Sons of the Desert - Script to Screen
At each season's end, having delivered all the motion pictures contracted for, Hal Roach Studios usually closed down for vacations. This shutdown might last for a month or two, and occurred sometime between March and September.
"Don't let any actor or actress tell you that when they go on a vacation they want to forget everything and not see anybody. That's a lot of apple-sauce," Stan Laurel said quite solemnly. "We want to see and know that the public still appreciates us. We live for it. It is the song of our life. What would we do without public adulation? The more so-called bother from admirers, the better. And artists in the public eye, particularly screen personalities, who say they do not want to be annoyed and wish to go in hiding are just pretending."
Oliver Hardy was more reserved, private, and didn't seem to enjoy mixing with the public as much. During his spring vacation, the southern gentleman travelled to Havana, Cuba. On his way Hardy stopped to visit friends and relatives in his native Georgia. Charley Chase sailed for Europe. So did Our Gang director Bob McGowan, who travelled with Hal Roach. All this was reported in the newspapers.
Never at rest, while overseas, "the boss" scanned French, German, Austrian, Italian, Hungarian, but mostly English live theaters and movies looking for talent. From London, Roach cabled on May 7 to announce the acquisition of three popular British funny men signed out of the English music halls -- Douglas Wakefield, Billy Nelson, and Jack Barty. Messrs. Laurel and Hardy had recommended these fine comedians following their tour of the British Isles the previous year. The three were expected to, (and did) arrive in Culver City the second week of June. Barty is known for his appearance as "Jitters," the butler in OLIVER THE EIGHTH (1934), but first he was to write gags for SONS OF THE DESERT.
Upon his return, Hal Roach began firming up his production schedule for the new season's quota of comedies, as agreed upon with mighty Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, nearby down the street where the lion (and others) roared. By the first week of June, activities were set to resume at Roach's little "lot of fun" by the railroad tracks, where things never got any more ferocious than when Pete the Pup barked.
"Personally I believe we're going to go ahead stronger than ever this season," Roach told the trade press. "I'm scheduled to produce 42 shorts for M-G-M and at least two feature films starring Laurel & Hardy. The Patsy Kelly-Thelma Todd comedies are finding favor; the Laurel & Hardy shorts always do exceptionally well, especially abroad; the Our Gang comedies have improved considerably and, in short, I think we'll do better than ever."
SONS OF THE DESERT was Roach Studios, Inc. to its distributor, M-G-M, pursuant to provisions of a January 5, 1932 contract between the parties, as amended by March 30, 1933 and May 15, 1933 letter agreements.
With the Depression, unemployment, tight money, and the false economy theaters hoped the public would perceive in double-feature programming (where a lesser, second feature was shown in place of short subjects), industry conditions had changed. Not for the better. Fewer and fewer theater canopies advertised with the phrase, "Plus Selected Short Subjects," as a lure to reel customers in to their boxoffice.
Laurel & Hardy were the top attraction in shorts, and their name on a theater marquee often meant more at the turnstiles than the feature picture. Yet it wasn't enough to stop the troubling trend. Desperate exhibitors mistakenly believed that offering two features for the price of one (but at the cost of dropping newsreels, animated cartoons, serial episodes, travelogues and two-reel comedies) would entice patrons back inside and cure their boxoffice woes. It didn't, but theater owners and bookers persisted in the growing but fatally defective practice. Consequently the market for short films was dwindling, even for the best of them.
At that time Hal Roach was hedging his bet on the future of motion picture production; he began producing feature-length films with his comedy units, as well as the studio specialty, two-reel short subjects. He hoped and trusted the public would soon tire of the new double bill policy, in favor of traditional, well-rounded, diversified entertainment to include two or three shorts such as the kind the studio had long excelled at making. If Roach was wrong, however, he wanted to be ready for the production of grade-A feature length films exclusively.
So Hal Roach focused intently on achieving success with SONS OF THE DESERT. It was imperative.
In New York on September 1, 1933, Roach told a gathering of the press that if the trend in theatrical exhibition towards dual features continued, "the short-maker will fold -- will have to." He cited financial shortfalls of the competing Mack Sennett and Al Christie studios as examples. In the alternative, if double bills were to fail, or be banned (as he called for the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to do), then it would be "the small independent producer who will die," Roach predicted. "There can be no compromise. One or the other must go. Take your choice."
As an independent producer who also made shorts, by definition this was a genuine dilemma for Hal Roach, and all who worked for him. To insure staying in business, the studio would have to simultaneously branch into "complete talking motion picture photoplays of not less than six (6) reels," as described in the language of the recent distribution agreement Roach sought and obtained from M-G-M.
To facilitate this conversion, beginning the first week of principal photography on SONS OF THE DESERT, Metro was to advance $25,000 per week towards the production cost, up to a maximum of $150,000. As was the usual procedure, Roach put up one quarter of the estimated negative cost, or $50,000. Meaning the first estimated budget on SONS was $200,000. (By contrast, the same season M-G-M invested $231,000 in the negative cost of its own THE THIN MAN, $923,000 in DANCING LADY, and $1,144,000 in QUEEN CHRISTINA.) Interest charged by Metro for such financing was only six per cent, a considerable savings over commercial lending institutions.
The memory of exacting this attractive arrangement from M-G-M executives always brought a smile to the face of Hal Roach. He was seldom opposed to saving money, making money, or spending money. "You're in business to do well," he said often, and he did enjoy money.
Also according to the Metro contract, the usual 60% share of gross receipts was paid to Roach's company as the producing entity. Unfortunately figures are not available on the film's ultimate negative cost and worldwide boxoffice revenue, but a year hence industry trade publications THE MOTION PICTURE HERALD and FILM DAILY both listed SONS OF THE DESERT among the top ten grossing releases of 1934!
This was a surprising and actually spectacular achievement, far surpassing Hollywood's usual expectations for mere slapstick comedy, which was deemed low humor aimed at the presumably less discriminating plebeian masses. Still it didn't change anything, at Hal Roach Studios or elsewhere. The major movie factories continued plowing tons of production costs into highbrow, prestige pictures which failed to recoup their investment. At least this once Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and the talent behind them were entitled to the industry respect they had always deserved. The figures said so. They must have enjoyed a good laugh then. It was their turn.
The film SONS OF THE DESERT turned out to be a gentle spoof of fraternal brotherhoods. Quite naturally an organization dedicated to Laurel & Hardy would take its name from their film about such societies. Fans active today in the club devoted to propagating the spirit and genius of these two film artists know well where, when, why, by whom and how the group was founded -- and with the approval of Stan Laurel himself, late in his life. (His sole proviso was that the group should, at all times, maintain what he called "a half-assed dignity," which objective has been met more than halfway! Stan also suggested a motto, to be shown along with a pair of derby hats, to read, "Two minds without a single thought.") Less well known is the genesis of the same-named movie that gave rise to the present-day society.
Although the shooting script told a different history, the film offers the fiction that the 1933 annual convention would be the Sons' 87th such affair. So the society in the motion picture narrative would have been founded in 1846!
In 1978, just as in the film, what seemed like a thousand fans flocked to Chicago for the first of regular alternate year Sons of the Desert conventions. These have turned out to be as much fun as human beings are allowed to have with their clothes on. Many who worked with Laurel & Hardy at Hal Roach Studios attended the early Sons gatherings. Hal Roach was scheduled to appear in Chicago that first year but had to bow out when his wife, Lucille, sustained a kitchen accident. A decade later the producer again hoped to travel to the sixth such international convention in St. Paul, but once more could not. Instead on July 5, 1988 he dictated a letter for inclusion in the souvenir program book which read:
The day he gave me this letter I used the opportunity to explore the "idea" he'd had. What idea was he referring to?
Hal Roach didn't have to prove anything, didn't live in the past, and didn't care to discuss his own achievements or experiences -- except to illustrate some point about his present life, or something he was planning for the future. Most often he had to be tricked into any meaningful discussion about his long career, and it helped if the topic was something he hadn't been asked about since the event occurred.
Filmmakers are storytellers; their interest is telling the best story possible. In Roach's case, the more times he was asked a particular question, the more opportunities he had to polish and refine the answer to entertain his audience. That was his sole aim. Entertainment. Not reciting facts for historical purposes. During an argument one time concerning retakes on one of his Will Rogers comedies, where I had a studio document to support my position, he didn't care to consult it.
"My version makes a better story," was his very sincere comment to end the discussion, and it did.
So, as the years and decades passed, the stories improved each time he was asked a particular question, but varied from the truth of what actually happened in direct proportion! If one could ask him something no one else had ever posed, however, he was forced to remember the true facts, rather than the most recent, and therefore the most embellished version of the story which answered the question, or was at least somewhat responsive to it! At 96, or any age, everything -- everything -- was still there in his mind, but patience, artifice, timing and tactical inquiries were necessary to extract those recollections. It was really a game.
