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Sons Of The Desert, Good References, Trouble In Paradise (free)

  • Vilas Hall 821 University Ave Madison, WI, 53706 United States (map)

These three movies, somewhat underrated and forgotten now but popular and critically lauded in their day, all center around a deception of identity. In Laurel and Hardy's Sons Of The Desert, the comedic duo portray two goofy yet self-assured husbands who deceive their wives into thinking they're in Honolulu at the request of a doctor who's in on the ruse. In reality, they go to their Mason-like fraternity lodge, the titular Sons of the Desert's convention, in Chicago. During the debaucherous festivities, by coincidence, one of the frat brothers prank-calls his sister and has Hardy talk to her, only to realize that the frat brother's sister is Hardy's wife. Later, the two goofs pretend to be victims of a shipwreck coming back from Honolulu. The movie is stocked with classic body-humor, and is often considered Laurel and Hardy's greatest film, due to some particularly charming cleverness in the gags.

The silent comedy film Good References features the once-iconic Constance Talmadge, who commits identity theft because she doesn't have job references so she can take a secretary job, while still-relatable hilarity ensues. Trouble In Paradise similarly involves identity theft, but here it has a more serious, dramatic effect, as two infamous pickpockets fall in love while pretending to be bourgeois socialites, who then team-up in order to steal more money from a perfume baron with her own romantic hang-ups.

The theme of pretending to be someone you're not was a way cinema expressed what we today would call identity fluidity. Especially from a class perspective, these deceptions offer glimpses into the way people conceived of their identities as tools and abstract disguises to be manipulated to diverse ends, from comedy to stealing from the rich. —Reid Kurkerewicz