Monday, September 26, 2016

On "The Sons of the Desert"




 
1.

In 1933, Hal Roach Studios released Laurel and Hardy’s The Sons of the Desert. Very few films can be called flawless, but, I think, The Sons of the Desert deserves that praise. Only 69 minutes long, The Sons of the Desert is effortlessly profound, a film that is both hilarious and terrifying. Curiously, many of Laurel and Hardy’s best pictures have this effect: they are very funny, but there is something disquieting lurking behind the slapstick humor. Most people that I know report that they first encountered Laurel and Hardy pictures when they were small children and, almost everyone, says that the movies frightened them. The Sons of the Desert, in particular, has an almost classical aspect of Nemesis that would not be foreign to Greek tragedy – a crime committed shall be a crime punished. By nature, children are lawless and cruel. In the best Laurel and Hardy comedies, moral defects – that is breaches of the moral law – are savagely punished. Children live in a carnal world of a blow given and a blow received – this is the law governing Laurel and Hardy comedies as well.

The story of The Sons of the Desert is simple, although the 69 minute film is packed with events. In the movie, Stan and Ollie are members of a fraternal organization, more than a little like the Masonic Shrine, "the Sons of the Desert". At a meeting of their lodge, called an "Oasis," the members swear and oath that they will all attend the fraternal order’s national convention in Chicago – the boys live in Los Angeles, a city whose name Hardy pronounces with exaggerated vowels and a hard "g" sound. Stan knows that his wife will not let him go to the convention. By contrast, Hardy boastfully declares that he is the "master of his castle" and that his wife will not dare to prevent his attendance. Of course, Laurel and Hardy live in a Spanish-style stucco duplex with side by side doors labeled 2220 and 2222. As expected, Hardy’s wife refuse to allow him to go to the convention – indeed, she smashes a lot of crockery over his head when he attempts to defy her. Hardy, then, feigns an illness and gets a doctor – actually a veterinarian – to declare that he has suffered a nervous breakdown and can be cured only by a trip to Honolulu. The wives fall for this gimmick and Laurel and Hardy depart, ostensibly for Honolulu, but, instead, to Chicago. After the convention, Stan and Ollie return to Los Angeles. But, unbeknownst to them, a steamer returning from Honolulu, the vessel on which they are supposedly traveling, founders in a storm. Many souls our lost at sea and the boys’ wives are frantic with worry. The two women attend a matinee movie to distract themselves from their worries and see a short news-clip about the Sons of the Desert convention in Chicago – just as they are commiserating about having sent their husbands to their doom in the Pacific Ocean, the screen shows Laurel and Hardy marching happily in the Sons of the Desert parade: Stan and Ollie are spinning parasols merrily and flirting with local women. The wives get into an argument about whose husband is most truthful – both women assert that, if their husband is challenged, he will tell the truth. After some misadventures, the climactic confrontation occurs between the erring husbands and their wives. Needless to say, Laurel immediately confesses his sins. Hardy persists in lying and is savagely beaten by his wife.

The film is exceptionally plain. The camera rarely moves – a couple of times, there is some slight readjustment to keep a character in the frame. There is an abundance of action in the film, including even a song and dance number filmed with some pretense toward Busby Berkeley style visuals, but everything is staged on very sober, well-lit studio sets. Many Laurel and Hardy pictures are prized for their vistas of twenties and depression-era Los Angeles – but there are almost no exterior shots in this film. No one owns a car and we see people exiting taxi-cabs from time to time, but there are no long shots of the city or suburbs. Unusual for a Laurel and Hardy film, there are a number of sequences involving fairly large numbers of people – there are 30 fez-capped Sons of the Desert at the Los Angeles Oasis, all of them dressed like bargain basement sheiks; we see the interior of a crowded speakeasy in Chicago and chaos at the offices of the steamer company, a mob of people desperate to learn the whether their loved ones have survived the calamity at sea. Laurel and Hardy march with forty or fifty extras spinning parasols as they march down a sunny street between crowds of people and the two wives attend a movie in a theater packed with people. I suspect that these scenes were shot on the sets of other, bigger budget movies in that happened to be in production when the film was made – I don’t think we see the women in the shot of the bedlam at the steam ship headquarters; the image seems inserted from some other context and has a tone inconsistent with the rest of the film. There are several lustrous night shots – Laurel and Hardy standing on a rooftop in pouring rain and, then, later apprehended by a cop on their wet lawn. The rain falls steadily and predictably – an effective soaking studio-managed downpour. Nothing distracts the viewer from the film’s principal focus, Laurel and Hardy’s relationship with their wives – this is a domestic comedy set in a comfortable, if modest, lower middle-class milieu. Although it is stylized, the acting in these scenes from a marriage is every bit as good as anything that you might see in a film by Bergman or Dreyer.

