Two for the Ages

'It's so easy to fall back on dirty humor or fart jokes than it is to actually put together truly clever and memorable scenes, like the boys did," says John Field, the Grand Sheik of Saps at Sea. Founded in 1978, Saps at Sea is the San Diego "tent," or chapter, of the international Laurel and Hardy organization called Sons of the Desert. "'Grand Sheik' is an honorary title; it doesn't mean much. Basically, I'm the one who hosts the meetings, or as I like to call them, 'film parties,'" says Field. On Saturday, August 26, the Saps at Sea tent will host "Let's Give Russ's Breaking Back a Break" night, at which they will screen The Devil's Brother (a.k.a. Fra Diavolo, 1933) and a classic cartoon. The evening is so named because the shows will be played from videos and DVDs rather than the usual 16mm films carted around by the group's projectionist, Russ Peck. "Seventy-five percent of our meetings [feature] Laurel and Hardy, and then we have 20 minutes or so of a guest comedian such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or, in this case, the very early [1935] and very rare Calling All Tars with Bob Hope," explains Field.

Field has been a member of Saps at Sea for 26 years. "I remember seeing Laurel and Hardy as far back as age eight or nine," he says. "I love the boys because of their charm -- like the fact that Ollie thinks he's smarter than Stan, when he really isn't. They're just kindhearted souls trying to get along in life, and they run across challenges, but they're still pals."

In Sons of the Desert, Laurel and Hardy are members of a Mason-like organization called Sons of the Desert. "We don't have an oath or a handshake, but we do sing the song 'We are the Sons of the Desert' at each meeting," says Paul Rilling, a 25-year member. "Because San Diego is a Navy town, this tent is called 'Saps at Sea.'" The Los Angeles tent is "Way Out West," and a tent in Mexico City named itself the "Bullfighter's Tent."

Rilling recalls one Laurel and Hardy scene of which he is particularly fond because of its subtle nature: "The boys are sitting on a stoop, talking, and Stan Laurel pulls out a hard-boiled egg, and he pulls out a salt shaker from another pocket, and he puts the salt on the egg and then proceeds to peel the egg and eat it. It doesn't have anything to do with the plot, but he plays the kind of character that doesn't think things out."

Rilling likes the predictability of the comic routines. "They set up a situation and you know what's going to happen, so there's no surprise in it happening -- the surprise is how long it takes." He describes a scene in which the boys are rebuilding a boat: "Stan keeps causing trouble so he's banished down into the cabin, while the portly gentleman, Ollie, is up painting a mast on a ladder." In the scene, Stan manages to wedge himself between a wall and the mast, after which he produces a saw. "He's cutting the mast, and you see Ollie on the top painting, and he hears this saw, and he doesn't know what it is, and Stan's down in the cabin sawing, and you know what's going to happen, and it does happen, and Ollie ends up in a mud puddle. In the next scene, Stan is sitting on a bench and both his hands are tied around a barrel."

Of the 104 films starring Laurel and Hardy, The Music Box is the all-time favorite of most of the duo's fans. "A series of ingenious gags are built on the simple premise of trying to get that crate with the piano in it up this incredibly long flight of stairs," says Field. The set of stairs, located in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, has since been named the Music Box Steps, of which there are 103.

"The gags that fans are probably familiar with the most involve a certain interaction called 'reciprocal destruction,' which starts with one person who does something, then another person does something back, and it accelerates and keeps on going," explains Field. "In Two Tars [a silent film released in 1928], they're a couple of sailors on leave for a good time, and they go into town and pick up a couple of girls and rent a Model T. They run into a traffic jam, and one car rear-ends another car. The guy [who was rear-ended] rips off someone's bumper, and by the end of the film you have 75 cars being destroyed by angry motorists."

-- Barbarella

Saps at Sea Tent Meeting Saturday, August 26 Doors open 6:30 p.m.; shows begin 7 p.m. Williams Hall at Trinity Presbyterian Church 3902 Kenwood Drive Spring Valley Cost: $6 (includes refreshments) Info: 619-417-9032 or www.sapsatsea.com

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