Following the 1988 convention, where so many people both read and heard Roach's letter, it seemed odd at the time no one inquired about his "idea" for what became the film we know as SONS OF THE DESERT. Again, what idea?
To begin with, Hal Roach belonged to more country clubs, lodges, chapters, social brotherhoods, and professional organizations than most people could list together working as a group all day. Roach was an outgoing and affable person; he was hard-charging, active and enjoyed himself. He really did. His life most always matched his dreams.
On June 14, 1933 FILM DAILY reported from a Kansas City dateline that "Hal Roach will come here from the coast to attend the western division sales meeting to be held by M-G-M in the hotel Muelbach here at the end of the month." A couple hundred branch managers, district managers, salesmen from the field and executives were to attend. Roach had the corporate plane at his disposal and he flew often to locations, to conventions, to evaluate talent, to play polo, to meet with distribution executives, to meet with exhibitors, to attend sporting events, and to party.
On June 28, this story, headlined "Storm Gives Roach Idea For Comedy" moved on the wire service out of Kansas City: "Hal Roach, producer of comedies, was the center of a divine comedy here Tuesday night -- only it wasn't so funny for Roach.
"For the last hour of his airplane ride from Chicago the ship careened thru (sic) a terrific thunder and rain storm. Bolts of lightning sizzled by his plane like soft pies. This time Roach was not directing, and, much as he wished, could not order 'cut.'
"After a prolonged recovery period he was prevailed upon to discuss production of comedies. He admitted with apprehension the storm gave him an idea for a comedy.
"He will attend the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer convention Wednesday and Thursday."
While in 1988 Roach did quite vividly remember this incident and his original conception for what became SONS OF THE DESERT, he would not concede another possible and likely influence on the film's creation. That being a notorious, pre-Code, anything-goes Warner Bros. film, banned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, about extra-marital shenanigans at a similar business convention in Chicago. That film was entitled CONVENTION CITY.
It must have been some piece of work. We can only speculate since no one, anywhere, has seen the film in nearly seven decades. It's lost. More than that, CONVENTION CITY was destroyed on purpose! But not before this wild show helped bring down the wrath of dreaded censorship on all of Hollywood, ending the pre-Code era with a bang. Or maybe an explosion.
Only three years after it was made, the demand was such that Warner Bros. wished to reissue CONVENTION CITY in 1936, but was advised under the then more strictly enforced Production Code that extensive cuts would be demanded -- pretty much reducing the picture to the length of a long trailer! The film's leading lady, Joan Blondell, later to star for Roach in TOPPER RETURNS (1941), remembered CONVENTION CITY as "the raunchiest thing there ever has been ... we had so many hysterically dirty things in it."
The alterations required by censors for risque visuals and double entendre dialogue were so severe that CONVENTION CITY simply could not be re-released to movie theaters. Studio boss Jack Warner was so angry and frustrated over owning a film with seemingly no future residual value -- ever -- that he ordered every single print and negative of CONVENTION CITY destroyed! Rendered for the silver nitrate scrap value! Thrown away. Not a single scene from any theatrical release print has ever turned up. So the picture is more than just a lost film, its master elements were obliterated, expunged, wiped out on purpose after just three years. Has that ever happened in the history of the industry?
The CONVENTION CITY shooting dates were September 11 through October 13, and SONS OF THE DESERT was released the same week as CONVENTION CITY, so it's difficult to determine which, if either, influenced the other, but there are some things we do know. The crooner played by Ty Parvis in SONS is clearly patterned after Joan Blondell's soon-to-be husband, also appearing in CONVENTION CITY, Dick Powell.
An October 5, 1933 memo from Jack Warner warns producer Hal Wallis, "We must put brassieres on Joan Blondell and make her cover up her breasts because, otherwise, we are going to have this picture stopped in a lot of places. I believe in showing their forms but, for Lord's sake, don't let those bulbs stick out. I'm referring to her gown in CONVENTION CITY."
As many did.
And! And, during the summer and fall of 1933, across the fairways and roughs of Lakeside Country Club near Universal and Warner Bros. in the San Fernando Valley, there must have been some pretty interesting and creative discussions going on about these two films. Pretty interesting. The search continues for caddies still alive who can tell us about stories being swapped among members of one particular foursome.
At the time, and for many years, Babe Hardy's regular golfing foursome consisted of himself, Guy Kibbee, Adolphe Menjou and Frank Craven.
Jolly, pudgy character actor Guy Kibbee played in all the key Warner Bros. musicals, and essayed the title roles in each of BIG HEARTED HERBERT (1934), BABBITT (1934), CAPTAIN JANUARY (1935), and SCATTERGOOD BAINES (1941). In CONVENTION CITY Guy Kibbee played a businessman trying to get away from his wife for a while.
Dapper, Oscar-nominated Adolphe Menjou was the always impeccably overdressed and suave star of many important films in a long and distinguished career. For Hal Roach he made THE HOUSEKEEPER'S DAUGHTER (1939), TURNABOUT (1940), and ROAD SHOW (1941). Menjou, like Guy Kibbee, also appeared in CONVENTION CITY! He was the film's leading man, and played another conventioneer. Menjou, W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby were the principal contenders to Hardy's supremacy among Lakesiders in any given club tournament on the golf links.
The oldest chum in Hardy's foursome was stage and screen actor, playwright and director, Frank Craven. He was not involved in CONVENTION CITY. He was hired to develop Roach's seminal idea for SONS OF THE DESERT into a story and treatment. Craven commenced work on this task July 6, 1933. It was contemplated as a two week assignment.
Why Frank Craven? "He was a friend of Babe Hardy," Hal Roach explained in 1988, "and Babe was always talking the guy up so I should hire him. I thought at that time we needed to develop separate writing and directing staffs for shorts and feature production, and I was looking for outsiders who would work well with Laurel & Hardy in order to build a new type of unit. I think he was in some picture I liked (STATE FAIR) with Will Rogers, who also commended him to me. He'd been with Fox for a while when we got him. He did a good job."
SONS OF THE DESERT worked out so well Roach would retain the writer for his 1935 feature VAGABOND LADY. Today Frank Craven is best remembered for the Pulitzer Prize-winning play and 1940 film OUR TOWN. He both co-authored the screenplay (with Thornton Wilder) and starred as the pipe-smoking, philosophical narrator. The man who wrote SONS OF THE DESERT can also be seen enacting the role of physician in the second Tracy-Hepburn film, KEEPER OF THE FLAME (1942). Craven died in 1945 at age 70.
Apart from his 1930s and 1940s writing and acting credits, not much is known about the "outsider" recruited by Roach for SONS OF THE DESERT, which was the way he wanted it. "In the first place, nothing interesting ever happens in my life," Craven once said. "In the second place, what does happen is nobody's business but my own. What I eat, what my golf score is, whether I wear the tops of my pajamas or the bottoms or both when I go to bed is no concern of the public."
So, there. How long through July and August Mr. Craven stayed on "the lot of fun" polishing his story treatment is not known. He wasn't saying. On August 13 the LOS ANGELES TIMES reported on polo action at the Riviera Country Club. Walt Disney and his Mickey Mouse team upset the top-rated Uplifters Squad, whose lineup included a southpaw at number one position, Hal Roach. In attendance as spectators were Frank Craven and Oliver Hardy.
On August 21 the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER disclosed that long-time studio gag man and sometimes actor, Frank Terry, had been assigned to write additional dialogue for Craven's screen treatment. Two days later the aforementioned Jack Barty was asked to read the script, suggest gags, and join the story conferences.
Earlier in August another outsider, William A. Seiter, was retained at the substantial sum of $2,000 per week to direct the then untitled Laurel & Hardy feature comedy. At the same time, in the words of an undated studio press release, "Glenn Tryon, former comedy star and now a writer and gag man, will assist Frank Craven in the preparation of the new story."
Bill Seiter was then a seasoned practitioner of light drama and romantic comedy, but broke into movies as one of the Keystone Cops. He advanced to assistant director, writer, and began directing in 1918. Prolific, tasteful and versatile, Seiter helmed pictures starring Shirley Temple, Colleen Moore, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Wheeler and Woolsey, Abbott and Costello, and the Marx Brothers. He was then housed at RKO under contract, but worked at nearly every studio throughout his long career, owing to a reputation for consistently bringing in his pictures ahead of schedule and under budget.
Seiter married actress Laura LaPlante in 1926; he wed actress Marian Nixon in 1934. While making SONS OF THE DESERT Seiter was separated but not yet divorced from LaPlante. Virginia Ruth Rogers, soon to be the second Mrs. Stan Laurel, intensely disliked Seiter, which may account for why he made only the single Laurel & Hardy feature. She remembered that Seiter both flirted with her, and made disdainful comments about his own wife.
Shirley Temple, in her memoirs, called Seiter "one of my favorites. Shiny-skinned, with eyes set so they could almost look backwards, everything on him tapered to the nose, as on a shark."