 

 

2.

When I was a young man, I traveled to Chicago for some depositions. The case is forgotten and I don’t remember who I deposed, but I can recall that my work was finished in the early afternoon. It was a fine Autumn day and a crisp, invigorating wind was blowing off the lake. I came from the stuffy conference room high in one of the skyscrapers down to the marble lobby, gloomy as a cave compared to the bright day outside, and, then, stepped outside. I heard drums and trumpets and walked a couple blocks to Michigan Avenue where a great parade was underway.

A convention of African-American freemasons had come to town and their lodges were marching in the brilliant sunshine down Michigan Avenue. The head of huge parade was crossing the river between the great figured pylons and the tail of the procession was somewhere far to the south, beyond the low acropolis where the Field Museum gleamed like a white Athenian temple. The men marching were dressed in elaborate regalia: they wore hats and uniforms like admirals of the ocean seas and their shoulders were decorated with brilliant epaulettes; some of the men wore tasseled fezzes and scarlet cummerbunds with matching ruby bow-ties and sashes dripping with jeweled medals and ornaments. Bands passed, comprised of men in fantastic finery, harem-pants and towering turbans, blasting out notes on big, glittering coils of brass. There were floats occupied by maidens dressed like Cleopatra and surrounded by phalanxes of heavy-set middle-aged women wearing huge hats with peacock plumes. Some of the drum majors were dressed in leopard-skin or wore manes like lions and the generals surveying their troops from convertibles held scepters gaudy with gems. More women passed in veils, the Daughters of Job, and, then, there was another band, clad in scarlet tunics, a float with teenage girls lolling on the back of a house-sized sphinx, then, another lodge and another, all clad in their glittering and exotic finery.

These were lodges from little places south of Chicago, decrepit river towns, half-abandoned cities lost in the vast heartland: Cairo, Decatur, Hannibal, Burlington, and Moline, St. Louis and Memphis, Evansville, Joliet, Peoria, and Springfield. The lodge members marched under their banners and seemed to be sober, serious men, all a little past their prime (even then, the fraternal orders were anachronisms and dying-out), many of them wearing glasses and with bald heads but still large, muscular, powerfully built, just a little past the prime of their lives, many of them grinning with teeth white in the sun and a glint in their spectacles, proud in their multitude, community leaders and gentlemen despite their outlandish raiment. This convention had not been convened for tomfoolery, but to consider the serious issues of the day; the brotherhood of man under the fatherhood of God. I thought of the Mississippi River and saw the marchers in that light, a great, muddy, and brown torrent moving inexorably along Michigan Avenue between sidewalks crowded with annoyed-looking people, black and white alike, wondering next when they could cross the street, groups of people assembled not to watch the parade but standing aloof at intersections waiting for the traffic cops to whistle the pedestrians across.

 

3.

In The Sons of the Desert, a couple dozen lodge brothers are gathered in a speakeasy. These are not sober, serious men earnestly deliberating on issues of historical significance. Rather, the lodge brothers are hilariously drunk, disorderly, their fezzes set askew on their heads, most of them young men, for the film, after all, is set in the present of 1933 when fraternal organizations were in their glory days. The tavern is filled with festive, if bedraggled streamers, and there are floozies and sinister-looking, scowling flunkies of Italian ethnicity hustling drinks to the tables where the drunken conventioneers loll and sprawl. Charley Chase, wearing pince nez glasses and looking something like a demonic FDR, orchestrates pranks. He throws a wallet stuffed with greenbacks on the floor and, when a lodge brother stoops to pick it up, invariably first eyeing the object with sly and scarcely disguised cupidity, Chase swats the man on the buttocks with a thick wooden paddle. When the paddle slams into the man’s trousers, a puff of dust decorates the air. The wallet as bait and the paddle as punishment define the film’s morality: transgression is almost instantly, and savagely, punished. Of course, Laurel and Hardy are so dense and ill observant that each of them get paddled lunging for the wallet. After the blow, the startled lodge brother puts up his dukes to fight but is met with a convivial shake of the hand instead and must, then, identify the lodge from which he hails.

