FROM GEORGIA 87 TO TEXAS 97 –
THE `SONS OF THE DESERT’ THAT NEARLY WAS
Although a great deal has been written about Laurel & Hardy’s often improvisational methods during their days at the Hal Roach Studios, very little evidence remains of the way in which their films might have developed as production went along. Unlike Chaplin, from whose work extensive out-takes survive, hardly any equivalent material is known to exist for L&H. A lengthy alternate take from The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case survives in the gag reel That’s That! (though relatively few people have had opportunity to view it) and serves to demonstrate how dialogue, at least, would undergo a considerable amount of revision as late as the actual shooting. The discovery of the deleted third reel of Laughing Gravy, and the additional footage gleaned from a preview version of Pardon Us, are, with the exception of the additional scenes present in the surviving foreign-language editions, the only physical evidence we have of Laurel & Hardy as a work-in-progress.
We can at least gain a little more idea of their methods from surviving synopses and scripts. Early drafts sometimes surface for the shorts, while scripts for the feature-length films, which inevitably required far more advance planning, often suggest radical changes having been made even quite late in production (as this magazine noted many years ago, following the discovery of Charlie Hall’s copies of the scripts for The Bohemian Girl).
Such documents are seldom made generally available but we have recently been given opportunity to see an original shooting script, running to 43 pages, for the team’s 1933 feature Sons of the Desert. The title page identifies it only as `LAUREL AND HARDY FEATURE. F4’, or in other words merely a label for the team’s fourth feature-length vehicle. It is known that, at least for a while, it bore the working title Fraternally Yours, under which name it was originally released in Britain (and indeed was known in the prints supplied to British TV and for 16mm/8mm prints, before being superseded on both TV and video by the restored US version). The script gives us a considerable idea of how the film itself underwent extensive changes before release.
The title card from the original UK release of Sons of the Desert, retaining the working title Fraternally Yours.
The opening scene, as scripted, reveals that they had yet to work out the idea of Stan and Ollie disrupting the lodge meeting by arriving late. They are already present when a character described as the Grand Master – a Masonic term not used in the film, perhaps because Hardy, as a Mason himself, preferred to play down specific references of this type – begins to address the enthralled gathering. Nor is there as yet any reference to the Sons of the Desert anthem, or to the fezzes worn by lodge members (they are described as wearing business suits but with sashes and swords, the latter of which had been discarded by the time of shooting). The scene instead dissolves straight to L&H in the car after Stan reluctantly adds his `Me, too’ to the group’s collective oath to attend the forthcoming convention – which, incidentally, is to take place in the fictional city of `Decago’, rather than the real-life Chicago.
As Stan grows increasingly nervous during the journey home, there’s a cute deleted gag whereby Ollie notices their hands are clasped together and breaks away. Dialogue in this scene is little changed in the final version, though the reference to the `Exhausted Ruler’ has yet to appear. Once back at their neighbouring homes, Stan is merely invited into the Hardy residence, there being as yet no reference to him having locked himself (or Ollie) out, a motif which provides a stronger reason for his presence chez Hardy. The moment in which Stan, absently, follows Ollie’s lead in addressing Mrs. Hardy as `Sugar’ is used earlier in the scene, rather than in its more effective placement when making the conversation about the convention even more awkward. The same goes for the razzing sound made by Stan’s pipe, which is transformed from being an isolated gag into what Mrs. Hardy takes as a comment on what she has said (and for which she blames Ollie!).