Seiter made several pictures with Ginger Rogers, who wrote in her autobiography, "Bill Seiter was a super guy, with a charming, adorable, witty and engaging attitude towards his actors. I simply adored him. Some directors play out their own problems with their cast; others, like Bill, put personal issues aside and are charming and encouraging. I've worked for both kinds and it makes a big difference when you're being directed by a caring person."
So, to each her own.
We have no indication how Seiter got the job directing SONS. According to Stan Laurel's daughter, Lois, there is no evidence her father had known Seiter previously. Over the Labor Day weekend in early September the two spent a working holiday together in Catalina, fishing and discussing what was then in pre-production as FRATERNALLY YOURS. This may, or may not have been the occasion where Laurel first met the beautiful young widow, Virginia Ruth Rogers. Daughter Lois, who was close to her father's second wife, believes that Ruth's recollection of dates and events was not always the most reliable.
Babe Hardy probably knew Seiter from the Lakeside Country Club where both were members and excelled at the game of golf.
Following SONS OF THE DESERT Hal Roach saw Seiter socially for years. He lived nearby at 1721 Angelo Drive and remained on Roach's Christmas card list the rest of his life. After Seiter died in 1964, and the Roach studio's first leading lady, Bebe Daniels, died in 1971, their spouses, Marion Nixon and Ben Lyon married. Roach had many snapshots of the three couples attending parties at his home.
In 1988 Roach assessed Bill Seiter as "genial, competent, and the kind of director who had a good sense of building the story while also focusing hard on characterization." Roach told author Randy Skretvedt, "Bill Seiter had more control, I think, than anybody else of (Laurel & Hardy's) directors."
Extraordinary critic and historian Bill Everson thought SONS OF THE DESERT was "one of the comedy highlights of the 1930s" and hailed Seiter as "the perfect director for (Laurel & Hardy), controlling their tendency to milk material, and polishing their comedy talents with his own wit, charm and taste."
Unfortunately for the Laurel & Hardy unit, Seiter didn't return to the Hal Roach Studios until 1943 when he directed John Wayne and Jean Arthur in LADY TAKES A CHANCE. His final directing chore was also for Roach -- the Gale Storm television series OH SUSANNA in the late 1950s. He was 72 when he passed away in 1964.
Seiter and Glenn Tryon were close friends who teamed as director and writer on many films. One was ROBERTA (1935), the Astaire-Rogers musical featuring a fashion show with a SONS carryover -- a gun-toting lady duck hunter! Right after SONS OF THE DESERT Seiter and Tryon teamed on a Universal film called LOVE BIRDS (1934) starring Slim Summerville and Zasu Pitts with Arthur Stone. Each, like Glenn Tryon, at one time or other had his or her own comedy series at Hal Roach Studios. Plus, contributing to the story was H.M. Walker, and there was a character part for Dorothy Christy. Seiter and Tryon were supposed to have made BACHELOR BAIT (1934) for RKO, but when Seiter wouldn't take it because it conflicted with his marriage plans, another Roach graduate, George Stevens, took over. This most entertaining "B" turned out to be his first feature credit as director.
Glenn I-Think-Cross-Dressing-Can-Save-Any-Comedy Tryon started out at Hal Roach Studios with great promise. It was not fulfilled. Roach starred him in "All-American" young man features to fill the void left by Harold Lloyd's departure. These were well-mounted vehicles that would have been great with Lloyd, and in fact one of them was. Roach and Lloyd were developing what became THE WHITE SHEEP (1924) for the actor when he left to found his own production company. The breezy but lightweight Tryon played the lead instead. Roach both wrote and directed. Lloyd must have believed he held a proprietary interest in the story as well because three years later he used it as the blueprint for his own film entitled THE KID BROTHER (1927). Leo Willis plays the same part in each picture!
By that time Roach had lowered his expectations for the almost annoyingly cheerful Tryon. "Rural audiences accepted what the guy did," Hal Roach explained, "but there was only modest success elsewhere. I thought he was going to get over big, right in line with Harold, or even Charley Chase too, but it didn't work." Tryon finally struck out in a disappointing series of bland shorts, one of which of was 45 MINUTES FROM HOLLYWOOD (1926), notable only for being the first time Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy appeared in the same film at Roach.
At other studios Tryon played the same silly character, including one named "Jimmy Chase" in a Universal programmer entitled DAMES AHOY! (1930). With the exception of his credit on Olsen & Johnson's HELLZAPOPPIN' (1941), Glenn Tryon continued acting, directing, writing and producing on light, low budget, routine films, including several streamliners back at Roach in the early 1940s. He died in 1970 at age 75.
Instead of Stan Laurel's preferred cameraman, Art Lloyd, Roach assigned studio newcomer Kenneth Peach as the director of cinematography. Again, replacing so much talent in the Laurel & Hardy unit was not meant as a criticism of anyone; it was Roach's belief that to succeed these films had to approach class-A features. They had to look different; they had to be different. The new ventures could be not be perceived as padded, or stretched out shorts. Different talent could expedite the transition.
By 1933 the career of Kenneth Peach had been devoted in equal measure to production and special photographic effects. He'd learned his trade from another Roach graduate, Fred Jackman. In 1931 Peach joined RKO-Radio Pictures. There he made process shots and did second unit photography of both live action and miniature animation on no less than KING KONG (1933) starring someone else who got started at Roach, Fay Wray. In television Kenneth Peach photographed scores of series ranging from Larry Harmon's BOZO THE CLOWN (13 episodes) to the more prestigious OUTER LIMITS. He also shot TOPPER, RHODA, LASSIE and then retired after making TAXI in 1984. Peach passed away at the Motion Picture and Television Country Hospital in 1988. His widow, silent film star Pauline Curley, died a month ago as of this writing.
On Saturday, August 27, 1933, another outsider, Byron Morgan, was retained to write the continuity (the shooting script with all the visual and sound information specified in detail). Morgan also had some interesting credits, including co-author of the original story for the first Oscar-winner as best picture, WINGS (1927) and the screenplay for M-G-M's 1930 film entitled WAY OUT WEST.
That same Saturday, August 27, Seiter, Laurel, Tryon, Barty and Terry started having story conferences on the picture. A week later, Labor Day weekend, Seiter and Laurel sailed for Catalina Island on a working holiday. Incidentally, in the film when the sea-going disaster is reported, Dorothy Christy worries about Stan not being able to swim. Actually, according to his daughter, Lois, "My father loved the ocean, but was not much of a swimmer. I think maybe he could do the side-stroke. As a boy he didn't have much opportunity to swim and so he never learned properly. But he wasn't afraid of the water."
Also in the film Ollie threatens Stan that he will tell Dorothy Christy's character that he'd been smoking a cigarette, a symbol of Stan's immaturity. Lois Laurel says her mother smoked from time to time, but that her father, like Babe Hardy, Hal Roach, H.M. Walker and so many others, were actually chain smokers.
On September 6, the LOS ANGELES TIMES reported that while Stan Laurel was fishing in Catalina, Babe Hardy was doing the same thing over his three day Labor Day weekend, but that Hardy's trip was to Lake Hodges, near San Diego.
Toward the conclusion of pre-production work for SONS OF THE DESERT, on September 15 the Hollywood trade papers ran an item disclosing that George Stevens was being loaned from RKO to M-G-M to direct some comedy sequences in the All-Star musical extravaganza HOLLYWOOD PARTY -- pretty much regarded among industry insiders as a disaster. Stevens took no credit; neither did any of the other revolving directors. None of them wanted any association with this misfire. Trying to finish it was no party.
Here's how Stevens was awarded the assignment: in desperation, Metro executives had asked Roach to loan Laurel & Hardy for a few comedy scenes to help save the picture. Roach gave M-G-M a list of directors to whom he would entrust his prized comedy team. Stevens was not on the list, being so new to directing and under contract at another studio, but he was available and interested and Roach readily approved him. So the great George Stevens was finally to direct the team he once served so ably as cinematographer.
On September 21 Hal Roach Studios, Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios hastily executed a simple two page loan out agreement providing the services of Messrs. Laurel and Hardy to M-G-M for Saturday and Sunday, September 23 and 24, in order that they'd be free and ready to commence shooting SONS OF THE DESERT on Monday, September 25! The contract allowed one additional day for HOLLYWOOD PARTY filming, if necessary, and a fourth day for possible retakes. Financial consideration was the sum of $10,000.
That amount would be useful in view of this news in the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, dated September 16, 1933: "Financial report made public today for Hal Roach Studios, Inc. shows the net loss for 28 weeks ending March 21 to be $41,876." Hal Roach always maintained he made more money during the 1930s than at any other time in his long, long career. But evidently not during the 28 week period ending March 21, 1933.
