then places it in a filing cabinet which contains numerous similar material, all tabulated so that they might be of instant use whenever needed."

Laurel continued this practice the remainder of his life, recording ideas in a few lines on any piece of paper handy. Even after his partner died in 1957, Laurel would make a note of an inspiration that might strike him as suitable for a Laurel & Hardy gag. He made a present of many of these notes, constituting his gag file, to John McCabe.

Why did Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy use their own names in the films they made? "It makes our performance more natural and also lends a certain intimacy to the roles we portray," Laurel explained for the publicity campaign. "Further, this procedure insures against confusion of the characters."

Another publicity story confirmed that Laurel & Hardy scenes for Hal Roach productions were filmed in chronological order: "To save time and money, most scenes that take place in the same locale are 'shot' at the same time in modern motion picture making. But Laurel & Hardy refuse to follow this procedure.

"Arguing that their comedy depends considerably upon spontaneity and that they find it frequently necessary to change various situations and gags in the script as they progress, this team of funsters insist on producing their film from continuity. That is, they make each scene in chronological order.

"Naturally this is a far more costly process than that generally followed in the industry. It means many additional shifts of lights, sound equipment and other paraphernalia; also the carrying of people, until the entire film is completed, who otherwise would be discharged as soon as the various scenes they were registered in had been shot."

Then there was this story about how much fun it was to make comedies: "'It must be a lot of fun and an easy way to make a living!' Hundreds of times both Stan Laurel and Babe Hardy have agreed to this assertion made by visitors to the Hal Roach studio who watch the two comics go through a scene or two of a current picture.

" 'It's much easier to agree with them than to start a debate,' is the philosophical explanation of Oliver Hardy. 'Furthermore, our fans would be disillusioned if they thought that our work wasn't a continuous round of fun -- not that we don't enjoy it and have a lot of laughs ourselves while making a picture.

" 'But there's another side to the story,' continued Ollie. 'For example, in our latest Hal Roach M-G-M full-length feature, SONS OF THE DESERT, here are a few of the indignities and hardships we had to suffer while putting some of the real 'belly laughs' into the picture: I had to sit with my feet in a tub of boiling water for several minutes. I am crowned with a galvanized wash tub during an intimate scene with my screen wife. We were socked (and I mean SOCKED) on the fleshy portion of the anatomy with heavy slapsticks in the night club scenes. Stan has to bump his head several times on the rafters in the attic sequence. We had to sit for hours one night on a roof-top with water pouring over us.

" 'I could go on and on enumerating the various and sundry abuses to which we are called upon to submit for the sake of our art and if anyone thinks that this is fun, they should try working in comedies.'

"Despite the rotund star's protestations, it is apparent that both he and Stan Laurel consider the knocks and bumps they receive a part of the day's work and it is seldom that they balk at doing any stunt if it is good for a laugh.

"Often, upon the completion of one of their pictures, either or both of the comedians are a mass of black and blue spots, to say nothing of the minor lacerations and scratches. They ruin several suits of clothes in their work during the course of the year."

We do become inured to the violence in slapstick comedies, as though they are animated cartoons instead of films photographed with live people. The implements used in assaults may be special props, and the actors may be padded and know how best to fall and sustain blows, but these tricks can only soften so much of the physical action. Accidents did and do occur. Watching comfortably from a theater seat, we forget real risk and danger are involved.

The pressbook also carried a story on wardrobe: "Many of the foremost comics of both the stage and screen are easily identified by the clothes they wear. Chaplin's baggy trousers and exaggerated shoes; Harold Lloyd's neat and perfectly fitting suits; Buster Keaton's pancake hat; W.C. Fields' frock coat, flashy waistcoat and high hat; and Laurel & Hardy's disreputable business suits and undersized derbies -- all have contributed to the outstanding characterizations of the screen since its inception.