The scene in which Stan eats – with difficulty – the Hardys’ wax fruit does not appear in the script. Instead there is an unfilmed moment in which Stan, who has taken off his shoes, thinks he is wearing only one sock, only to discover he has put both on the same foot. Dialogue varies only slightly throughout this scene, though it’s interesting that while Mrs. Hardy frequently addresses her husband as `Ollie’ in the script, she does so less often in the film. The team’s instinct for punctuation comes into play when, as filmed, Mrs. Hardy’s originally uninterrupted tirade on her preparations for the planned mountain trip is halted by Stan’s echoing of her rhetorical `Why?’, only for him to be told to `keep out of this’. In the film, it is Mrs. Hardy’s response that sends Stan tumbling, which he was actually supposed to do – into the fireplace - when hearing his wife’s voice after lecturing Ollie about his domestic affairs. Instead, the film downplays his reaction, being instead a nervous about-face after claiming that Mrs. Laurel would never be allowed to behave in such a fashion. This subtler alternative conveys the relationship between `Mrs. & Mr. Stanley Laurel’ (as it says on their doorbell) in a far more nuanced fashion than a simple pratfall. The consequent deletion of a gag with Mrs. Laurel seeing her husband with a smoking behind and, by accident, wearing Mrs. Hardy’s high-heeled slippers (a postscript to the deleted sock gag), again shows that L&H knew when not to overplay.
Ollie’s feigned illness is played almost exactly as scripted, aside from Mrs. Hardy making specific reference to them never having quarrelled before he joined `that awful lodge’ (which one finds hard to believe!) and Stan almost repeating his gaffe of calling her `Sugar’, which was obviously intended to be a running gag. After Mrs. Hardy’s plunge into Ollie’s hot footbath, the script calls for Ollie to give her a playful pat as she exits, which in the film is replaced by a somewhat startling – for the period – accidental slap on the behind. Instead of escalating into a scene of devastation that culminates in the footbath landing on Ollie (with his head poking through), the scene as scripted merely peters out.
The arrival of Horace Meddick, veterinarian, is more or less as per the script but Stan’s evaluation of Ollie’s condition, as `a bad attack of nerts – nerves’ , was replaced by a far funnier garbling of an earlier remark of Mrs. Hardy’s, to the effect that Mr. Hardy is having a `nervous shakedown’. The script suggests nothing of the conspiratorial nature of Meddick’s recommendation of a trip to Honolulu, which actor Lucien Littlefield delivers in such a way as to ask `is that what I’m supposed to say?’.
The script details the initial convention montage much as we see it in the film – and, by this stage, is actually calling the place `Chicago’! – then goes on to detail an elaborate routine that was subsequently jettisoned, with L&H leading a bicycle squad, wrecking both the formation – after their trick riding sees them caught up in a banner - and a drinking fountain topped by a statue.
The first view of the convention itself establishes the presence of a Hawaiian band and girls (though the musicians in the film wear white dinner jackets), but not as yet the use of the lodge’s anthem, which had obviously yet to be written. The practical jokers with slap-sticks are also present, but no indication that the ringleader is to be played by Charley Chase (indeed, L&H aside, no suggestion is made as to who might play the various roles). He is instead called `Bill’, his oasis name and number being `Georgia – 87’ rather than `Texas – 97’ (a designation given instead to another delegate in a later scene), which suggests – surprisingly – that the use of one of Roach’s other top comedians in the role was a relative afterthought. `Bill’ employs even more practical jokes than we see in the film – such as a buzzer placed under a seat cushion – but these were pared down just enough to convey what he’s like. The hula dance routine is in the script but, as with the Sons’ anthem, it is clear that the accompanying song, Honolulu Baby, had not yet been written.