On September 22 the HOLLYWOOD PARTY loan was modified owing to Laurel & Hardy having begun rendering services on the production that same day, Friday, the 22nd, so that the agreement would allow for three days on the picture instead of two. Unchanged was the provision releasing Laurel & Hardy on Sunday so that they could commence work on SONS OF THE DESERT Monday morning.
Also on September 22 a Paramount contract scribbler named Eddie Welch was added to the SONS unit as the sixth writer and/or gagman, not counting Roach and Laurel.
Through the years perhaps the point has been over-emphasized that Stan Laurel did not socialize with Oliver Hardy. They were great friends, had the utmost respect for one another, but also enjoyed different private passions when not working together at the studio. Laurel loved deep sea fishing; Hardy enjoyed horses, the track, and golf. Nevertheless they did socialize sometimes. On September 20 a columnist in the HOLLYWOOD CITIZEN NEWS ran this item: "And Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy -- there's a pair you don't see often on the streets -- are having lunch together at a popular Boulevard Restaurant." That probably meant Musso and Frank's on Hollywood Boulevard, still there and popular today. No speculation was offered on the whereabouts of the teams' increasing number of wives and other lady friends.
On June 21, 1933 the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD EXPRESS carried a story headlined, "Oliver Hardy's Suit Claims Wife Drank." The story began, "Charges that his wife, Myrtle Lee Hardy, went on periodic liquor-drinking sprees formed the basis of a divorce complaint which Oliver Hardy had on file today in superior court asking for a divorce on grounds of mental cruelty.
"In the suit filed yesterday, Hardy also charged that many times his wife left home and that when he found her 'she was in an exhausted and bedraggled condition due to intoxicating liquors.'
"During these occasions she repeatedly insisted on driving one of the actor's automobiles, the complaint further stated, and this caused Hardy great mental stress due to the fact that he feared she might kill or injure herself or others.
"Mrs. Hardy also spent large sums of money on liquor and ran him into debt thus 'interfering' with his standing in the community and the 'following he had built up by years of struggle,' the complaint further charged.
"The couple were married in 1921 and separated June 7, 1933. In 1929 Mrs. Hardy sued for divorce, charging that Hardy had been 'in too close proximity to persons using powder and other cosmetics,' but the suit was later dismissed."
In her cross-complaint, Myrtle Lee Hardy alleged her husband would lose on average $100 per day betting on golf and bridge at Lakeside, had wagered and lost $3,000 on one occasion playing roulette, and had dropped $30,000 in a single day betting on horses at the track.
Mr. Hardy moved out of their Beverly Hills home at 621 Alta Drive and checked into the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, then as now one of the best in town. Stan Laurel often checked in there as well when he was having troubles with his wives. He liked being able to walk across the street for dinner at the Brown Derby restaurant.
On June 29, 1933 Oliver Hardy stopped by the Alta Drive home to discuss some financial matters with his wife. He was greeted also by his wife's sister, who, he was defiantly informed, would be representing her in their discussions. Two days later the following story was published in the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD EXPRESS: "Oliver Norvell Hardy, the fatter half of the screen comedy team of Laurel & Hardy, was made defendant in a suit for $50,000 damages for alleged battery filed today by his sister-in-law, Mrs. Mary Pence Hunter.
"According to the complaint, Hardy struck Mrs. Hunter several blows in the face with his fist, causing bruises and scratches. A divorce suit is pending between Hardy and his wife, Myrtle Lee Hardy. Hardy was said to have gone to his wife's home in Beverly Hills last Thursday. Mrs. Hunter, who is Mrs. Hardy's sister, was said to have been at the home and an altercation ensued which culminated in the alleged beating.
"Hardy was described in the complaint as a large and powerful man, weighing more than 300 pounds and Mrs. Hunter was declared to be small of stature and weighing 117 pounds. The asserted attack occurred in the presence of several persons and was accompanied by abusive language on Hardy's part, according to the complaint."
John McCabe has offered an explanation: "(Mary) had some of Myrtle's papers in her hand, and at one time flourished them aggressively in Babe's face. Angered, he grabbed the papers and flourished them right back in Mary's face, hitting her nose. The strength and intent of that blow was the subject of great dispute."
Yet all was soon forgiven. True love always prevails, as when Mae Busch, as Mrs. Hardy, falls into the tub of hot water; Ollie is exceedingly concerned for her, asking in a soothing tone of voice, "Did my little sugar burn its little self?"
On August 2 the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD EXPRESS carried a news item of a rumored reconciliation between Oliver Hardy and his estranged wife, Mrs. Myrtle Lee Hardy. By agreement reached between the respective parties, their legal contest over alimony was taken off the court calendar.
The very next day, August 3, beneath the headline "Family Rifts Patched by Laurel and Hardy," it was the LOS ANGELES TIMES' turn at the story: "With a few feathers missing but nevertheless flying high, the dove of peace is hovering above the Roach comedy team of Laurel and Hardy. Stan Laurel with radiant face said yesterday that he and Mrs. Laurel, who has filed a divorce suit against him, have become reconciled, are living together again and that she will drop the proceedings. He credited their baby, Lois, now five years old, with having led them together into the old path of happiness again.
" 'And,' he said, 'the Hardys are doing the same thing.'
" 'It's news to us,' chorused Benjamin W. Shipman and David H. Canon, attorneys respectively for Mr. and Mrs. Hardy. 'We are in the course of agreement over a property settlement, and if they are to patch up their troubles, they have not let us in on it.'
"But nevertheless on the Roach lot the rumor persists that 'the Hardys will too.' "
The dove of peace....Is that so? Was that dove of peace who was hovering over the Hardy household the same one Stan was thinking about when once upon a time he said, "Any bird can build a nest, but it isn't everyone that can lay an egg."
Delayed by one week because of HOLLYWOOD PARTY, principal photography for SONS OF THE DESERT commenced on October 2, the same date the LOS ANGELES HERALD EXAMINER ran a story about Oliver Hardy reconciling with his second wife, Myrtle Lee Hardy, "after four years of intermittent trouble." Some understatement that was.
Mr. Hardy issued a statement through his attorney, former Hal Roach Studios business manager Ben Shipman. Hardy, who unlike his partner seldom answered personal letters and virtually never responded to fan mail, quite clearly asked Shipman to compose this carefully worded press release: "We are glad to announce that the difficulties that have existed between Mrs. Hardy and myself have definitely been concluded. It is most happy that both of us have had the good fortune of being enabled to consider our seemingly great difficulties separately and impersonally and thus be able to see them in their proper light. Both of us felt that if some adjustment was possible it should be done to save the true companionship which has sprung through the years of devotion and common struggle. We are making a new start realizing that we owe each other the duty of taking our just share of blame for any past misunderstandings with the acknowledged determination to achieve and preserve our new-found happiness."
Which lasted about a week. So much for their "new-found happiness," quickly lost again. The subtext of Oliver Hardy's private marital travails must have helped deepen his performance in SONS OF THE DESERT, as well as our appreciation for it! On October 12, 1933, just ten days after releasing the statement of reconciliation, and ten days into the picture, the press reported Mrs. Hardy was, after all, granted her divorce. From then on, instead of speaking through his attorney about this situation, Mr. Hardy communicated directly with us, through camera looks registered in SONS OF THE DESERT immediately after well-aimed pots and pans ricocheted off his poor noggin.
It had been a soul-crushing, bone-numbing summer and fall. A tough winter was still ahead.
Privately, and very privately, Babe Hardy was seeing Dorothy DeBorba's mother for a short time, as well as a Southerner named Viola Morse, an attractive divorcee with a child. They shared interests in golf and the track, dated off and on for years, but never married.
Meanwhile the press report of Mr. Hardy's divorce on October 12 was somehow mistaken. Or, just as depicted in SONS OF THE DESERT, he reconciled once more with his estranged and tragically alcoholic wife, because in fact the couple was not finally, officially, mercifully, and positively divorced until May 18, 1937. The inevitable was postponed out of Oliver Hardy's commendable sense of duty and honor as a gentleman. A proud gentleman of the South. His wife had been sick, and he stood by her to insure she received the care needed to battle her addiction. Several times he patiently arranged for Myrtle Lee Hardy's admittance to the Rosemead Lodge Sanitarium in Temple City, a place for alcoholics to dry out and receive psychological guidance.
"Babe was kind to Myrtle -- understanding, patient and kind," Lois N. Laurel told her same-named daughter. "He was always a thoughtful person, considerate and helpful to everyone." Lois knew and worked with both Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy, individually and long before they were partnered at Hal Roach Studios. Even before Hardy married Myrtle in 1921.
During these travails no doubt Oliver Hardy's colleagues were a source of comfort. Just as conversations on the Lakeside fairways among Hardy, Kibbee, Menjou and Craven must have been of interest, so too must have been the candid confabs among Hardy, Chase and Laurel occurring between SONS scenes, as reflected in rather extraordinary behind-the-scenes production still photos which survive.