"In SONS OF THE DESERT Laurel & Hardy have no wardrobe problem. Their attire is that which has trade-marked them throughout the many years of their professional partnership. Genteel shabbiness seems to fit their screen personalities as no other raiment has, and but once in the past several years have the funsters discarded their stock habiliment in favor of more fetching attire. In THE DEVIL'S BROTHER, their preceding full-length feature comedy, Stan and Oliver, appearing as roistering bandits, were clothed in appropriate period costumes.

"Paradoxical as it may seem, the ill-fitting, seemingly cheap suits worn by Laurel & Hardy are the handiwork of high-priced tailors. Both their coats and trousers are fashioned out of expensive material and are carefully patterned to exaggerated dimensions. Cheap cloth will not stand up under the rough treatment the boys' clothes are subjected to and in order to attain the correct degree of bagginess and tightness essential to their respective suits, the comedians are carefully measured for their fittings.

"At the beginning of each year, Laurel & Hardy place an order with their tailor for ten suits each, and if they are fortunate and don't play too rough, this wardrobe will carry them through the twelve month period. Each of the suits costs $60. In some of their pictures, the funsters will wear out two or three suits or otherwise ruin them for future use."

The publicity campaign offered all manner of posters (including illustrations by Al Hirschfeld!), banners and related accessories for inside the theater lobby and outside on the marquee, plus slides and coming attraction trailers for the screen, and exploitation stunts to generate media coverage and word-of-mouth advertising. "The kind that brings extra dollars rolling into the box-office," the pressbook assured. Exhibitors might wish to order genuine tasseled, fez hats made of felt, with a yellow design and lettering upon a maroon background. Cost: 35 cents. Satin sashes were 25 cents. Laurel & Hardy masks measuring 31 inches high, 20 inches wide, and 9 inches deep were for sale to exhibitors at $10 per set. Theater personnel were supposed to wear such promotional apparel one week in advance of the picture's opening play date. Some few of these items have survived today, prized by collectors and worth thousands of dollars!

One suggested stunt for exhibitors to try -- attract attention of secret societies and fraternal orders in the area by starting a local "Sons of the Desert" lodge. There was an astute notion! "During the filming of Laurel & Hardy's new feature-length comedy, SONS OF THE DESERT," according to one planted story, "members of the cast and the technicians organized a fraternal lodge of their own, taking for its name the title of the picture. Stan Laurel was elected 'High Factotum,' while Ollie Hardy was voted 'Good Knight.' Director Bill Seiter was chosen 'Sergeant Without Arms.'" No such designations, however, are currently employed within the ranks of the present-day SONS OF THE DESERT organization. At least not so far.

Throwaway slips were printed in quantity for mass distribution. The ad copy thereon was addressed to all members in good standing in that great fraternal order, Sons of the Desert, and read, "We, the Grand Camel and Esteemed Sheik, respectively, of that dromedary fraternal order of good fellowship, Sons of the Desert, S-A-LAM you and bid you welcome to the initiation and festivities which will be held at Loew's State Theatre on December 29th, 30th and 31st -- when SONS OF THE DESERT (a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer full-length comedy picture) will expose for the first time the hilarious secret workings of our great lodge so that all may laugh uproariously and increasingly. Come, the laughs are on us! -- (Signed) Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charley Chase."

Presumably, for this Sons incarnation, Stan Laurel was the Grand Camel, and Oliver Hardy the Esteemed Sheik. Apparently there was no title conferred upon Charley Chase. Not even "Texas 97." December 29 was the domestic release date.

Another promotional giveaway piece, labeled "Application For Membership," pictured Oliver Hardy on one side, this time with the title of Grand Camel, and Stan Laurel on the other side as Esteemed Sheik. The solicitation read, "You are laughingly invited to join the weirdest and dizziest fraternal order in the world -- SONS OF THE DESERT (a full-length Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer feature picture). Dues are nominal and the benefits in shrieks and howls will linger till the sands of the desert grow cold. Initiations into this order of good fellowship and insanely-funny rituals will be held at Loew's State Theatre on December 29th, 30th and 31st. There is no secrecy about it -- everybody knows that Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charley Chase will be there in SONS OF THE DESERT to greet you with laughs and high-sign you into hysterics."

