Sunday, January 22, 2012

CMBA COMEDY CLASSICS BLOGATHON: Sons of the Desert (1933) and Way Out West (1937)

Stan Laurel (1890-1965) and Oliver Norvell Hardy (1892-1957)

It is time for a week of merriment and memories as the Classic Movie Blog Association celebrates Classic Comedies with a blogathon running from January 22nd to the 27th. Click HERE for the laughs.

"You may be a movie buff if … you have more pictures of Laurel and Hardy about the house than of actual relatives."
- Caftan Woman

Stan Jefferson was born in England to a show business family so it is no surprise that the acting bug bit early in life. His father, A.J., was a theatre manager, writer, producer, director, and actor. Stan’s mother acted in her husband’s plays. Stan’s comedic ambitions were encouraged and nurtured by his parents who found him an apprentice job with a touring pantomime company during his teen years.

Eventually, Stan became a member of Fred Karno’s well-known music hall troupe, honing his craft alongside young Charlie Chaplin. It was on his second tour of the U.S. with Karno that Stan decided to stay on the Vaudeville circuit in acts with various partners and changed his name to the more euphonious and, hopefully lucky, Laurel. Stan had some moderate success in film, notably with producer Joe Rock, but by the mid-1920s was happily and busily engaged as a gag man and director at the Hal Roach Studio and seriously considered giving up performing.

Norvell Hardy was the adored baby in his Georgia family. His father, Oliver, passed away when Norvell was a baby and in his teens, Norvell took the name Oliver as his own as a tribute. While his family had no theatrical background, young Oliver’s musical ability and longing for the spotlight led to his mother agreeing to let him travel with the Charles Coburn (cousin of the future Academy Award-winning actor of that name) Minstrel show before he was even 10 years old. Later, Hardy opened a movie theatre and studied music seriously for a time.

Eager to enter the movie business, he moved to Florida where he learned about the movies from the ground up working for the VIM comedies while singing in nightclubs. He gained a reputation as a good “heavy” and inspired comedian. In fact, while Hardy was working with the popular Billy West, it was suggested to Stan by producer Joe Rock that he should consider working with “Babe” Hardy. Still seeking to establish his own screen persona, Stan thought it unwise to team with such a scene stealer.

The Roach Studio in the 1920s could boast of their Little Rascals and their Comedy All Stars including Charley Chase, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy, James Finlayson and Oliver Hardy. Leo McCarey, James Parrott, James Horne, Frank Butler, Stan Laurel and others were crafting the movies audiences loved. Stan was prevailed upon to return to the screen and when he appeared with Babe found their styles and dedicated approach to comedy were a perfect match. The creative minds on the lot, especially McCarey, the happy exhibitors, and audiences took to the evolving team and the All Star Comedy output became the Laurel and Hardy films.

The Laurel and Hardy characters of the screen are a couple of well-meaning dolts. Well, aren’t we all at one time or another? Stanley of the halting thought process is the dumb guy. Ollie of the grand manners is the dumber guy because he thinks he is smarter than Stanley. Stan immersed himself in the creating, timing and editing of their films. Babe contributed his thorough preparation technique and total commitment to the team. The congenial working relationship between the two men grew into an abiding friendship during their years in film and most certainly their stage tours when the movies thought they could do without Laurel and Hardy.

Stan always felt that the short subject best suited the team because it is difficult for comedy – their type of comedy - to carry a feature-length story. I’m not one to argue with a genius about his business, but there are copious laughs to be found in the Laurel and Hardy features such as the two remembered here.

Laurel and Hardy did not create the domestic comedy, but there was no better match for their naïve characters than the Battle of the Sexes and Sons of the Desert is that battle played out to perfection. The director was William Seiter, well known for Roberta, Shirley Temple pictures and Wheeler and Woolsey’s Diplomaniacs. The story is by Our Town’s famous stage manager Frank Craven and the screenplay was worked on by Seiter, Stan, Babe, Eddie Welch, Jack Barty and Glenn Tryon.

Members of the fraternal order the Sons of the Desert, Los Angeles Chapter, have sworn to one hundred percent attendance at the annual convention in Chicago. Stan is worried about having taken the oath without his wife’s permission causing a frustrated Ollie to remark: "Why don’t you pattern your life after mine? I go places and do things and then tell my wife.”

Few things are funnier than watching Ollie’s transitions from coy to assertive to cowed as he tried to wrangle his way to Chicago over the objections of his wife played by Mae Busch. The Australian born Mae has an interesting filmography having worked with Lon Chaney in While the City Sleeps and The Unholy Three, and Erich Von Stroheim in Foolish Wives, Souls for Sale and The Devil's Passkey. She joined Laurel and Hardy for 14 pictures and was a great foil for the boys in pictures such as Them Thar Hills, Tit for Tat, Their First Mistake and Oliver the Eighth.