Jumping ahead to February 3, 1934 the LOS ANGELES TIMES stated that Charley Chase was separating from his wife of two decades. "Lay it at the door of incompatibility," was what wife BeBe Chase said over the phone when reached for comment by a reporter. Unlike her husband's "sister" in SONS OF THE DESERT, played by Mae Busch, BeBe Chase actually had gone to the mountains, a mountain resort, where she was recuperating from an undisclosed illness. Charley Chase had moved into the Hollywood Athletic Club. His romantic interest off-screen at the time was also his leading lady, actress Betty Mack.
In 1979 I tried persuading Hal Roach to screen a print of SONS OF THE DESERT. This activity held zero interest for him! He did, however, answer questions about some still photos, and said of Chase, "Charley was a delightful kind of a guy to be around. He was nothing like the character he was doing here. He was soft-spoken, generous, versatile, with a great mind for all aspects of making comedies. Around the studio he was closest to his brother. Everybody liked Charley but some of the time I was half-mad with him because he wouldn't stop drinking, and that's what killed him. You couldn't talk to him about that. At least what you said made no difference. There were continuing problems with his marriage, and he'd leave home and go back to drinking....Very sad."
The third star SONS conventioneer, Stan Laurel, similarly had his share of marital troubles on and off screen while making the picture too. On May 26, 1933, Lois N. Laurel, the first official Mrs. Stan Laurel, as mentioned already, had sued her husband for divorce, on the grounds of incompatibility and mental cruelty. "Stan Laurel's fame as a comedian made his attitude unendurable and caused her to suffer embarrassment and at parties he would ignore her, Mrs. Lois Laurel charged in a suit for divorce on file today," reported the LOS ANGELES EVENING HERALD EXPRESS. "Laurel told her he no longer loved her and wanted to obtain a divorce as quickly as possible, Mrs. Laurel further alleged. Mrs. Laurel was formerly a screen actress. They have one child, Lois, whom the comedian agreed to support."
That spring sojourn to Victoria, British Columbia, had been a four week auto trip the Laurels took together in hopes of saving their marriage. Didn't work.
Stan Laurel moved out of the couple's Beverly Hills residence at 718 North Bedford Drive and into a rented home eleven blocks away at 304 South Palm Drive -- where later Stan would hold an open house on Christmas day to celebrate the premiere of SONS OF THE DESERT. Neither Oliver Hardy nor Hal Roach were invited, but Leo McCarey, who had directed the earlier and related WE FAW DOWN, did stop by. And the way he drank, he might have fallen down.
Actually the Palm Drive home was already the leased residence of Laurel's younger brother Everett Jefferson, known to all as "Teddy." He was employed as a chauffeur, although not by his older brother. On December 17, not long before the Christmas party at his home, Teddy Jefferson visited a dentist who had been recommended by Stan. He was to have an aching tooth extracted. Teddy received an anesthetic of nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, the same as seen in Laurel & Hardy's LEAVE 'EM LAUGHING (1927). No one was laughing on this day. Upon receiving the anesthetic, almost immediately, and inexplicably, Stan Laurel's brother died of heart failure.
If that wasn't bad enough, by then Laurel had a new love interest, Virginia Ruth Rogers, who recalled the time shortly thereafter when Laurel confided to her, "I'm having trouble. Betty (Teddy's widow) told me to forget about you and said she'd be my sweetheart and she's been trying to get in bed with me. Can you stay all night?" Just to protect him, that is, from his sister-in-law's advances. Because Stan and Ruth weren't going to be intimate unless and until they married. Her idea.
Next morning Laurel gave Betty Jefferson a pile of cash and invited her to find another house to lease.
Meanwhile back to Lois, who in the pending divorce settlement was to receive the Bedford Drive home, which in 1961 she rented to Hal Roach and his new family after Roach returned from a failed business venture with M-G-M in London.
Stan Laurel's only published comments on the fracture of his marriage to Lois were carried in MOVIE CLASSIC magazine: "When two people reach the place in life where they can no longer share a laugh together, then it is practically impossible to share the same bed and board. Laughter is not a trivial part of married life. To the contrary, it is very important. Neither my wife nor I considered the idea of divorce lightly. We have a little five year-old daughter and for her sake, as well as our own, we both sincerely attempted to make a go of our marriage....
"We both reached the point where we were continually getting on each other's nerves. I'm sure that nothing I did was very amusing to my wife. When we were first married, little annoying things that we both might do were laughed off and forgotten. But in the past year we seem to have lost that saving grace of humor. When we realized that we had reached the point where we could no longer laugh together, then there was nothing else to do -- difficult though it was for us both -- but legally separate."
On July 22, Hal Roach Studios, Inc. received official instructions to pay all compensation due Stan Laurel under his January 7, 1930 five year term employment contract, into the California Trust Company, as trustee, for equal division between Stan and Lois Laurel pursuant to a property settlement. So SONS OF THE DESERT was written, shot and issued under this burdensome arrangement whereby Laurel's salary was assigned and then halved.
On October 11, during filming, an interlocutory decree was awarded in favor of Lois Laurel, with the divorce to become final and binding a year hence. Not before. Apparently this stipulation was not made clear to her soon-to-be ex-husband, who discovered to his embarrassment it wouldn't be quite that soon after all.
Throughout production there were also problems with the new lady in Stan Laurel's life, according the lady herself, beautiful and blond Virginia Ruth Rogers, then 29 years old. She was the object of his second, third and sixth wedding ceremonies. As related by Fred Lawrence Guiles in his book with Ruth Laurel, "Unhappily, Stan in middle age was a dreadful drunk when he was not in a party mood. Ruth, in her innocence, thought that she could 'humor' him when he drank to excess, but on one occasion, when he began chasing her around the house with a carving knife, a more drastic remedy seemed required....
"The next day Stan was washed out, but sober and contrite. He asked Ruth to accompany him to the studio and 'just be there.' One of the assistant directors took her aside while a long scene was being shot and said to her, 'If you can make Stan work like this and finish the picture, I'll bet Roach will put you on salary.'"
Stan Laurel was not a drunk; that charge is so not true. Stan Laurel didn't have a drinking problem so much as a chemical imbalance, which no one knew during his years at Hal Roach Studios. Just two drinks, however, and he would be in trouble.
While at the same time coping with his bouts of temperament, his wife Lois had told him, "If you don't straighten up, I will get a divorce." She didn't care to have their daughter exposed to some of the behavior that resulted from the chemical imbalance, which in fairness to Stan Laurel, again, no one understood at the time. This troubling medical condition might have been determined earlier in Laurel's life, but he held an aversion to doctors. The tragedy of his brother's death only heightened his reluctance to seek medical advice. It wasn't until the catastrophe of ATOLL K (1951) in Paris that Laurel was diagnosed as being diabetic. Owing to his sketchy medical records, exactly when he had first contracted the disease could not be determined.
In a living arrangement probably unparalleled in the history of Hollywood (a place for which, it is increasingly clear, God owes Sodom and Gomorrah an apology), Ruth moved into the Palm Drive house with Stan prior to the first of their three marriages, but insisted on being chaperoned! No "living in sin," she said. "That would just kill mother."
Not a problem!
Stan's pals Baldy and Alice Cooke, both of whom appear in SONS OF THE DESERT, lived with the couple -- and watched them fight -- until they were officially wed. Or at least thought they were. The Cookes couldn't return to their apartment for three months!
"I lost all my friends," Alice Cooke told Fred Guiles, "and Baldy used to have to go home every day and feed the cat and bring me a dress every day. But oh the fun we had! My God!"
On January 24, 1934, cheerless vice-president Henry Ginsberg, on behalf of Hal Roach Studios, Inc., wrote quite officially to "Dear Mr. Laurel:
That is, the unspecified condition of Mr. Laurel's health.
Definition of "subterfuge": any plan or trick in secret to escape something unpleasant. Having to negotiate alimony and property settlements, for instance, qualify as activities which might be unpleasant.
With SONS OF THE DESERT in wide release, on January 31, 1934 Hal Roach's friend, Hearst columnist Louella O. Parsons, broke this story: "The sad-faced Stan Laurel is growing sadder by the minute. He is taking a suspension on his Hal Roach contract and at the moment is receiving not one cent in salary. The rotund Oliver Hardy is sad, too, because he is out of a partner and unless Stan has a change of heart, Wallace Beery and Raymond Hatton will replace the famous comedy team in BABES IN TOYLAND.
"The Laurel peeve isn't aimed at Oliver, nor is it aimed at his boss, Hal Roach. It's leveled, as we hear, against his ex-wife. At the time of the divorce, Laurel practically turned everything he owned over to his wife and, in return for his freedom, also agreed to give her a large part of his salary.
"Realizing that he wasn't working for himself, Stan asked for an alimony compromise, which was refused him. So he has decided his health isn't robust enough for him to continue working in strenuous comedies."