We know they used a high-sign later in OUR RELATIONS, and SONS stills exist showing Stan and Ollie greeting each other with the high-sign (a different high-sign), but it was just publicity for the SONS pressbook feature entitled WHEN GOOD FELLOWS GET TOGETHER -- HOW TO RECOGNIZE A FRATERNAL BROTHER. Four photos were staged. The first illustrated "The Grip: When you think you have spotted a fellow member in public, raise your right hand with thumb extended. If he does the same instantly and immediately interlocks his fingers with yours without fumbling, you'll know you have met a worthy member brother of that great fraternal order, Sons of the Desert."

So, then what?

The second photo in the series illustrated "The High Sign: Should the stranger fail to respond, test him with the High Sign. This consists of extending the fingers of your right hand towards him, resting elbow on the closed left fist. This is one of the most closely guarded secrets of our ritual and only bona-fide members can do it expertly."

Tell no one.

The third photo was a scene still, and purported to demonstrate "The Distress Signal: Oliver Hardy is not recoursing to deaf and dumb language, but is trying to secure the attention of his fellow lodge member, Stan Laurel, who fears a 'touch,' and pretends preoccupation. Any fellow member who ignores the Distress Signal of a duly qualified brother faces immediate expulsion."

Be guided accordingly

 The final photo illustrating important secret signs Sons members needed to know when these good fellows got together was captioned "Brother Can You Spare A Dime? Always keep your money planted somewhere else in your suit so that when impecunious or brothers in the red ask you the foregoing question you can instantly turn out your trouser pockets as evidence of being in the same situation. It never fails to work and is one of the most effective signs in our ritual."

In view of Prohibition laws (against alcoholic beverages) having just been repealed, a second series of photos and related ad copy offered "timely advice to drinkers -- how not to open a bottle!"

With all that understood, delegates could "leave dull care at home" and fully enjoy their annual whoopee!

One publicity story asked the question, "Is thoroughly rehearsed or spontaneous comedy the most effective? Should one follow the story closely or just use it as a guide? These two questions have always bothered screen comedians.

"Laurel and Hardy, whose latest Hal Roach M-G-M feature-length comedy, SONS OF THE DESERT, is the current attraction at the ... Theatre, believe the best comedy is spontaneous and that the script should be followed closely only if no better ideas are forthcoming during production.

"They assert that comedy action that has been rehearsed too thoroughly is caught by the camera in such a manner that it appears mechanical and therefore forced. They go through their action in a light-hearted, mad sort of manner that generally keeps the rest of the cast, technical staff and even the director in a continuous round of laughter.

"In fact, on occasion they carry this so far that scenes have to be 'shot' over several times because some person on the lot has been unable to withhold a chuckle and spoiled the sound track.

"For instance, in the Chicago night club scene of SONS OF THE DESERT, when Hardy, accompanied by Laurel, meets his practical-joking brother-in-law, Charley Chase, the antics of the trio so upset the entire staff that this one scene had to be 'shot' four different times before it was photographed correctly. Laurel's expression during one part of this action proved so funny that it completely upset the equanimity of Hardy and it was several minutes before the latter was able to regain his composure.

"It is undoubtedly this lighthearted manner of working that makes the efforts of this pair so outstandingly funny. Their buffoonery takes on an air that places these two in a niche all their own."

I showed this story to Hal Roach in 1979 for his comments. "Oh, what the hell, that happened all the time on our sets," he said. "We made comedies! I saw ruined takes in the rushes every day. I was never upset that it was costing me money; I was upset that we couldn't use some of the funniest scenes we saw every day -- the ones where actors and the crew just couldn't help themselves and laughed! Or somebody broke up. They were professionals, but they still broke up every so often. And you knew those were often the funniest scenes because they registered the biggest laughs when we saw them in the projection room, too. It's the price we paid -- you know what I mean? -- for making comedies designed to provoke laughter. We succeeded!"

