|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 someones 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 others 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
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
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 hes 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 shouldnt seem
surprising that they are. They would gravitate to each other in about any situation
because each needed someone with the others 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 cant 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 peoples negative reactions to Stans
"accidents" and other infuriating behaviors. These are qualities that we see
throughout Sons Of The Desert.