In Sons of the Desert, Ollie gets no support from the dough-headed wax-eating Stan who is most certainly under the thumb of his rifle toting wife played by Dorothy Christy. Clearly, a Byzantine plan involving a feigned nervous breakdown, a veterinarian and a cruise to Hawaii is the only way to fulfill the oath.

The diversions of the convention are joyously and innocently enjoyed by our heroes. Much admired comic actor Charley Chase is a loudmouthed practical joker who almost blows the boy’s cover. The night club floor show features a catchy Island inspired tune (they were all the rage at the time), Honolulu Baby performed by Ty Parvis with some bright-eyed and clunky chorus girls. The tune was written by Roach music director Marvin Hatley, who also composed the Sons of the Desert Song and the beloved Laurel and Hardy theme, Dance of the Cuckoos.

The boys return to hearth and home with a song of the islands and some pineapples. What could possibly go wrong? Well, what if the cruise ship was caught in a storm with the safety of the passengers in doubt? What if Mrs. Laurel and Mrs. Hardy were to see a newsreel of the Chicago convention highlighting two familiar fez-topped fellows? What if it rains? Rain can dampen even the most “finely formulated machinations in extricating us from this devastating dilemma”. Each complication, each reaction and the capper to it all brings forth gales of laughter after 70 years.

Stan and Babe both felt that costume pictures such as The Devil’s Brother, The Bohemian Girl and March of the Wooden Soldiers were a perfect setting for their none too bright, but optimistic screen characters. Along that line we come to the oh-so-funny singing cowboy/melodrama/spoof Way Out West written by Jack Jevne, Charley Rogers, Felix Adler and James Parrott, and directed by James W. Horne, whose collaborations with Laurel and Hardy include Liberty, Laughing Gravy, Beau Hunks, Big Business, The Bohemian Girl and others.

Our heroes are entrusted (apparently no one else was available) with delivering the deed to a gold mine to a sweet-faced, sweet-natured heroine working as a servant in a rough and wild western town. Canadian born Rosina Lawrence, who graced many Little Rascal shorts plus Charlie Chan’s Secret, plays Mary Roberts. Mary works for penny-pinching saloon keeper Mickey Finn. Naturally, frequent and favourite co-star James Finlayson plays that role with his accustomed bluster. A beauty contest winner who appeared in pictures in the 1920s and 1930s, Sharon Lynn plays Finn’s wife, saloon singer Lola Marcel. Like her hubby, Lola is looking for a windfall to better their social position and honesty is not a factor.

The villains will have much to do with the boys, but first Stan and Ollie must reach town. Stan utilizes Claudette Colbert’s system from It Happened One Night to hitch a ride on a stagecoach. Upon reaching the town, the boy’s find a mixed reception. The sheriff is not their friend as his wife was annoyed by their feeble attempt at flirting during the trip. On a more pleasant note, Chill Wills and his Avalon Boys are loafing and singing in front of the saloon leading to an impromptu dance that is one of the delights of this or any movie.

I find a musicality in all that Laurel and Hardy present, a rhythm to their physical gags as well as their dialogue. The At the Ball, That's All (Commence to Dancin’) number showcases the two performers at their best, light on their feet and communicating pure joy to their audience. In second place for charm is the rendition of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine where we are treated to Ollie’s lovely voice and a little vocal trickery from Stan with dubbing help from Rosina Lawrence and Chill Wills. It is worth noting that Marvin Hatley received an Oscar nomination for "Best Music, Score" for Way Out West.  The award was given to Charles Previn for One Hundred Men and a Girl.

Swindled out of the deed by the duplicitous Finns, Stan and Ollie (like all true heroes) do not hesitate for a moment upon learning of their mistake. However, their efforts to retrieve the stolen document are doomed to hilarious failure especially when Lola traps a ticklish Stan in a locked room. Thrown out of town by the still irate sheriff, the boys must resort to burglary and their catlike tread resembles a Roman Legion in full attack mode. Success is ensured through the demand for a happy ending and includes a bucket as camouflage, a grand piano and a flying donkey.

The popularity of westerns is equaled by the popularity of western spoofs. Way Out West can be counted among the best and you need look no further than its stars to know why.

“People have always loved our pictures. I guess that's because they saw how much love we put into them.” 
- Stan Laurel


  1. Yay! It is a great way to start the day with your post! I love the boys in just about anything, but I agree this is their funniest feature. Stan and Ollie really do stand the test of time and are timeless! Their comedy never gets "old." Thanks for a wonderful post!