Roach seemed to be saying the funniest footage shot at the studio could not be used because it was so hilarious it made the talent lose their composure and drop their characterizations. And laughter being contagious, it made everyone in the screening room laugh all the harder. What happened to such footage? Would any of us move heaven and earth to find and screen these "spoiled" takes today? Whole-heartedly unanimous! Although there were stories some directors saved outtakes to run at parties, and a vault inventory in 1957 seemed to reflect many cans of such footage, none of it has surfaced, except for some mild footage used in THAT'S THAT. That hurts.

As quoted, period reviewers singled out Charley Chase's performance in SONS OF THE DESERT for special praise. Today fans often cite SONS as Laurel & Hardy's best feature. Some go on to claim Charley Chase's appearance as an irrepressible practical joker is the film's highlight. Since -- when he wasn't directing others -- Chase specialized in portrayals of light charm, often with musical numbers, what does that say about how talented and funny Charley Chase was? Even as he was enacting an unappealing character?

Yet there seems to be some doubt about how Chase himself regarded the task of working in features, and this one in particular. In SMILE WHEN THE RAINDROPS FALL, Brian Anthony and Andy Edmonds write "(Chase) intensely disliked the character's mean-spiritedness. Charley's daughters ... were forbidden to see the performance."

Really. Really? Not in the deepest realms of my imagination can I understand how this can be so. It just seems to be a statement of stunning inaccuracy. The otherwise reliably informed authors do not give a source, as to when, where, and to whom these sentiments were expressed. One wonders. Does this hard-to-follow allegation mean to convey that Chase disliked his one big commercially successful and favorably reviewed feature film? That many said and still say he stole from Messrs. Laurel and Hardy? And that he forbid his sixteen and eighteen year-old "children" from seeing?

And the reason for this would be ... ?

Within a year, Chase's daughter Polly was appearing in her father's films. But he forbid her from seeing SONS OF THE DESERT? Again, one wonders, according to whom? Charley Chase died in 1940. He was only 46 years of age. So many in Chase's family died in mid-life, and so long ago. His younger brother -- comedy star, gag man and director -- Jimmy Parrott, died the year before, a drug addict. Chase's widow, BeBe, passed away in 1948. His daughter, Polly, one of only two children, died in 1957 of cirrhosis of the liver. Unfortunately, alcohol and substance abuse seemed to have been a problem in the Parrott lineage.

Four years ago I asked the filmmaker's surviving daughter, June, for her recollection of SONS OF THE DESERT as well as Charley Chase's assessment of the work and the experience. Mrs. June Chase Hargis recalled neither anything in particular about the picture, nor whether or not her father liked the character, or enjoyed playing the character. She further stated she never saw the film (although she knew about it) nor was she "forbidden" from seeing it.

Surprising as it may seem, from 1934 through 1997, June Chase never held any interest whatsoever in seeing SONS OF THE DESERT! Surprising? It is astonishing, but that is what the daughter of the film's co-star said! And why? Because she knew her father wasn't like any of the characters he played on screen. She knew what he was really like at home, which was "wonderful," and nothing "pretend" in movies could ever measure up to the authentic, true and terrific father she lived with! "Why would I be curious about anything less?" she explained. "I never was."

As opposed to his usual dapper but bashful man-about-town, or his patented hen-pecked husband role, Charley Chase had played the same kind of abrasive SONS character before, and with success in THE FIGHT PEST (1928) and ALL TEED UP (1930). He would recreate the identical loud-mouthed instigator again for THE HECKLER (1940), one of his funniest if not his most endearing films. Even if he was playing against type, and an admittedly unsympathetic part, how could he dislike a characterization he kept voluntarily revisiting and which was so well received?