Bebe Daniels, Hal Roach, and Doc Martin, the husband of Louella Parsons, all shared the same January 14 birthday. Their natal anniversaries were celebrated together in high style every year for decades. Almost certainly the source of information in Parsons' column was Hal Roach.
Ironically, the villainess in the piece is alleged to be Lois Laurel. Although he would become increasingly ambivalent towards his star comedian, Roach was then protecting both his own interests, and also his friend, Stan Laurel. In fact, Roach always believed the worst professional and personal mistake of Stan Laurel's life was the dissolution of his first marriage, to Lois. "She called his bluff," Roach explained in 1977. "He pushed her into that divorce. His success and his ego had gone to his head. Lois wasn't going to take any more of his temperament and inconsiderate behavior. She'd had enough. Yet she was the love of his life. When he came to his senses, he tried to get her back. She wouldn't take him back. He never recovered."
Later in life Roach was much closer to Lois, than to Stan Laurel. Lois had represented him in contract negotiations with the studio, and Roach came to respect her enormously. During the studio's first spring break following SONS OF THE DESERT, Roach wanted Lois to accompany him and his wife, Margaret, to Europe, to help him evaluate talent! She didn't go for the same reason she declined to travel with her husband and Oliver Hardy on their triumphant tour of the British Isles in 1932 -- she was not in the best of health. Besides she had to care for young Lois. Roach offered to provide a nurse. That's the kind of esteem he held for Lois Laurel.
Plus for decades after Stan Laurel left the studio, Roach would call Lois for advice on doctors, dentists, any number of things and for the rest of his life. In 1990 at the Catalina Island centennial celebration honoring Stan Laurel, Roach made a point of asking Stan's daughter to be sure and thank her mother, again, for a stock tip given Roach half-a-century before. It was a utility stock, Pacific, Gas and Electric, or PG & E, and Roach was still reaping the rewards of its healthy dividends!
Curiously wives Lois and Ruth were very friendly through the years. On the occasion of Lois's subsequent birthday during the initial year of Ruth's romance with Stan, Ruth encouraged him to take Lois out to dinner and celebrate! Daughter Lois and Ruth were always quite fond of each other, with Lois becoming the executor and principal beneficiary's of Ruth's estate upon her death in 1976.
On February 12, Louella Parsons carried another installment in the ongoing saga of sagging connubial bliss: "Stan Laurel is still among the missing. He just cannot make up his mind whether to return to England, to stop payments on his alimony, stage a reconciliation with his wife or make a settlement with her. That's all right for him, but it's tough for Hal Roach, who finds the plump Oliver Hardy without his screen partner.
"Hal is optimist enough to believe Stan will come to his senses and return to the Roach studios. If he doesn't, Hardy will go it alone, with Patsy Kelly as his leading lady. But there won't be any attempt to team Hardy, for the present at least."
Miss Parsons' source, once again, was undoubtedtly Hal Roach. Her line about Stan "coming to his senses" presaged the exact thought Roach drew upon when looking back on Laurel's mistaken judgement, so many years later in 1977, as quoted above. It was probably the same way he originally explained the situation to Louella Parsons in 1934.
The proposed pairing of Hardy with marvelous comedienne Patsy Kelly was no idle threat. A year later when Stan Laurel was again in trouble at the studio, a new domestic series called THE HARDY FAMILY (also referred to as THE HARDYS) was announced. It pre-dated the same-named and wildly successful M-G-M series starring Mickey Rooney which began with the 1937 film A FAMILY AFFAIR. The first Hardy family would have consisted of Oliver Hardy and Patsy Kelly as parents of Our Gang's Spanky McFarland! Patsy Kelly never failed to steal every film she appeared in, and Spanky McFarland's role model at the time was Oliver Hardy! A fascinating script running 43 pages and written by Hal Roach himself exists to substantiate concrete plans for the unit. It would have been a wonderful new franchise for the studio.
Also, in February of 1934 it was true Laurel had offers to make personal appearances in London, Paris and other European cities if he were to move back to England. Shown the second Louella Parsons column on the matter in 1989, Hal Roach again used the word "bluff" to characterize the situation, saying on that occasion, "Stan could not believe it when Lois called his bluff and left him. He only threatened to walk out of the studio and go home to England in hopes Lois would make up with him and take him back. She would not. I wish she had."
Daughter Lois Laurel has the letters from her father "pleading to go back with my mother." To no avail.
On February 16, in a story headlined "Noted Comics Not To Split," the Associated Press circulated a new development: "The persistent rumor in Hollywood that the comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy was to be split was denied yesterday by both comedians.
"Laurel, reported to have negotiated a contract for personal appearances in England and France, said he had taken a few weeks' leave from the Hal E. Roach Studios for a rest.
" 'I wouldn't think of negotiating a contract on my own hook,' said Laurel. 'I realize my value as a comedian lies in the fact that I am teamed with Hardy.'
"Hardy also said there was no impending split."
On March 8, Henry Ginsberg signed and approved a two page document drafted by Ben Shipman on behalf of Stan Laurel seeking permission for one or two days work to complete necessary retakes and added scenes for HOLLYWOOD PARTY at Metro. Without this waiver of the suspension, Laurel's strategy for defeating the expensive terms of his divorce would have been impaired. "I feel it my obligation and duty to do my best to appear (in HOLLYWOOD PARTY) and finish this work, and have so stated to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer," Laurel wrote.
Permission to complete the picture was granted and when it was previewed in Glendale on March 28, the headline in THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER read, "Laurel & Hardy Steal MGM's HOLLYWOOD PARTY: Comics Highlight Dull Musical."
So much, as usual, for what mighty Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer knew about making comedies.
Not understanding the provisions of the divorce laws, and mistakenly believing he was free to wed, the day after April Fool's Day, Stan Laurel phoned Virginia Ruth Rogers at her dress business and asked if she'd like to get married. At first she hesitated, then gave in. Just as Ollie had done so impulsively in OUR WIFE (1931), they'd elope and be married by some justice of the peace they hoped to find. In that picture, "How romantic," were the approving words of Ollie's bride-to-be, Babe London.
Laurel rounded up his chaperones Alice and Baldy Cooke (who had to be pulled off the Charley Chase picture he was appearing in, appropriately entitled ANOTHER WILD IDEA). The four of them drove to the depot in downtown Los Angeles and then travelled by train to Mexico. Stan Laurel married Virginia Ruth Rogers in Agua Caliente, Mexico, that very night, April 2, which date unfortunately preceded the official dissolution of his marriage to Lois. The couple's supposed blessed union was invalid in the state of California, their home. When this news got out, Mr. Laurel addressed the matter by assuring reporters that he and his virginal bride would not live together as man and wife -- and definitely not -- until the divorce from Lois was final, and positively terminated. As in, absolutely ended. Officially and legally. In only six short months. What married couple couldn't wait six months? How hard could that be?
Virginia Ruth Rogers stated that her first husband, deceased, had been tubercular, and asserted that their marriage had never been consummated. She was, therefore, in her words, "as close to a virgin" as Laurel was likely to find, particularly in Hollywood. Baldwin and Alice Cooke would share duties chaperoning the happy couple for only six more months.
No wonder Stan was eating wax apples in SONS OF THE DESERT.
On May 7, 1934 Stan and Lois N. Laurel gave new, written instructions to Hal Roach Studios, Inc. rescinding payments of compensation to the trust in favor of direct payments in equal amounts to each of Mr. and the former Mrs. Stan Laurel.
While some of these events seemed to parallel the designs of a Hal Roach two reel comedy, the boss himself was not amused.
He was gone from the Laurel & Hardy unit, and studio, by the time SONS OF THE DESERT was made, but Oscar-winning writer-director Lewis R. Foster said of working for Hal Roach, "I really loved the man; all of us would have done anything for him. But any time you saw Roach bear down and set that granite jaw of his a certain way, it was best to find a place to hide. We all knew he'd been a boxer, a truck driver, he had forearms like Popeye the Sailor and hands the size of a grizzly. In fact he hunted wild game and there were bearskins all over his office! He could sell any idea since he had quite a magnetic personality -- which was usually how he was, easy- going -- but he could be equally intimidating the other way. So while you wanted to please the boss because he inspired you, at the same time you didn't want to displease him because you were afraid he'd kill you and skin you!"
There's a chilling prospect. Hal Roach was gregarious and well-liked. He was equally dynamic and direct. It is true that when he was displeased, his eyes and face assumed a determined glare that could cause apples to fall from trees.
Until the day he died, the entire thrust of Hal Roach's career was offering the public clean, decent, positive, uplifting family films and television programming utilizing seemingly wholesome if not virtuous talent whose private lives were models of immaculate behavior and could stand the test of any scrutiny. Nothing less. Or else. There was never any arguing about this, or anything else, with Hal Roach. The "morals clause" in everyone's contract at the studio was not there just to give attorneys something to do. Stories in the media about failed marriages, or any type of impropriety or philandering by his contract stars undermined the chaste, exemplary image of his laughter-inducing "lot of fun," and did not please him. Did not. Would not, and did not.
