I’ve heard of Laurel and Hardy, and know that they were a comedy duo like Abbot and Costello, but had never seen one of their movies until now, with Sons of the Desert.
The movie’s good. I’ll get to talking about the plot and whatever in a moment but what the duo got me thinking about was friendship and perhaps male friendship in particular because it’s a pretty rich topic to explore but I don’t see lots of work that seems interested in examining it seriously, in what I guess would have to be a sentimental manner, except for bromance comedies that kinda make a gag out of it.
What I’m sure will have fallen out of vogue by the time this essay is posted, but which is now, in mid-November of 2016, very popular online, are these Joe Biden memes where he’s depicted as being aloof, avuncular, and, most of all, unwaveringly loyal to Barack Obama.
People are reveling in the humor, of course, but I think part of its popularity has something to do with a celebration of friendship (people’re using the word “squad” like fuckall now, too).
Something noteworthy I’m seeing here about Laurel and Hardy is that their characters are clearly close friends, their wives are friends, and they live comfortably next door to each other. But their friendship is also constantly strained. Laurel, the taller fatter one, always seems exasperated by Hardy, the little slim one who talks softly and gets confused a lot. Laurel is also made miserable by a wife who’s more of a disciplinarian than a partner. Quicker to tell him what he can’t do than to go along and try to have a good time together. Laurel, frankly, seems miserable.
[Editor here, from the future: We see this in W.C. fields comedies, too, like It’s a Gift and The Bank Dick: the castrating wife and the ungrateful children seem to be staples of his work. Maybe throw in a nasty mother-in-law. His friendships, such as they exist, are built on shared interests rather than any real bond.]
Lou Abbot and Bud Costello shows a similar kind of friendship on screen, and on the radio: Abbot being forever annoyed by Costello’s antics. Which I guess is fine. Like comedy’s Rule of Threes, where you give two straight details and then a third outlandish one, I guess this is just a dynamic that works in comedy duos. The straight man dropping dour lines in response to the (what do you call his foil?) wacky counterpart, the clutz, the idiot.
Not that I have an issue with this. It’s just interesting to observe. I didn’t find Sons of the Desert all that funny but, given that the List hasn’t always chosen the strongest entries in a star’s filmography, (we get City Lights from Chaplin, but not The Circus, not The Great Dictator), I’m not gonna dismiss Laurel and Hardy’s entire body of work (which is enormous) on the basis of this one lukewarm entry. Also, I’m not really interested in criticizing it. Not Laurel and Hardy for their act, nor W.C. Fields for his, nor Abbot and Costello for theirs. Knowing that these comedies were released to great fanfare in the 1930s, when everybody was stressed shitless by the Great Depression, I’m coming to see the work of screwball and slapstick comics, particularly of this or any other emotionally taxing era, to be almost sacred. Like they’re stepping up to the plate to perform noble work.