After receiving their paddlings, the boys sit down with the prankster. (First, he anoints Ollie’s eye with water from a squirt-gun embedded in his bottonier.) Bottles of champagne are ordered and the prankster calls for a phone so that he can call his long-lost sister in Los Angeles – he pronounces the name of the city without Ollie’s affectations. A phone is brought to the table and Charley Chase’s character places the call. Of course, he is calling Mr. Hardy, although neither he nor Ollie know this. Mrs. Hardy answers the phone. Ollie is invited to talk to her. He is shocked at the sound of her voice and hurriedly hangs up. On the other end of the line, Mrs. Hardy remarks to Mrs. Laurel that "I could have sworn that the man on the other end of the line sounded just like Ollie."

In the speakeasy, a slender, rat-faced little singer strums a ukulele and croons: "Honolulu baby, where’d you get those eyes / And that dark complexion that I idolize." A group of plump-thighed girls in skimpy bikini tops and grass skirts perform a hulu dance, wiggling their hips. This is a pre-Code movie and the girls breasts are almost bare, covered with a kind of raffia rope twisted and entwined around their mid-sections. The girls shuffle around, scarcely competent as dancers, and there is an aerial shot of them, kicking and swiveling, bargain basement chorines in a bargain basement version of Busby Berkeley musical number. (Later, Stan will reprise this musical number on the doorstep of their duplex, swaying like a hula dancer while Ollie strums a ukulele.)

A distinguished lodge member enters the speakeasy with his wife who is wearing an elegant, low cut evening gown. Somehow the woman gets paddled. She yelps and her husband punches the prankster holding the paddle and with this contretemps, an assault on an intruding woman, the scene ends.

 

4.

Laurel and Hardy are married in a few of their comedies. This sentence is ambiguous. Of course, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are wedded to one another – indeed, it might be argued that their relationship, comprised of mutual petulance, bickering, and occasional bursts of violence, is one of the most penetrating studies of a married couple ever attempted on film. In many episodes, the boys share a single bed, indeed, one that is conspicuously slender. Ollie ostentatiously explains things to Stan and bullies him; Stan is prone to fits of weeping, incomprehensible feats of prestidigitation, and, often, rebels against his partner’s demands. In some disturbing sense, they are more than friends but don’t seem to like one another too much. Their relationship, like some marriages, is a predicament – "this is another fine mess you’ve gotten me into," Ollie is wont to say.

So, I should clarify: in some of their comedies, the boys are married and the women appear on-screen as foils and antagonists to the men. In these cases, Stan and Ollie live next to one another. In The Sons of the Desert, the two families share a duplex with identical side-by-side doors. The households are imagined to be fungible – some of the gags involve Stan and Ollie confusing the doors to their respective dwellings: thinking it to be his home, Stan tries to unlock Ollie’s door and vice-versa. (Ollie is dexter – his door is to the right; not surprisingly, the uncanny Laurel is sinister –the door to his abode is to the left.) Within the identical dwellings are two closely similar women – they could be sisters. Both are bleached blonde imitations of Jean Harlow – they have identical hairstyles and bee-sting lips. The women are termagants who rule their husbands with an iron-fist. When we first see Ollie’s wife, she is burnishing silverware at a card table in the living room. This task gives her occasion to lecture her husband by poking him in the sternum and belly with a sharp-looking knife. Stan’s wife is a kind of Diana, a blonde goddess of the hunt. She totes around a big shotgun, slung with easy grace between her arms. (Where she hunts in suburban LA is unclear?) In one scene, she returns from the chase wearing a low-slung fedora and remarks that she didn’t have much luck – nonetheless, she carries four ducks shot from the skies and ready to be plucked for the pot.

