The Enduring Influence of Laurel & Hardy’s ‘Sons of the Desert’
When Sight & Sound or the American Film Institute put together lists of the greatest movies of all time, comedies usually get the shaft. Sure, you might see a dramedy or a rom-com on there somewhere, but a straight comedy in the top 10 is pretty much unheard of. Maybe the people making these lists have no sense of humor. Or maybe really funny movies just aren’t great from a technical standpoint. Whatever the case may be, some movies are just so undeniably important that it’s a bit baffling to not see them at least crack the top 100 outside of genre-specific lists.
One such example is a little gem from 1933 called Sons of the Desert. It stars the legendary comedy team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and is generally considered to be one of their best feature-length films. Laurel & Hardy on their own have influenced everyone from Dick Van Dyke to Ricky Gervais, but their mark on modern comedy is perhaps never more evident than in this historic masterwork. When you hear people talk about how something or other “started it all,” this is the sort of thing they should be referring to.
The story here revolves around Stan & Ollie, as they’re affectionately known, attending a convention hosted by a fraternal organization that they belong to called The Sons of the Desert. Ollie’s wife objects to him leaving her behind, so he hatches a plan to sneak off without her knowing. It has all the makings of a Honeymooners episode without actually being one. The only things missing are the raccoon hats. It’s no secret that Jackie Gleason and Art Carney were inspired by Laurel & Hardy — they even imitated them in one episode. But Sons of the Desert was clearly the biggest inspiration of all for the series that TV Guide once named as the third “Best Show of All Time” (behind Seinfeld and I Love Lucy, respectively). For starters, Sons is probably the most realistic movie in Laurel & Hardy’s entire catalog, giving it more in common with The Honeymooners than the type of surreal slapstick the duo usually engaged in. There’s also the domestic disputes involving two neighboring couples, the silly lodge membership, and the seemingly neverending trope of the overweight schmuck with the skinnier, oftentimes too attractive wife.
Hmm…where have we seen that before? Too many places to name. But The Flintstones, All in the Family, and The King of Queens are a few worth noting. One thing those three hugely popular shows have in common is that The Honeymooners paved the way for all of them, just as Sons of the Desert paved the way for it. You might also recall Fred Flintstone and Archie Bunker belonging to lodges — Fred to the Loyal Order of Water Buffalo and Archie to The Kings of Queens. Yeah, King of Queens got its name from a fictional organization modeled after the one from a Laurel & Hardy movie.
What Sons of the Desert is responsible for is truly remarkable. Maybe even more remarkable is the fact that it never gets all that credit. There are at least three long-running animated sitcoms whose elements can be traced back to this movie specifically: The Simpsons, South Park, and Family Guy — all of which feature a rotund, obnoxious main character. The Simpsons and Family Guy exist as a result of the existence of The Flintstones and All in the Family. Homer Simpson’s “D’oh” was even borrowed from frequent Laurel & Hardy collaborator James Finlayson (who unfortunately didn’t appear in Sons of the Desert). And compare Peter Griffin’s pronunciation of “sweetheart” to that of Fred Flintstone, or Ralph Kramden. South Park may not have been directly influenced by Laurel & Hardy, but consider that Cartman was based on Archie Bunker, who was based on Ralph Kramden, who was based on Oliver Hardy’s character from Sons of the Desert.
Sure, one could argue that most of these things would’ve been around in some form anyway, but think of the butterfly effect if this movie were never made. Take away Oliver Hardy with the skinny wife and Alice Kramden ends up a more believable match for Jackie Gleason, which in turn alters the look of Wilma Flintstone, Lois Griffin, and Carrie Heffernan as we know them today. Get rid of the fraternal organization and there goes the Raccoon Lodge, the Water Buffalos and the Kings of Queens. Next thing you know Kevin James is starring opposite Lisa Lampanelli in a sitcom with a totally different name.
Then there are the little things that most viewers wouldn’t even notice, like the fact that this movie helped launch the careers of Emmy Award-winning stars like Ellen Corby from The Waltons and Robert Cummings (who has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame). It’s also very possible that Stan Laurel briefly tripping over an ottoman inspired the now iconic opening from The Dick Van Dyke Show. Modern audiences might even be a little surprised to hear an early joke about Mohammad — it’s not intended to be offensive, but still something South Park isn’t even allowed to do today. Ahead of their time? That’s an understatement.
And finally, there’s one other thing Sons of the Desert is responsible for: an international Laurel & Hardy fan club named after it that’s been around for over 50 years and has over 100 active chapters (known as “tents”) worldwide. Take a look at AFI’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list of the best American movies. Can any of the titles in the top 10 claim anything like that? Any international Citizen Kane fan clubs you’ve heard of, with so much as one chapter? How about Casablanca? Yeah, no.
So, fellow list makers, maybe it’s time to reassess this highly influential classic’s place in film history. The AFI’s criteria says that, to make it onto their list, a film must: be feature length, be American, have critical recognition, be a major award winner, be popular over time, be historically significant, and have a cultural impact. The only place Sons of the Desert falls short is with awards, but all the awards its offspring have accumulated have to count for something, no? Suggesting that it should be in the top 10 best movies might be a bit of a stretch, depending on who you’re talking to, but all things considered, it should at least be a little higher than #96 on a list of the best comedies. At the very least.
Tony Alpsen’s comic strip, Ying & Yan, was also influenced by Laurel & Hardy, though they probably wouldn’t be too proud of that. You can check it out at Yingandyan.com or on Tapastic. Oh, and if you’re a Laurel & Hardy fan with some spare change, consider donating a little bit to the Laurel & Hardy Preservation Fund at UCLA.