As SONS OF THE DESERT was being produced and distributed, the press was understandably having great fun at the expense of the studio's world-renowned comedians. Hal Roach found little to laugh at. He did find this kind of publicity was a good way to achieve maximum tension. One might have predicted all the trouble and worry would shorten his life.
On May 7, 1934 Stan and Lois Laurel notified Hal Roach Studios, Inc. that all future compensation due Mr. Laurel should be paid, in half, separately, to each of the two parties.
In the words of the Exhausted Ruler, "Whole-heartedly, unanimous!"
Or, maybe not.
Finally on June 13, 1934, following a miraculous "cure," Stan Laurel informed the studio via a single page document that he was ready to resume "the rendition of services," thus ending his self-imposed suspension.
Worthy of study by sociologists writing doctoral dissertations on human nature, SONS OF THE DESERT is on one level a delightful comedy, but also portrays a surprisingly complex moral diagram, the time-honored epic struggle of men versus their wives, the ethical as well as the unjust choices both sides make, and the respective consequences of their actions. SONS OF THE DESERT delineates the basic battle of the sexes. And every time the film is run, the wives prevail, showering their husbands with crockery, or intimidating them with shotguns. They win! Never changes. Each and every screening, they win, and all of it is deeply funny, thoroughly human, with a remarkable balance of comedic and deadly serious moments.
What was going on off-screen, away from the studio, during pre-production, between scenes, through post-production and worldwide release of this film was not so funny, but no less a struggle involving the film's principal stars against all the many women in their own private lives whom they loved, whom they couldn't live with, and whom they couldn't live without. What does it mean? Quoting once more the immortal words of his crew answering Billy Gilbert in Our Gang's SHIVER MY TIMBERS (1931), "We don't know, Captain."
Enumerating the marital miseries of Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase, and Stan Laurel and in trying to make sense of any of this, at least one thing is certain. In the very least, knowing some of the domestic issues complicating, even tormenting, the lives of these stars, can only enrich our appreciation of the comedy they somehow were able to bring to the screen in SONS OF THE DESERT. One wonders if making this picture was some kind of therapeutic release for them.
Hal Roach was not only a top polo player, he was also a horse racing enthusiast who had long followed the sport of kings. For several years he'd been arranging financing to seek a license from the California Horse Racing Board to build and operate a track. The week SONS OF THE DESERT was supposed to begin shooting, September 26, Hal Roach gave a luncheon at the studio for newspaper sports writers. According to the page one story in THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER, Roach "explained his plans for a race track to be chartered under the new state law." Roach was the founder and first president of the Los Angeles Turf Club, which created and controlled the racetrack renowned today worldwide as Santa Anita Park, "The Great Race Place."
Two days later trade papers and sports pages alike carried more news, including the list of film names who had applied for the $5,000 cooperative ownership-membership privilege in the proposed racetrack, some of whom were Roach's pals like producers Arthur Loew, Darryl Zanuck, and Joseph Schenck, directors John Cromwell, Frank Borzage, and Charles Brabin, and stars Robert Montgomery, Chico Marx, and Harold Lloyd. Investors who subscribed in the required amount of $5,000 to qualify as a partner, or member, reaped a small fortune.
Around the studio, Roach urged anyone who could afford it to buy stock in Santa Anita. Babe Hardy did; he needed no coaxing. Stan Laurel did not. His decision was made for him by Lois Laurel. Eventually she amassed a net worth exceeding the combined wealth of Stan Laurel and all his ex-wives, but she missed the bet on Santa Anita. Her usually thorough stock research fell short because she failed to understand that the land would be part of the business plan. Nor did Charley Chase invest, although always conscious of trying to please Roach he did manage to work horse racing into a two-reeler he made late in 1934 entitled THE FOUR STAR BORDER.
"I gave start-up shares to my mother as a gift," Hal Roach remembered. "She held on and did very well, eventually turning over the stock to my brother Jack. Babe Hardy sold his, which I advised him not to do. He dropped plenty of dough betting the horses and felt that was the way to recoup his losses. I put up plenty of money myself, betting just like a sucker, and lost most of it the same as he did! You might wager that the president of the damned place would know something about horses, but you'd lose too!"
Busy as he was launching Santa Anita, flying around the country in his plane, playing polo, and planning for the studio's gala twentieth anniversary celebration at the end of the year, Hal Roach still found time to manage development of the literary property for SONS OF THE DESERT. He saw the project as a watershed motion picture for the future of both Laurel & Hardy and the Hal Roach Studios. Which it was. His undated, untitled copy of one (incomplete) scripted incarnation of the "F-4" story that still survives today runs 42 pages and describes 78 scenes, with dialogue.
The few inscribed notes Roach made reflect concerns about the timing of scenes, the emphasis of certain plot points, and where gags were needed, as opposed to what the gags should be. With the exception of Stan Laurel, Roach was as good at devising gags as anyone at the studio, but by 1933 the scope of his attention was usually well above the task of writing comedy material. He generally delegated such work to others.
Despite the transition to feature films, with new filmmaking talent, one concept in the working methodology of the Laurel & Hardy unit remained constant. Some of the best comedy was discovered on the set, spontaneously. That explains why scenes were not shot out of order, which cost the studio more money, but resulted in better films. Here was where Stan Laurel really shined as a consummate professional, "bossing the set," as Hal Roach described it. If a scene wasn't clicking, Laurel and the writers would tear it down right there, ad-lib it, block it out, work it out. Sometimes, because Laurel was so conscientious and such a perfectionist, they would go through a scene over and over and over. More often Laurel would simply lead a discussion in something new they planned, then shoot it fresh and "hot," with no rehearsal!
What Laurel & Hardy scene in any Hal Roach film does not look real, natural and spontaneous? The rule was, the script should be followed "only if no better ideas present themselves during production." Often they did. Most often those ideas arose from the fertile brain of Stan Laurel. What we usually do not know is what those deviations from the script were. Following are some of them.
In the script, "the exhausted ruler" is called "the grand master."
The lodge room was intended to have an "atmosphere of ghostly mystery." When they are first introduced, Laurel & Hardy are already seated; their late entry which disturbs the proceedings was not scripted.
Instead of Chicago, the 487th annual convention of this really old organization was to be held in "Decago," wherever and whatever that was supposed to mean. (A "decagon," as geometry students know -- don't we all? -- is a plane figure with ten sides and ten angles.) The alleged proper noun "Decago" was used and spelled that way more than once in the script, so it was not a misprint. Possibly it was a pejorative name for Chicago arising out of the derisive slang word "dego" (meaning "Italian") during the concurrent reign of Italian mobsters such as Al Capone and his successors in the city.
The protracted confusion with the doors and doorbells outside the double bungalow was not reflected in the script. "Gags here," was Hal Roach's terse hand-written notation.
Despite all the boasting in the cab ride home about being "king of his own castle" (a line which obviously made a lasting impression on comedian Jackie Gleason), Ollie eases into the news when trying to tell his wife he'll be leaving to attend the convention. He speaks "very sweetly" to his wife, with a "languid attitude," as indicated by the script. Stan is confused by Ollie's change in demeanor, which he gets across by some intrusive comments. The script, by the way, refers always to "Babe," never to "Ollie."
"Babe pantomimes for (Stan) to shut up," the script reads, "then smiles reassuringly at his wife. Noticing her dead-pan and feeling that he isn't getting over, he decides to three-sheet for Stan's benefit, and begins to get a little tough (with) his wife."
It was always fun to speak with people who worked at the studio and hear the comedy filmmaking jargon and shorthand they used and knew, which no one else did. A "three-sheet" is a door-sized poster advertising a particular film with drawn illustrations and splashy graphics displayed outside of theaters to entice patrons inside after stepping up to the boxoffice. In this context, "to three-sheet" meant for Ollie to show-off and make a pretentious display of himself.
When Mrs. Hardy becomes exasperated, raises her voice and informs Ollie he is not going to the convention but instead to the mountains, she next storms out of the scene and slams the door with terrific force. Ollie reassures Stan, "Don't pay any attention to her. She's only clowning." All this is filmed as described, but the written account of the action called for is interesting: "A vase is thrown into the scene and hits Babe on the back of the neck. He takes it, but doesn't look back as he knows full well where it came from....He gives up and sits down."
Throughout the story Stan does plenty of dim-witted things such as when Ollie exclaims of their phony-physician scheme, "Our plan is working out great!" and Stan responds numbly, "It sure is ... only why do you want to go to Honolulu?" The indicated response that was called for: "Babe takes it in patient disgust."
What's interesting is how often lines of dialogue or action are introduced with adverbs indicating the attitude called for in delivering the line or the look -- "impatiently," "mournfully," "disgustedly," "hotly," "emphatically," "grandiloquently," "boastfully," "absent-mindedly," "sweetly," "genially," "bewilderedly," "defiantly," "anxiously," "firmly," "hesitatingly," and "dead-pan." Try and match the modifier with the film's characters. Hardy's camera-looks are most often indicated by the word "takem," and usually by "double takem." More jargon.