When Stan and Ollie confess their subterfuge to `Bill’, the dialogue is much simplified in the film, thus sparing us from having to hear him say `Never heard of subterfuge growin’ over there’. One might however regret losing the line (and variants thereon) in which `Bill’ says that his sister – who is, of course, Mrs. Hardy – married `a terrible cluck’, as well as the suggestion that his expensive phone call to her in Los Angeles will be by reverse charge, thus going on Ollie’s bill. Some unclear and unwieldy business concerning Mrs. Hardy being kept waiting on the line for an hour by the operator (possibly her brother using an assumed voice) mercifully cuts to the quick in the film itself, with the dialogue completely rewritten. One risqué gag – describing Ollie to her as `a big Son of the Desert --- no, Sis – Desert – D-E-S-E-R-T!’ – was to make way for his more ambivalent recollection of her having pumped the organ during their days in the choir - `You little organ pumper, you!’ (One might note in passing that Sons of the Desert, made in the closing months before US film censorship became especially strict, was very obviously a parody of a notably risqué - and now vanished – Warner Brothers comedy made earlier the same year, Convention City.) Once more, the subsequent moments of Ollie realising that he is talking to his own wife are greatly simplified between script and screen, losing some superfluous dialogue while substituting the moment when Ollie hangs up, unthinkingly, with a hurried `Goodbye, Sugar’ which, in the film, serves to give Mrs. Hardy cause for suspicion.
The script makes much both of Stan writing down an address given by Mrs. Hardy without recognising it as Ollie’s (the address is different from that eventually used, being given as `2222 Adam Way’), and of Ollie carefully pocketing the note when realising the truth (presumably with the intention of having the note incriminate Ollie later on). In the script, Ollie tries to establish that the brother-in-law has no intention of visiting his sister (`I’m never going out to see her – as long as she is married to that cluck husband’). The gag that concludes this scene, with Stan using the slap-stick on a delegate’s wife but with Charley/Bill getting the blame, was originally intended to see Ollie mistakenly taken as culprit and to provoke an extended brawl, similar in spirit to the massed battles in their silent films, culminating in Stan and Ollie being thrown out into the street. The script, incidentally, describes this scene as taking place in `a cafe or speakeasy’, the latter of which would have become redundant during production since Prohibition ended in December 1933, the same month in which this film was released (the shots of beer freely being served are typical of such celebratory moments in American films of that time). The next scene may well have been dropped in the knowledge that such action was more appropriate to a speakeasy than to a legitimate establishment.
Once in the street, Stan becomes uncharacteristically belligerent, opening a sliding panel in the door – a staple of speakeasies - in order to hit one of the bouncers. Ollie, trying to intervene, is on the receiving end when the bouncer reciprocates. Ollie pushes Stan against the door, dislodging a lighting globe which lands on Ollie’s head. Stan, thinking this has been thrown from within the building, retaliates by throwing an iron ball he has removed from a fence, unaware that a policeman is watching. Once aware of the officer’s presence, Stan is far from contrite, saying `You can’t throw us in jail’. Stan and Ollie are given ten days in a cell filled with drunks and tramps. As they are given a broom and plumber’s plunger to do some work, they observe, through the prison bars, their fellow Sons of the Desert on their farewell march as the convention comes to an end. They pick up, tearfully, the song that was sung as their comrades faded into the distance: `California, Here We Come’.
At this point, the full shooting script ends. The remaining pages detail what is to follow in synopsis form. The report of the shipwreck, their wives’ visit to the shipping office and L&H’s return home are all as per the finished film, apart from the returning husbands singing `Wikki-wakki’ in lieu of the still-unwritten Honolulu Baby plus an extra moment in which Stan is actually seen buying pineapples and coconuts from a street vendor’s wagon. Again as in the film, Stan and Ollie find the house deserted, see the newspaper reporting the loss of the ship on which they were supposed to have been, then decide to go to a hotel but retreat instead to the attic when their wives return. From here, however, the synopsis takes a surprising turn. The wives have brought along a spiritualist in order to ascertain whether or not Stan and Ollie are still alive. The spiritualist consults her Indian guide using a series of knocks, which are unwittingly answered from above as Stan and Ollie attempt to do things such as cracking open a coconut. It is decided that the husbands are indeed alive and that the best thing for the wives to do is to go out and have a good time rather than sit around worrying. As the women depart for a cinema, Stan and Ollie play cat’s cradle with a large cobweb.
