A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Sons of the Desert is a classic Laurel & Hardy comedy from the pre-Hays Code era. Though it's from another time (1933), with some mildly troublesome material, the famous comedy duo's comic interactions and pantomime are still hilarious, and the movie is a tightly-constructed classic. It includes some strong slapstick violence. A woman carries a rifle, returns from duck hunting with dead ducks, and uses the rifle to investigate strange noises. A tragedy at sea (a sunken ship) is mentioned, and used as a comic plot turn. Characters are hit with flying pots and pans, which break over heads and leave black eyes. There's some social drinking among members of the men's club, and some men appear comically drunk. Cigarette smoking is shown, and a character gets a cigarette as a "reward" for being honest. A female nightclub act is slightly suggestive.
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What's the story?
In SONS OF THE DESERT, Stan (Stan Laurel) and Ollie (Oliver Hardy) attend a meeting of their men's club, the "Sons of the Desert." They learn that the group's annual convention is to be held in Chicago, and they must all take a solemn oath, promising that they will attend. Stan worries that his wife (Dorothy Christy) won't let him go, but Ollie assures him that all he has to do is show her who's "boss." Unfortunately, Ollie's wife (Mae Busch) won't let him go, as they had already planned a trip to the mountains. Ollie decides to fake an illness, and Stan arranges for a fake doctor to prescribe a sea trip to Honolulu, knowing that Ollie's wife gets seasick. They go to Chicago and have a great time, but when they return, they learn that the ship they were supposed to have been on was sunk in a storm. Panicked, the husbands hide in the attic and try to come up with a plan, explaining how they are still alive. But the wives saw footage of their husbands in a newsreel and know the truth already. How will Stan and Ollie get out of this mess?
Is it any good?
This brisk, lively comedy features marital power plays and actual violence in addition to slapstick violence, but strong chemistry between the legendary funny duo still generates big laughs. Directed by William A. Seiter, Sons of the Desert gets away with things other comedies of the period cannot, largely because it was made before the Hays Code was implemented, but also because it was a different time. Many of the jokes are about the inequalities of men and women in marriages, with the men pretending to have power, but actually afraid of their wives' wrath. The women characters are not painted with much sympathy -- Ollie's wife throws cookware at his head and Stan's wife brandishes a rifle and goes duck hunting -- though it's implied that everyone is happily married.
The screenplay focuses on quite a few deceptions and accidents -- in one scene, a fellow son of the desert (Charley Chase) prank-calls his sister, who turns out to be Ollie's wife -- as well as some silly wordplay ("honesty is the best politics," etc.). But the real comedy comes from the subtle, physical pantomime between the two friends. Stan is happy-go-lucky, but teetering on the point of breaking down in tears, while Ollie is like a rotund ballet dancer, a master of the slow-burn when injustice rears its head. The opening scene in which the pair tardily try to join their lodge meeting is, in particular, full of uncontrollable giggles. Overall, Sons of the Desert does not quite rise to the level of masterpiece, but it's an extremely well-constructed collection of gags by two performers at their peak.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Sons of the Deserts' use of violence. Does it feel like there's anything at stake when violence is committed? Is there pain? Are there consequences? Is the violence funny?
How does the movie depict drinking and smoking? Are they glamorized? Are there consequences?
How does the movie view women? Are the wives fully-rounded, three-dimensional characters? Do they have points of view?
What is a "pre-code" film? What was the Hays Code, and what kinds of things did it do to movies after 1934?
Does Laurel and Hardy's humor feel dated? What parts are still funny? Why?
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