What can we learn about human relationships from a film that is almost 80 years old, politically incorrect, full of old fashion slapstick humor and about as subtle as an anvil dropped on someone’s head? When the film is Sons Of the Desert, the answer is a great deal.

Comedy is most successful when it captures in some way a truth about life. Movie comedies that remain popular decades after they were made touch on universal issues about humanity. As has often been observed, the difference between what is comical and that which is tragic is often very keen and hard to define.

Many people group Laurel and Hardy with mayhem comics like the Three Stooges. Those that do only see what is on the surface and fail to appreciate that underneath the sight gags and physical humor is a complex psychological relationship. It is this relationship more than anything else that has made Laurel and Hardy, "the boys," so popular around the world. As with a lot of dysfunctional relationships that we see around us (or maybe are a partner to), Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy present in very unsubtle but often very realistic ways a portrayal of a relationship that is seething with issues of control, feelings of powerlessness, and hopelessness. The boys have a stereotypic love/hate relationship. In a sense they function as if the two have been thrown in a world full of wolves and they have no one to lean on but each other. Those wolves, by the way, are often their wives and in Sons Of The Desert they have sharp teeth (and sharp tongues). The question for Stan and Ollie is how to control and then outwit the wolves.

On the surface, Stan, the skinny one, seems weak and vulnerable. But as you watch the film notice how often he ends up on top. Ollie, the bossy one who is always in charge (of Stan, that is), may think and to others appear to be the brighter of the two, but watch what happens to Ollie in his conflicts with Stan and as he attempts to deal with others. Where Stan seems to float through life, Ollie bounces off rocks as if caught in a flash flood. We see this especially in their conflicts. In a sense when Ollie pushes Stan, Stan pushes back with undefeatable stealth power. Sometimes he does not have to push but merely stand back and allow the forces that Hardy has unleashed to wreak their havoc. And because what Stan does all appears to happen by accident or circumstances beyond his control, Ollie is frustrated and defeated by a force that he cannot understand.

Stan exudes and displays all the trademarks of passive/aggressive behavior. He thinks of himself (and other’s think of him) as a wimp. He has a relationship with a take charge person who he often does not agree with but goes along with nonetheless. He uses his passivity to get back at his antagonist, and like all those who are passive/aggressive he denies that he meant for whatever happened to have occurred. He thinks that because he feels powerless he is powerless, not realizing that there is incredible strength in being passive.

Denial is what makes passive/aggressiveness so hard to challenge. Because the person feels powerless he does not appreciate that by doing nothing or saying nothing or by trying to help by doing what he thinks the other wants him to do, he in fact has a major impact on others. Pay close attention to the scene where Ollie is "sick" and has his feet in a tub of hot water. The way that Stan "helps" and the consequences which follow may be over the top but are still very typical of passive aggressive behavior. People with this tendency often cause a lot of chaos or confusion but do not own up to their responsibility.

In contrast to Stan, Ollie is openly belligerent but like his skinny friend feel just as powerless and overwhelmed by others, especially those in charge. In Sons Of the Desert we observe in Ollie a self-defeating tendency often exhibited by those who feel powerless and intimidated by others: Dishonesty.

Ollie would not admit it but he is terrified of his wife. He can raise his voice, tell Stan that he has his wife wrapped around his little finger, but when she draws a line, he would not dare cross it. When she refuses to approve of his going to a lodge convention in Chicago, Ollie uses deception to get what he wants, and sets himself up to be discovered, which is the normal consequence of such an action. Like so many, he thinks he’s too clever to get caught, but events occur that he could never predict. On the verge of being caught, he creates an even more desperate subterfuge in an effort to cover his tracks. The results are inevitable.

There is no question that Stan and Ollie are friends, and it shouldn’t seem surprising that they are. They would gravitate to each other in about any situation because each needed someone with the other’s qualities to fit his own personality. This is what we see so often in relationships between an alcoholic and codependent, a sadist and a masochist, and between any pair who seem ill fitted but can’t seem to get away from the other. In the boys’ case, Ollie needs someone he can boss around, someone who makes him seem superior. Stan needs someone who will be his "protector" and put up with his fumbling. Ollie is also someone who will stand out, be a distraction and target for other people’s negative reactions to Stan’s "accidents" and other infuriating behaviors. These are qualities that we see throughout Sons Of The Desert.

Booklets by Brian R. Johnson, Ph.D.
Creator of Therapeutic Cinema

The booklet
Boundaries And Limits can be an aid for those who feel manipulated and controlled by others. You might also find the booklet helpful to read before seeing this films. For only $3.50 plus shipping and handling you can have this booklet mailed to you within two days! Check out this booklet NOW! The booklet Getting Unstuck: A Guide For Breaking Out Of Self-Defeating Patterns is an aid for those who are caught in some undesirable life pattern. You might also find the booklet helpful to read after seeing this film. For only $3.00 plus shipping and handling you can have this booklet mailed to you within two days! Check out this booklet NOW!

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Last modified: 18 March, 2009