The public library in Wilmette, Illinois, had a small collection of 8mm films available to borrow. Like every other middle-class family in the 1960s, we had a projector on which to watch the growing collection of home movies that featured silent figures waving at the camera and mouthing unheard witticisms.
But when I discovered the treasure trove of classic silent films in the library, I was in heaven. My favorite comedians were and still are Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
I was introduced to their work through my father, who was also a fan. I have seen just about every movie they made as a team, from “Putting Pants on Phillip” to “Utopia (Atoll K).”
Like many, my favorite was their Oscar-winning short “The Music Box,” though not for the long sequence of trying to hoist a piano up a long flight of stairs. I still laugh aloud at the scene in which Stan throws a hat out the window and forgets to let go.
Laurel and Hardy were among the few silent film stars who did not have to reinvent themselves when talkies came in. Their voices and dialogue fit their characters perfectly.
In my opinion, the best of their feature films was “Sons of the Desert.” At the very end, Stan delivers one of his famous malapropisms: “Honesty is the best politics.” You can watch this clip for context.
In a world in which fungible facts and alternative truths are commonplace, Stan’s observation seems more naïve than funny. These days, honesty is terrible politics.
Honesty can provoke harassment and threats, exaggeration and condemnation, and ejection from public office. I am not speaking of confession of wrongdoing. I am referring to taking a principled stand based on personal convictions that reflect demonstrable realities.
Instead, party loyalty is the best politics. It is my personal bias that the maxim is truer of Republicans than Democrats. But it may be only because I consider myself more of a Democrat than Republican.
I think there is evidence for my bias. Some Democrats make stuff up and pretend it is true, but there are others who call them out on it. One Republican, on the other hand, makes stuff up and pretends it is true and dares others to call him out on it at the risk of their political careers.
Yet, no one is smart enough to be wrong 100% of the time, as my friend Rabbi Irwin Kula likes to say. The truth is that the Republican in question has been right and truthful sometimes, but the more reliable the Democrat, the less likely they are to acknowledge it.
They won’t even give him credit for being accidentally wise. You can’t run a democracy if the only goal of governance is to be in charge.
“Sons of the Desert” is frankly misogynistic, violent, absurd, abusive and, to my mind, hysterically funny. The boys create a preposterous lie to sneak away from their wives and attend a fraternal convention in Chicago by pretending to go to Hawaii for Ollie’s nerves.
When the ship they allegedly were to return on was lost at sea, Stan explains how they made it back to Los Angeles: We ship-hiked!
Caught in their deceit, Ollie digs in, but Stan breaks down and tells his wife the truth. She rewards him with forgiveness, while Ollie’s wife breaks every plate in the house over his head (see my earlier description of the movie). In the end, Stan assures his friend, “Honesty is the best politics.”
It is more than a little pollyannaish to believe that telling the truth cures all ills. At the very least, telling the truth avoids creating more ills. In politics, people will continue to disagree, but better to debate the issues than the truth.
The choice is pretty clear in this trifle of a movie from 1932: stick to your lie and provoke chaos and disaster, or swallow hard, cry a little and tell the truth. Because “honesty is the best politics.”
It’s another fine mess you won’t get into.