One reason children feel fear when watching Laurel and Hardy comedies is that there is something radically unwholesome suggested by the circumstances that we see – the relationship between husbands and wives turns out to be sado-masochistic and tinted with both incest and adultery. Since the boys are married to one another, the women seem to be interlopers – Ollie seen with his blonde wife about half his size seems shamed, a man caught with another woman not his wife. His true spouse is Stan and so what is he doing with this noisy and intrusive woman. The women look like sisters and Stan and Ollie’s relationship in the context of their marriages is that of mischievous siblings trying to outwit their mothers – but everyone seems to be sharing a common bed. It’s all strange, even a bit uncanny.

There’s another dimension visible in The Sons of the Desert. The women are nemesis figures – they stand for immediate and decisive retribution. The punishment that they inflict is for lying, for dishonesty. But film presents shadows and asks us to take them for real. Film lies and, so, perhaps, we should be punished for participating in the deceit that is that movie.

 

 

5.

My father was a preacher’s son from central Nebraska. He attended a Midwestern college and became a systems analyst employed by a large defense contractor. Among the things that my father loved without reservation were Laurel and Hardy pictures and the jazz made in the thirties and forties by Louis Armstrong. (My father once met Armstrong when the musician played a show at a small city on the Platte River in Nebraska – he recalled that Louis Armstrong and his singer, Velma Middleton, were sitting in the locker room of the town’s high school after performing in the gymnasium. My father remembered that they were drinking milk.)

When I was a child, my father worked most of the time. He was a specialist in anti-tank warfare and chemical weapons and there was a Cold War to be fought. On Sunday mornings, however, he slept until about 9:00 am, and, then, lounged around the house watching television in his underwear. My mother went to church and the children accompanied her, but her husband, the pastor’s son, stayed at home so that he could watch one of his favorite television shows. This was Clancy and Company, later called Clancy and Willie, a locally produced TV show for children. The host, Clancy, a big, beefy-looking cop in a crisp blue police uniform, was played by the avuncular John Gallos. His sidekick was Willie Ketchem, a plain-clothes detective who wore a deerstalker hat like Sherlock Holmes and flashy plaid suits. Willie Ketchem was played by Allan Lotsberg, a boyish, scrawny fellow with bemused and craven features a little like Don Knotts. Sometimes, Carmen, the nurse, would appear with Clancy and Willie.

Clancy and Willie told jokes and acted out simple skits but their primary role was to introduce two-reel Laurel and Hardy comedies – at least, this was the case on Sunday mornings. (The show aired at other times, but I didn’t watch it except on Sunday and so I’m not sure as to its format the rest of the week.) Sometimes, a two-reeler featuring Spanky and Our Gang would be inserted between Laurel and Hardy shorts. On other occasions, Clancy and Willie might screen a few segments of interminable and tedious Hopalong Cassidy serials, but the principal content was Laurel and Hardy films made between 1930 and the boys’ retirement in the late forties. The comedies were shown in two-reel format with a commercial break between each reel – longer feature films were arbitrarily hacked into two-reel length and, then, broadcast as self-contained fragments. (This didn’t do much damage to the Laurel and Hardy feature-length movies because they were conceived as narratives spliced together, more or less, from two-reel episodes.) It was in this format that I first saw The Sons of the Desert and other Laurel and Hardy films. Clancy and Company and its successor Clancy and Willie was broadcast between about 1963 and 1977. I think it aired for ninety minutes between 9:30 am and 11:00. Since I had to go to church with my mother, I recall that we would see the first fifteen minutes of the show and, then, its last twenty minutes after coming home from church. In my imagination, Laurel and Hardy films are always fragmentary – we always left for Church during one of those bleak, eerie two-reelers and, then, came home an hour later to see the end of another old movie completely different in some ways, but in other respects the same. There are a limited number of Laurel and Hardy pictures and, although it was not optimum to see them as bits and pieces, in the end, I am confident that I watched, although out of order, everything that the boys released in the sound era.