Plus he couldn't have disliked either satirizing fraternal orders, or leaving his domain in short subjects, where after two prolific decades he was King, to appear in features. In 1937 Charley Chase made a short called THE GRAND HOOTER poking fun at meetings of the Lodge of Hoot Owls. He loved The Masquers Club, which was near his home in the heart of Hollywood. It was truly his home away from home, he was once president of The Masquers, and spent much of his free time there with show business pals. Like Babe Hardy, Chase was also a Mason, a member of the order of Freemasons. And the year of his memorable work in SONS OF THE DESERT Chase took a full page ad in a casting directory published monthly in book form as THE CAST. The advertising copy described Chase as "a comedian of distinction whose ability to play high comedy should not be lost sight of when casting feature length productions."

So was his supposed objection to SONS OF THE DESERT that he disliked working in feature films? Or in the films he made satirizing conventioneers? Or in the films he made lampooning loudmouths? And he forbid his sixteen and eighteen year-old daughters from spending spare change to see their father's most famous and acclaimed film?

Why would he have to forbid them from seeing SONS OF THE DESERT when they virtually never went to see his films anyway? In 1997 June Chase Hargis said she had seen maybe five Charley Chase films in her entire life! Which seems incredible, but she never had much interest since her father, at least to her, was so different from the comedian on movie screens. She knew her father was playing characters in films. She took him rather for granted, explaining, "He was just my father. I preferred my father the way he really was, and I had him at home all the time. Why go see some exaggeration or distortion that wasn't the wonderful, loving, generous father who spoiled me and my sister? I didn't need to, I didn't want to."

If, as alleged, Charley Chase disliked making SONS OF THE DESERT, or his performance in SONS OF THE DESERT, or something about SONS OF THE DESERT, he never said so to any of the scores of Hal Roach Studios employees whom I've spoken with over the last nearly four decades.

As mentioned, Chase did suffer from a persistent drinking problem (which makes his party scenes in SONS and the pressbook's item about the repeal of Prohibition ironical). One co-worker's recollection is therefore especially interesting.

Sometime in the early 1960s, Stan Laurel told Chuck McCann, "Well Charley was always a delight to be with and a delight to work with. He was friendly, he was easy going; he was a more quiet fellow than you might think. I have many happy memories of Charley. We lost him too soon. I remember one day (on SONS OF THE DESERT) we were up rehearsing a scene. I got thirsty and sat down in what I thought was my chair, and reached for a glass of water. It was Charley's chair and his glass of water was straight gin! So," Laurel said as he burst into hysterical warm laughter, "he was perfectly relaxed and we had a bloody great day!"

The chemistry of the three stars is remarkable and it is lamentable they did not work together more often. Bill Everson always maintained that a comedy team of Chase & Hardy, or Chase & Laurel, would have been terrific.

Pressbook stories, it cannot be stressed too often, did mix fact, fantasy and fiction. A pressbook, after all, is an advertisement. Official studio publicity did offer this account of the circumstances by which Charley Chase appeared in SONS OF THE DESERT: "For the first time in his career since he attained stardom, Charley Chase, popular Hal Roach comedian, is appearing in the cast of a picture other than his own.

"Reading the script of SONS OF THE DESERT, the new Laurel & Hardy feature-length comedy, one day recently, Chase was intrigued by a 'good time Charley' part in the story and he immediately sought out director William Seiter and suggested that he be given the role.

"When Seiter recovered from the shock of a star offering to appear in support of others, he immediately secured Charley's signature on a contract and then asked the actor to explain himself.

" 'Why, there's no catch to it,' explained Chase. 'I'm delighted at the opportunity to work with Stan and Oliver and the part, as I see it, is made to order for me.'

"Chase, who has a large fan following of his own, has been a Hal Roach M-G-M stellar comedian for many years and has appeared in scores of fun films under this banner. He and Laurel & Hardy have been warm friends since they first met on the Roach 'lot' and each is an admirer of the other's peculiar comedy talents. There has never been any professional jealousy among the three funsters and on many occasions they have exchanged ideas for their respective comedy offerings."