  2. Thanks so much. A girl known as "FlickChick" would have to be a Laurel and Hardy fan.

  3. A Laurel and Hardy movie is a sure way to get rid of the blues for a while. You certainly did justice to my two favorites of their full-length features, both hilarious. I'm glad you mentioned the scene where Stan gets the boys a ride using Claudette Colbert's technique from "It Happened One Night," one of the most inspired bits in a movie full of inspired bits. L&H played henpecked husbands in many of their movies, but "Sons of the Desert" is surely the best of all these. The sequence where they hide out in the attic and desperately try not to make any noise always has me in stitches. I'm not so familiar with their short films but do like both "Saps and Sea" and the classic "The Music Box" tremendously. Also liked the biographical info on Ollie, whom I knew less about than Stan and his origins with Fred Karno.

  4. An amusing and fascinating start to a week dedicated to comedy films. Your background information brings a new appreciation for these two merrymakers, both of whom I thought I knew. Your choice of films is inspired, both of which are inextricably linked as my favorite Laurel and Hardy films. I always find myself checking for familiar names from the silent film era, and Charley Chase’s brief appearance in “Sons of the Desert” nearly steals the scene. The boys’ dance in “Way Out West,” as you so perfectly described, “communicating pure joy to their audience” is the scene that first won my heart to this hapless duo. Thank you for your delightful peek at the lives and work of the men we know as Laurel and Hardy.

  5. You are right to disagree that their comedy couldn't carry a feature film, as these two examples prove. I love these movies, especially "Sons of the Desert," which had me laughing out loud the first time I saw it.

  6. R.D. Finch, we're like two peas in a pod.

    The Boys plus take-out pizza were sure blues killers when my daughter was in High School.

    "Two Tars", "Big Business" and "Perfect Day" are just some of the shorts I heartily recommend.

  7. Thank you so much for your kind words, whistlinggypsy. Laurel and Hardy do make their way into our hearts.

    I'm not so sure if my choice of films was "inspired" or if it was because I simply couldn't decide on one.

  8. Classicfilmboy, it's a testament to Laurel and Hardy that we laugh when we first see one of their films, and continue to laugh through the years.

    PS: Have I ever mentioned how much I love your profile picture?

  9. The background info you've supplied is great, and I love your obvious admiration for The Boys. They were always terrific. I think my favorite moments in "Way Out West" are the songs. One of the best comedy teams ever. A great way to start off the comedy classic blogathon.

    More pictures of Laurel and Hardy about the house than relatives? Love it.

  10. CW, I enjoyed your profiles of Stan and Ollie amost as much as your film reviews. Certainly, SONS OF THE DESERT and WAY OUT WEST are among their finest works (and their best feature-length movies, in my opinion). I never really thought of their films as "domestic comedies," but the term now strikes me as quite appropriate. What a fine way to start the Comedy Classics Blogathon!

  11. Caftan: I like both the Oliver and Hardy films you profile here. Of course, my favorite thing of theirs to watch is the short The Music Box, but I enjoyed Sons of the Desert a lot, too. Liked reading the background information about the two men and how they came to work together.

  12. Thanks, Jacqueline. The 1920s era in Hollywood fascinates me - especially the Roach lot.

  13. Classic Cafe, the blogathon is going to be a great week for comedy and I'm thrilled to be a part of it.

  14. Kim, when "The Music Box" won the Oscar for Best Short Subject - Comedy I don't think there was anyone who could top Laurel and Hardy at their craft.

  15. I bet you won't believe it when I tell you that I have not seen many Laurel and Hardy films. Although, I loved reading your hilarious reviews. You can really see why they make you smile.

  16. I'm shocked, Dawn! Perhaps 2012 will bring more Laurel and Hardy movies into your life. They don't take up much time, but they bring a lot of quality laughs.

  17. In addition to being supremely funny men, Stan and Ollie were great actors. Stan's facial expressions especially are priceless. He can change from crying to angry frustration in a heartbeat. And Ollie's mute glances to the audience as if to say "See what I have to put up with" never fail to amuse.

    Both films here are probably my favorite L&H titles, shorts included, and there are too great scenes in both to highlight.

    But there's a scene in "Sons of the Desert" when Ollie is feigning sickness and Stan tries to help by bringing a pail full of hot water to Ollie can soak his feet. Of course, chaos ensues and the timing in this sequence is as exact as a Swiss timepiece. It's a great privilege to watch these routines.