By page 22 in the script the convention city is now magically Chicago, rather than Decago. Roach must have understood the meaning since there are no marginal emendations.
In a sequence not included in the released film version, the ranks of parading conventioneers include a crack team of bicyclers "going through a series of intricate formations, each move cued by the blast of a whistle....Stan and Babe, resplendent in their brilliant uniforms, are riding at the head of the bicycle squad....Stan and Babe are doing circles and cross-overs and other stunts....The entire squad crashes in a tangled heap."
This elaborate sequence, where the team also becomes ensnared in a huge, long banner was deemed too risky, or too complicated, or unconvincing with whatever doubles might have been required, or just not funny, or maybe all of the above. Charley Chase had just incorporated a bicycle scene in his MIDSUMMER MUSH (1933) which could have been the genesis.
At the boisterous speak-easy, with the "celebrating lodge men and their girl friends ... acting like college kids," we learn that the character played by Charley Chase -- "Bill, a middle-aged, pie-eyed fellow" -- was evidently not written for him. This would be consistent with the (usually suspicious) pressbook story telling how Chase read the script then asked for the part. Roach wrote Charley Chase's name in the margin, but whether the casting suggestion was Roach's idea or Chase's petition remains unclear. Also "Bill" and "Texas-97" are written as two different lodge members.
As Laurel & Hardy enter the speak-easy, they are supposed to be "a little tight." And the pocketbook gag is employed at two different spots in the proceedings, instead of one.
When "Bill" phones his sister back in Los Angeles, he responds to her question, and explains about "The music? We're in a speak! Liquor -- women -- gambling! You should get a squint! And have I got a couple of pals -- Los Angeles pals! ... That ain't a bad connection, sis, we're drunk! Talk to my pal -- he's a big Son of the Desert -- no, sis -- desert: d-e-s-e-r-t! Here he is."
The Hardy household address in the script was different at 2222 Adams Way.
A scene was written for Stan and Ollie to get into an altercation resolved by two bouncers rushing in to "double-time them out" of the speak-easy "on their pans." This leads to a scuffle with police outside which lands the California delegates in jail for ten days. "That's nearly a week," says Stan. This is the kind of scene Hal Roach was partial to, and he's doubtless responsible for similar sounding material that was filmed for OUR RELATIONS (1936). The SONS sequence does not read like the kind of material that would have played well in the context of the film and was probably best excised as happened.
The jail sequence concludes on page 39 of the script. The written instrument was a work- in-progress because the final three pages are meant only as a synopsis of sequences to the finish of the picture. These begin with the wives discovering the boat has been shipwrecked. Stan and Ollie arrive home in a taxi full of pep. Nobody's home. They discover the newspaper and their supposed watery grave. Before they can leave, the wives arrive outside with a spiritualist (another story notion Roach was always partial to). Of course there is no seance in the film, but it was intended that the spiritualist would divine Stan and Ollie's fate by listening to a series of knocks.
"The knocks are answered unconsciously by Stan and Babe up in the attic trying to open a coconut or whatever the case may be," in the words of the script. The wives are cheered by knocks that signify their hubbies have survived the catastrophe. The ladies leave for the movies to kill time as they await the next bulletin. On the screen is a newsreel. One event happens to be "a shot of Mussolini, and Babe's wife makes a remark about how much her Oliver resembles him, that they both have that same powerful chin."
Roach had not yet met and entered a doomed partnership with Benito Mussolini, but just that spring he and Bob McGowan, travelling as mentioned in Europe, and driving an ostentatious rented open car which commanded attention, had returned Adolf Hitler's official salute from a motorcade blocking their exit from the Adalon Hotel in Berlin! Roach said Hitler couldn't help but notice their pretentious automobile, and "must have figured we were important characters!"
In view of the confusion over the roof sequence, previously covered, it's worth noting that the script, at least at that particular stage, intended one roof sequence only, at night, in the rain.
Stan and Ollie's interception by Harry Bernard, as the neighborhood cop, was not scripted. At least not in this version of the story. Instead the erring husbands are to spend the night in the rain, on the roof. It is at least possible that the daytime stills on the roof showing Stan and Ollie fully dressed are supposed to depict the morning after, when they are preparing to come down and face their wives with an alibi, but no daytime roof scenes were reflected in the script. Stills also exist showing them clad in their usual "business" suits, inside, downstairs, just before confessing all to the stone-faced spouses and getting the business themselves. As actually filmed, they confess in pajamas, which were soaking wet outside, but are miraculously dry moments later inside.
Back on the roof, as written, "Stan and Babe make their plans for the morning and we fade out on some gag," was the plot point. Next day the wives have breakfast and "take it big" when they spy their husbands outside "wetting themselves with a garden hose or maybe lying in the fish pond," preparing themselves to look like they have been shipwrecked. (The script provided no sequence showing how they got down off the roof in the daylight; a straight cut was called for to reveal them outside, in the yard.) Mrs. Hardy wants to go out and "murder" Babe right away, but Mrs. Laurel prefers to hear their story, first. Ollie, always so helpful, obliges.
"Stan is also trying to help put over the story but keeps saying the wrong thing," reads the text. As the boys conclude their alibi, a taxi pulls up outside with Ollie's brother-in-law, Bill. The story concludes, "Stan and Babe think that the brother is going to put the squeak in and they start to exit. The brother with a big smile says, 'We all met in Honolulu.' Stan and Babe take it big and get very hilarious, pretty nearly kissing the brother. This burns the wives to a crisp; they can't stand it any longer."
All of which was reworked and upgraded in rather remarkable fashion!
Candid stills exist showing the stars and writers at ease between scenes re-thinking the story, blocking out and polishing routines, adding gags, discussing what plays and what isn't working, and everyone, always, smoking.
As usual SONS OF THE DESERT was shot pretty much in continuity. This allowed for spontaneous inspiration and improvisation of naturally developing story elements and gags which served the film well.
Setting aside Hal Roach's stormy plane ride to a convention, and whatever original concepts were invested by Frank Craven, it is curious that the script makes no reference to its partial antecedent -- Laurel & Hardy's silent two-reeler WE FAW DOWN, coincidentally released five years before SONS OF THE DESERT on the exact same date, December 29 of 1928. As mentioned, the reworking of the short's premise was so obvious that VARIETY mentioned the connection in its review. In WE FAW DOWN it's a poker game the wives disapprove of, and which the boys want to attend. And a movie theater burns down instead of an ocean liner sinking. But both calamities are disclosed to Stan and Ollie in newspaper headlines, and both films feature shotguns, knife-wielding and water drenchings.
To a lesser extent, SONS OF THE DESERT also vaguely reflects ingredients found in BE BIG (1931) but again there is no mention of that film, nor any specific tie to its story, in the SONS script. There is, however, one "inside" line actually spoken by Mae Busch in the last SONS OF THE DESERT reel when she says, "Oliver. I want you to be big. Bigger than you've ever been before. Are you telling me the truth?"
The titles of earlier Laurel & Hardy films turned up often enough again in subsequent efforts that their subtle reuse, such as in this instance, could not have been coincidental. Clearly the filmmakers were amusing themselves.
"Roach Feature In Box," was the headline for the single paragraph story in the October 24, 1933 edition of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER. "William Seiter brought in the Laurel & Hardy feature at Hal Roach Studios five days ahead of schedule when the cameras finished grinding on SONS OF THE DESERT yesterday," the story stated. "Seiter returns to RKO, the studio from which he was borrowed about two months ago."
Following post-production work and at least two sneak previews, less than two months later SONS OF THE DESERT was ready for trade reviews at the Wilshire Theatre in Santa Monica.
From the resonance of WE FAW DOWN to Hal Roach's near ill-fated trip and convention, through the writing process, the gathering of talent on both sides of the camera, arranging financing, building the sets, finding locations, through the thousands of choices made, the shooting, posing for stills, the long night in wet clothes on a chilly rooftop, the bone-crushing slapstick, all the things which didn't work, the re-shooting, the bad case of Canus Delirous, the real-life marital troubles at home, at several homes, the distracting coverage by the press, on to the cutting, the scoring, the publicity, the previews, the re-cutting, the distribution, the premiere, the domestic and international releases....Through all this, the filmmakers on the little lot of fun in Culver City had successfully transposed an idea from script to screen.
What's more, their inspired work did and continues to bring smiles of recognition, hearty laughter, deep contentment and immense satisfaction to fortunate, delighted movie fans now and in the future, anywhere the film is shown, on video, on television, or best of all, in one of those darkened movie palaces with a huge audience and a sparkling, theatrical density 35mm print.
-- by Richard W. Bann --
-- by Richard W. Bann --