The action at the cinema is again similar to the film, without the communal head-turning as news footage of a motor race is seen, but featuring instead a topical gag about Mussolini – which posterity may consider a fortunate deletion! - and his alleged resemblance to Ollie (`they both have that same powerful chin’). As the wives see their husbands cavorting in the convention newsreel, Stan and Ollie try to settle down to sleep in the attic. No reference is made to the bedsprings used in the final version, the synopsis giving instead a gag with Ollie perching on a rafter, then – thanks to Stan - falling through the ceiling into the living room, just as the wives return. Fortunately both women decide to stay overnight in the Laurel residence. Much effort is expended on getting Ollie back up into the attic, after which another crash prompts the wives to investigate. They find the attic empty, Stan and Ollie having exited to the roof via a skylight, which the wives lock.
The synopsis has already grown vague by this point, saying merely that L&H `make their plans for the morning and we fade out on some gag'. In the film we do not have to wait that long, since the story reaches its conclusion before the night is over, with the nightshirt-clad L&H climbing out of the attic and having to enter the house in order to convince a policeman they are not intruders.
Both synopsis and film have the wives decide to see how far their husbands will go when telling their story, but the original intention was for them to make this decision over breakfast. Stan and Ollie are outside, attempting to fabricate a `shipwrecked’ look by soaking themselves either with a garden hose or pond water. Ollie staggers in, a limp Stan over his shoulder. Stan spits out water as Ollie collapses on the sofa. Because the wives are visibly unimpressed, Ollie assumes they’ve heard nothing about the shipwreck and – punctuated by Stan saying `the wrong thing’ – begins his tale of disaster. The news that the rescue ship has yet to come in is here conveyed by a radio set rather than through the wives having already been informed. Stan’s suggestion of `ship-hiking’ is present in this draft.
The synopsis concludes in a most unexpected fashion, with a taxi slowly drawing up outside as its passenger confirms the address. Out steps Ollie’s brother-in-law `Bill’, whom L&H expect to betray them. He recognises the pair and, as Mrs. Hardy asks how they know each other, Stan and Ollie begin to sneak away. Fortunately for them, `Bill’ says `We all met in Honolulu!’ To quote the final lines verbatim: `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.’
Extant stills suggest they did indeed shoot a version of this alternate ending, with Stan and Ollie in their street clothes rather than the nightshirts seen in the final edit. It is impossible to determine whether or not the brother-in-law’s reappearance had been jettisoned by that point, or even if the existence of these stills suggests the retakes to have been done after previews. What is reasonably certain is that this and other departures from the shooting script tightened the pace of the story considerably, while still allowing for leisurely stretches – such as the wax apple scene, or their conversation in the attic – within which bits of business could develop. How much of this was owed to director William A. Seiter (in his one and only L&H film), or to Stan and the other regular members of the Roach team, must remain a matter for conjecture.
|What is certain is that the film could not really conclude
with Stan and Ollie getting away with it, much as we might side with them. The
consistent pattern of L&H never being allowed to win at the end – be it
against their wives, or even as per their reunion with the homicidal Army chef
in Pack Up Your
Troubles – was a central tenet of their work. Concluding
Sons of the Desert without the eventual
wrath of Mrs. Hardy (and Mrs. Laurel rewarding Stan’s capitulation) would have
seemed both uncharacteristic and anticlimactic. Similarly, Stan’s aggression
when they are ejected from the convention – which surprises even Ollie –
belongs more to the earlier days of L&H, before their characters had
evolved into the full shabby-genteel mode of their mature work. What always
comes through in these rare glimpses of almost-included material is how well
the comedians knew what was right for them and what simply wouldn’t be
appropriate. This, of course, is what distinguishes their Roach films from the
often unsympathetic material given to them by the big studios after 1940. What
the script suggests is that the seemingly effortless polish that has frequently
placed Sons of the Desert in the top
position among Laurel & Hardy’s feature-length films was, as ever, the
result of much hard work.
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