In Church, there is a lectionary: someone reads a fragment of a Gospel, a few paragraphs from an Epistle, and an Old Testament story or psalm. If you attend church with any frequency, you begin to develop from those short readings a concept of the Bible, although one that is Cubist, shattered into prismatic fragments of text. Similarly, on Clancy and Company, Laurel and Hardy comprised a kind of pictorial scripture, hacked into lectionary fragments and screened, more or less, at random. As with the Bible, the worshiper had to infer the whole from bits and pieces. Thus, I imagine Laurel and Hardy’s work as discontinuous, a series of shadowy black and white images that never exactly amounted to a coherent narrative – there were grim Depression-era vistas of a city under construction that always seemed partially flooded, grey puddles of indeterminate depth – if you stepped into one you might vanish entirely, swallowed by the murky water lurking next to half-finished sidewalks with the skeletons of partially finished suburban houses scattered in the distance. Several of Laurel and Hardy’s feature-length pictures were parodies of other film genres – there were dusty vistas of sage and badlands in Way out West and nightmare scenes of flare-lit trench warfare in other pictures. Through these desolate landscapes, Laurel and Hardy wandered like wraiths, threadbare, often starving, and, of course, the victim of the malice of every object that they encountered.

In the seventies, John Gallos must have discovered that the demographic for his Sunday morning show was not small children but adults like my father. Somewhat apologetically, he discarded his Clancy the Cop outfit and appeared in a business suit as a curator of the Laurel and Hardy comedies. If I recall correctly, he, even, adopted a certain scholarly attitude to the old films. I don’t recall what happened to Willie Ketchem and the comely Carmen the nurse.

 

 

6.

Laurel and Hardy comedies have an astonishing tactile quality. You don’t so much watch or see them as experience the sensations inflicted on the characters. In The Sons of the Desert, Oliver Hardy feigns a "nervous breakdown", a condition unknown today but endemic when I was growing up in the sixties. (If you were too naughty, your mother might have a "nervous breakdown" and be sent away to an asylum, leaving the mischievous child to the not-so-tender mercies of the father.) Ollie moans melodramatically and sits in a chair with his feet in a big zinc tub full of hot water. He is pretending illness to avoid going with his wife "to the mountains" and so that he can sneak away to Chicago on the pretext of traveling to Honolulu for his health. Ollie’s wife fills the tub with fresh boiling water; passive-aggressively, she has made the water scalding. Ollie yelps like a burnt puppy when his feet are immersed in the steamy water. Of course, the great tub of scalding water is an attractive nuisance, a mishap waiting to happen. And, before the scene concludes, Ollie will have fallen buttocks-first into the boiling water, thus scalding his genitals and perineum. Stan Laurel will end up wallowing in the water face-first. The pain is real and its victims scream with real agony as opposed to the feigned discomfort in Ollie’s earlier moans. For the viewer, the hot water is tangibly present – it is clearly scalding and, of course, we know that Stan and Ollie will end up immersed in the stuff. The tactile reality of the scene makes us wince.

The boiling water in this early scene is reprised as cold rain water near the end of the film. Laurel and Hardy have been hiding in the attic of their house. When they are heard in that place, they clamber out a hatch onto the roof of the duplex. A violent storm is underway and, of course, they are drenched by the cold downpour. We feel the big drops of rain, flinch at their impact, and can sense the dismal midnight cold. A long drainpipe extends from the roof down to barrel collecting rainwater. The moment that we see the barrel, brimming over with cold water, we know that both Stan and Ollie will end up half-drowned in that barrel. In this case, it is Ollie who again falls, buttocks first, into the barrel and is caught there, displacing icy water that spills over the sides of the barrel and cascades onto the ground. As if in recompense for having his testicles boiled thirty minutes earlier, he is now bathed in the cold water spilling from the rain barrel.