The pressbook offered this item also: " 'There's at least one at every party, club meeting or convention ever held.' So declares Charley Chase in describing the character he portrays in support of Laurel & Hardy in their new feature-length comedy, SONS OF THE DESERT, coming soon to the ... Theatre. 'He's known as Goodtime Charley, and he is easily recognized by his peculiar characteristics and mannerisms. He is the fellow who slaps you so hard on the back that your false teeth are jarred loose. He slips up behind you and slips ice down your neck. His voice is the loudest -- his clothes, likewise. His practical joking includes a varied line of tricks, the most poplar number being the one where he pulls the chair from under you just as you are about to sit down. That's me to a tee in SONS OF THE DESERT,' declares Chase, with enthusiasm."

It seems unlikely Chase would have read a Laurel & Hardy script, as stated, unless Hal Roach or Stan Laurel saw comedy construction problems where they wanted the fresh viewpoint of another skilled filmmaker. If Chase did read the script and wanted a role, he almost certainly would have gone first to Roach or Laurel, not Seiter, who although he was the director was also an outsider. Chase began his employment at the studio thirteen years before as director-general of Hal Roach's "lot of fun."

More likely Roach, at the outset, simply cast Chase as the boisterous brother-in-law. There were several (unmade) feature films being contemplated at the time which purported to combine stars of the various Roach units. Clearly "the boss" saw this as a way to leverage his short subjects talent as a means of graduating to feature films and insuring their success.

Nor would Seiter have secured Chase's signature on an agreement; the comedian was already under contract to direct or appear in any picture to which Roach might assign him. Once I asked Roach why he would have cast Chase in such an atypical, unsympathetic, dramatic role as he enacted in KING OF WILD HORSES (1924). With his usual economy and candor, Hal Roach declared, "Very simple. Apart from being a comedian, Charley was a fine actor, he was working for me, and he did what he was told." Two months after filming his scenes in SONS OF THE DESERT, Chase was asked by Roach to try and save the studio's faltering musical shorts series (the previous entry was so bad it was shelved and never released anywhere!). Chase made a beer-guzzling comedy set in a speakeasy (utilizing props from BLOTTO and talent from the SONS cast and crew) which was first entitled A SYMPHONY IN SUDS and then issued as MUSIC IN YOUR HAIR (1934).

Nor did Chase and his friends Stan Laurel and Babe Hardy meet initially on the Culver City Roach lot. Chase and Hardy first collaborated in 1918 on several King Bee comedies (and later on some of Universal's L-KO comedies) where Chase, as Charles Parrott, was director-general for the corporation. These comedies featured Charlie Chaplin impersonator Billy West teamed with Babe Hardy as the Eric Campbell-like heavy. One release called PLAYMATES, inspired by Chaplin's EASY STREET (1917), features West and Hardy as irascible children, and may have been a direct antecedent for BRATS (1930), ably directed by Chase's bother, Jimmy Parrott. It is likely that Chase recruited, or least was instrumental in bringing Babe Hardy to Hal Roach Studios in 1925.

Earlier, in 1915, Chase had appeared with his SONS "sister," Mae Busch, in several one reel Keystone comedies for Mack Sennett.

Undeservedly underrated and unsung, one can only hope that fans first seeing Charley Chase in SONS OF THE DESERT will seek out the hundreds of films he directed or starred in during his short life but prolific career. Such diligence will be rewarded! Bob Youngson, Bill Everson, and others have pushed for a rediscovery of Charley Chase for the past half-century. To little avail. There is a Charley Chase cult, but its numbers are much too small. As Stan Laurel remarked in SONS OF THE DESERT, "It's disgraceful. Never heard of such goings off -- on." It is too bad, for anyone who hasn't seen THE PIP FROM PITTSBURG, MIGHTY LIKE A MOOSE or LOOSER THAN LOOSE. It's too bad, for them.

-- by Richard W. Bann --