Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were a comedy team from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. During their run they made dozens of films and were one of the most popular comic duos of early Hollywood. Their brand of comedy had its own unique style that separated them from other comedians at the time. Their comedy was based on their characters. Laurel plays a clumsy, man-child who’s overly emotional. Hardy plays the dumb bully who always gets in trouble for his idiotic ideas. The two of them together made an unlikely pair who were always the butt of the joke. And Sons of the Desert is not only one of their most famous movies, it’s also a perfect introduction to their comedic style.
The story of the movie is very simple. Stanley and Ollie (yes, they both use their real names in almost all of their movies) are a part of a fraternal club, Sons of the Desert. They decide to hold one of their annual conventions in Chicago. The two men want to go but are afraid that their wives will keep them home. The two of them try to trick their wives into letting them go. Stanley pretends to be sick, saying he needs to go to Honolulu for rest, and Laurel pretends to be his chaperone. The two think they pulled a fast one on their wives, but they find out about what their husbands really did, via seeing them on a news reel, and are extremely pissed. The two men try to explain their side of the story, but, well, let’s just say it’s not a pretty ending for them.
The film basically has no plot, just the bare minimum of one. This isn’t a problem though as the strength of the movie is its slapstick comedy. There’s a lot of funny, fast, over-the-top, and pretty violent slapstick throughout the film. Towards the end of the film when the two wives discover their husbands lied to them, Hardy’s wife starts to throw dishes, buckets, and pretty much everything in the kitchen at his head. Even without the slapstick the dialogue and character reactions are very funny. Laurel’s wife knows he’s a pushover and is afraid of her. When she lightly pressures him into telling her what they did, he immediately burst into tears and tells her everything. It’s so hilarious because she’s so calm in her voice, yet she turns him into a baby. A lot of the comedy in the movie is so fast because it’s such a short movie, with it being barely over an hour. Many comedies made during the early 1930s were short as they were usually double features with other films. So, the jokes had to be fast and easy to understand so that the next film could be played on time.
The slapstick isn’t the only thing holding the movie together. One of the reasons why Laurel and Hardy were successful was because audiences liked the characters they played. The two of them had great chemistry with their different personalities bouncing off each other. Hardy plays a jerk who thinks he’s smarter than everyone, but he’s really a hot-headed idiot. He’s the one who comes up with the idea to trick the wives and thinks he pulled a fast one on them. Even when his feet are burned by boiling water or when he gets hit on the head, he still feels he’s the smart one. Laurel’s character, on the other hand, is naïve, clumsy, an airhead, and very emotional. He goes from crying one minute, then cuddles up to his wife the next when she praises him. They were also the first comedians to break the “fourth wall”. This is a term that means they break character by looking at the camera or addressing the audience head on. This creates the sense that the characters are in on the joke and find the film just as silly as you do. This happens a lot in the movie as Hardy, usually after a bad joke or when Laurel is acting like a dummy, gives a sarcastic look in the camera. You could say they were ahead of their time in terms of having meta, or self-referential, humor.
Probably one of the funniest aspects of the film, outside of the two leads, are the wives. While Laurel and Hardy are the men of their households, they’re not the ones wearing the pants in the family, so to speak. The wives are smarter and more cleaver than either of them. And it’s hilarious! Hardy’s wife has a violent temper, with her throwing dishes at him all the time. She also sees right through his crap. When she learns that Hardy lied to her, she plays along with him in order to make him look more foolish just to spite him. Laurel’s wife is literally introduced with a shotgun and a rope of dead ducks on her shoulder, so she’s not a woman to be messed with. She also knows that she can easily manipulate her husband into doing anything and she uses it to her advantage, as explained earlier. Both Mae Busch and Dorothy Christy are very funny as these characters, and their comedic timing is on par with Laurel and Hardy’s.
Today Laurel and Hardy aren’t very well known. While other comedians like the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges are still remembered, Laurel and Hardy are starting to become forgotten. I feel this is unfair as they are just as funny today as they were in their day. It’s hard to say why some acts fade into obscurity and some survive. But I think everyone should take a look at Sons of the Desert and discover why these two were so big for their time.