One scene of this kind has a primal force for me. Having returned from Honolulu, Stan and Ollie are at home when their distraught wives return from the steamboat offices. They clamber up into the attic of the house, a dark space above the ceilings of both dwellings. It seems cold and a little scary in the attic and the boys have to stay there until morning. Oliver finds an old box-spring and mattress. He rigs up some chains dangling from hooks in overhead joists. The box-spring and mattress are suspended from the chains and makes a swinging bed. Ollie finds pillows and blankets. "We’ll be as comfortable as two peas in a pod," Ollie assures Stan. Outside, it has begun to rain and, in my imagination, I can hear the cold downpour beating on the roof shingles, the storm exhaling its icy breath through cracks in the walls, the rumble of thunder outside and the flash of lightning dimly descried from within the attaic. When I watch this scene, now in my sixties, I recall vividly how I felt when I first saw these images a half century ago: children like to hide under their covers, particularly when the air is cold, and I had the sense of a protected warm place, dry and comfortable in an icy, wet world. The boys are enclosed by the attic and snuggled together in their hanging bower. It feels like darkness warmed by your own breath, dense sticky air so that it is wonderfully refreshing to so pull apart the covers and suck in the chilly, fresh air from outside. Perhaps, some recollection of the womb motivates these thoughts and memories. Nothing, I thought, was more wonderful than the inside of an Eskimo’s igloo, the half-translucent ice walls, the rounded uterine interior, the thick animal-fur blankets everywhere heaped up to keep the family cozy in their icy refuge. "As comfortable as two peas in a pod," is a phrase that has haunted me for most of my life. When I hear those words in The Sons of the Desert, I am forced into close proximity with my most childish thoughts – snuggling together with others in an igloo on a "three-dog night."

Of course, the malice of objects defeats all comfort. The hooks holding the swinging bed detach and the box-spring and mattress and Stan and Ollie both are violently hurled to the floor of the attic that is the ceiling of the duplex below. Below, the women have spent a sleepless night. Ollie’s wife concludes that her husband has drowned: "Somehow," she says, "I think they are hovering above us." Of course, this is literally true – they are hovering above in the flimsy bed hanging from the roof. When the bed crashes down, the women are terrified. Stan’s wife gets her shot gun and cautiously ascends toward the attic from whence the sound has come. Driven from the attic, Stan and Ollie find themselves in the driving rain, teetering on the wet shingles of the house.

 

7.

Honesty is the best policy. Long before you read your Kant, someone has said this to you and, if you were a small child, or any kind of child at all, you believed those words as spoken and set about to practice them, and, perhaps, even if the principle was never exactly articulated to you, nonetheless, you sensed something within your soul that despises a lie, something that instinctively clings to the truth even though the truth may be inconvenient. Later, when you read Kant, and learn that it can be rigorously proven that the strictest honesty is absolutely essential and that to lie, even on a trivial matter, is to make lying into a corrosive universal rule, this proposition (that honesty is the best policy) will come to you as no surprise. It is something that you learned very long ago, a lesson that comes from a time, perhaps, before you could speak, maybe, even before you could understand words as spoken to you. Honesty is the best policy and it is a thing good in itself and, also, a thing that is good by its consequences – telling the truth will be rewarded, just as deceit must be inevitably punished.

These things all children believe even those the most addicted to lying. Laurel and Hardy lie to their wives in The Sons of the Desert. But lies are always discovered and punished. From his forbidden convention in Chicago, Oliver Hardy ends up talking to his wife by telephone, something not possible if he were in Honolulu. Then, the boys join a parade in which most of the men marching are like mummers, hiding their faces under parasols. But Stan and Ollie mug for the camera and the footage of them makes its way into a newsreel and the newsreel happens to be shown in a theater and, in that theater, the boys’ wives are watching and, therefore, have indisputable evidence that their husband’s lied to them. If your cover story is that you are coming home on a steamer from Honolulu, the steamer will founder in a typhoon and expose your lie. If you conceal yourself in the attic above your wives, the very structure of in which you dwell will betray you. Sliding down a wet drainpipe, Ollie gets trapped in a barrel of water just at the moment that the scowling local cop is patrolling the neighborhood. Lies are inevitably discovered. No one can conceal the truth. The truth is like the banana peel on the sidewalk – it will inevitably trip you up.

At the climax of The Sons of the Desert, Stan and Ollie are interrogated by their wives. Ollie spins an elaborate lie involving swimming across the ocean and hitchhiking on passing vessels to reach Los Angeles. He has coerced Stan into supporting his lie by blackmail: if you don’t also lie, Ollie says, I will tell your wife that I have seen you taking a puff from a cigarette. Apparently, Stan’s wife has strictly forbidden her husband to smoke.