  18. Oh, what a great post! I can't remember having seen these two movies, but I suspect that I did at one time or another.

    But since I don't remember, it will be like watching again for the time when I come across them. As you might know, C.W., Laurel and Hardy in MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS is my favorite Christmas movie, so I am predisposed to like them in anything. I just love the way that Ollie stares at the camera after one of his or Stan's faux pas. So conspiratorial. Ha!

  19. Kevin, you are so right that it is a privilege to watch Laurel and Hardy's perfectly conceived and executed routines. They so perfectly embody their screen characters that it is easy to forget that they are acting.

  20. Yvette, Laurel and Hardy are not just for Christmas any more!

    Yes, when Ollie gives us that "look" we can't help but empathize and laugh. It's the perfect character signature.

  21. Caftan Woman, I must admit the only Laurel & Hardy film I've ever seen from start to finish was MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS, but your reviews of SONS OF THE DESERT and WAY OUT WEST have me wanting to see more! Your description of the boys "communicating pure joy to their audience" captures it all perfectly. Great post, CW!

  22. Thanks, Dorian. I hope there are some more Laurel and Hardy movies in your future.

  23. Blogger Page said...

    I was in fits of laughter after reading "dough headed, wax eating"! I have to steal that one for future use.

    Everything about this review was great. Loved the mini bio on those two genius's then with your wit, the review just got funnier as I went along. (You know I'm seldom serious).

    The perfect contribution for our Comedy Classics Blogathon.

    You really should write more light hearted write ups.


    January 23, 2012 6:39 PM

    Page, I made you laugh? You made my day. I certainly owe you a chuckle or two.

    I copied your comment which was on my "Doctor Who" post. I slipped down there when I was checking out this one. Darn cursor. Darn, darn cursor.

  24. To echo the comments above: excellent post (as always!) and a great kick-off to the blogathon!

    Aside: I went to graduate school in Milledgeville, GA, where Hardy worked as a projectionist and manager of the downtown theater. Unfortunately, I didn't learn this until after I had already moved. It made me sad that his link to the town wasn't better publicized (they're all about Flannery O'Connor there--her farm, Andalusia, is about five miles from campus). If I were involved in the city government, you'd best be believing I'd be trumpeting the Hardy connection like mad!

  25. Thanks so much, Brandie.

    It's a shame there isn't a voice who the town who appreciates what they have. Think of the fun they are missing out on. There could be film festivals and pie throwing contests!

  26. I definitely have more pictures of Laurel and Hardy around the house than I do of my relatives ...

    "Sons of the Desert" is one of my all-time favorites. Stan and Ollie certainly new the jig was up when they read that their ship had "floundered in a typhoid".

    Great post about the boys ...

  27. Dave the Movie Guy knows how to decorate! You can be my exhausted ruler.

  28. Great job, Caftan! I have been absorbed in a project and didn't get here until today, but you knew I wouldn't miss a post about The Boys!

    Yes, Sons of the Desert is their best feature, with Way Out West a very close second. I am a member of the Sons of the Desert, the L&H appreciation society. We have had a convention near Harlem, GA, complete with a Pee-Wee contest.

    For your reader's enlightenment, the newly released Laurel & Hardy: The Essential Collection is a DVD filled with almost every sound film The Boys made, including completely restored titles. The films were practically destroyed by television release because the Roach Studio heads thought they were no longer needed.

    There is a great story about the restoration on the L&H web site, but you have to search around to find it. (It's not a very well planned site.)

    Keep on laughing! And you may want to join the Sons in your area to have even more fun. Anyone interested should contact me. My project has a link, so check it out here.

  29. What a wonderful tribute to the duo who has given us so much fun over the years! These movies and others have made me feel better and made me laugh every time. You also made me laugh when you said: ""You may be a movie buff if … you have more pictures of Laurel and Hardy about the house than of actual relatives." How true! Excellent addition to the blogathon, CW!

  30. I wondered where my favourite Bit Part Blogger was, and I'm not surprised you're a bona fide member of the Sons of the Desert.

    I checked out the International site and there are two tents in Ontario, but not conveniently located for someone who doesn't drive. Looks like I'll remain a lone wolf for a while yet.

    PS: A few months ago I told the hubby about the "Essentials" DVD set when he asked what I wanted for Christmas. He forgot to write it down! Well, there's always my birthday.

  31. Thanks, Becky. The legacy of laughter may be the greatest of all.

  32. Loved this post - Way Out West is definitely my favourite of the boys' films, probably partly because i was force-fed it on a regular basis as a kid!

    1. Ha-ha! I approve of the parenting in your family. Mine is along similar lines.



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