Stan is too honest or too cowardly to persist in deceit. Sobbing hysterically, he confesses the whole thing. His wife, shouldering her shot gun, drags him off. Stan cowers and cries like a child. Ollie’s wife goes in the kitchen and begins to systematically heap up all of the crockery in the house so that it can broken over her husband’s skull. She begins to hurl plates and cups at Ollie and he starts to scream. Cut to Stan Laurel’s dwelling: Stan is wearing a velvet smoking jacket and reclining like a pasha on a heap of pillows. Honesty, it seems, is the best policy. His wife leans forward to light his cigarette. Then, we see Oliver Hardy sitting atop a huge pile of shards of broken glass and pottery. He has a black eye and is covering his head with a pot. A few last cups and plates shatter on the pot with which he protects his head. There is silence. Wincing, he gingerly removes the pot-helmet from his skull. Then, something that looks like big soup tureen comes hurtling down on his head and smashes into a thousand pieces. And, so, the film ends.

Kant argues that even well-intentioned lies are forbidden. He writes that it is impermissible to lie even if the untruth is told to protect an innocent person concealed in your house from the tyrant’s henchmen come to seize that man or woman for torture and execution. Anyone who saw The Sons of the Desert, as I did, perhaps a dozen times between the ages of eight and 15, will know that Kant was right and that there is no place in the world for a lie. Honesty is always the best policy.

 

 

8.

In the comedies of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, the world is an obstacle course. Mute and inert objects are invested with a savage malignity. The very sidewalks and soil of the earth are mined with muddy pits into which a pedestrian can slip and fall and be lost forever. Every hand tool is an instrument of torture. A stack of pottery is an arsenal. Buckets of hot water, hooks, drainpipes, ladders, stairs, even the thresholds of doors are instruments that can suddenly betray their users.

My father was raised to believe a man should be handy around the house. He owned tools but couldn’t use them and they were always lost when needed. When he tried to drive a nail, he hammered his fingers to pulp. Performing home improvements, he always measured once and, then, cut twice or three times and had to discard as truncated perfectly good pieces of lumber. He owned a soldering iron with which to burn his finger-tips. He used spirit-levels to hang pictures, but this task was torture to him – the pictures always hung askew. He could change a tire but only barely. I have learned from my father – I don’t own a hammer or soldering iron and I have not changed a tire for many years and would never attempt to do this now. I once watched my father try to split fire-wood. He didn’t know to cut on the diagonal, using the axe to knock out wedges of wood by striking with alternately angled blows. When he hit the firewood with his axe, it simply stuck in the block and, then, when he lifted his axe the whole piece of wood rose with it, up above his head where the log threatened to come loose and drop down to smash his skull. Laurel and Hardy’s incompetence in the world of physical objects resonates with me. It’s an incompetence that I learned from my father and that, I suppose, he learned from his father, the bookish Lutheran preacher in Nebraska.

The cold war ended and the Berlin Wall fell. Fear that thousands of Soviet tanks would rumble through the Fulda gap subsided. Big anti-tank missiles and heat-seeking guided armaments were no longer needed – and, indeed, would not have helped us much against El Qaida or Osama Bin Laden. My father had achieved some success in his work and had made presentations at the Hague on Cold War defense, but when the Soviet Union collapsed, his talents and knowledge were useless. In short order, he lost his job and had to apply for unemployment compensation. He didn’t long survive his obsolescence and died when he was 58. The end of the Cold War was like one of those puddles lurking innocently beside a curb in a two-reel comedy – you step off the sidewalk into that puddle and it turns out be a watery abyss that swallows you whole.

On some level, my father, who was fat, identified with Oliver Hardy. He often remarked on Hardy’s preternatural gracefulness when dancing – Ollie does a delicate soft-shoe routine in Way Out West to the tune of "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine." As a son, I identified with the craven Stan Laurel always cringing before Ollie’s rages. Like most fathers, my dad was something of a bully. When I think of The Sons of the Desert, the movie shifts shape to become about my family, my childhood, and my father. On Sunday mornings, before watching Clancy and Company, my father played his old Louis Armstrong records. I suppose he was thinking about his childhood in the barren hills of central Nebraska. His favorite recording was Louis Armstrong’s concert in May 1947 at the Town Hall in New York City. Jack Teagarden is featured on "St. James Infirmary" and there are versions of "Ain’t Misbehavin’" and "Back ‘o Town Blues" on that album.

After he was dead, my father came back only one time to my mother. She said that he seemed to be young and was laughing.

1 comment:


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