Appellate Judge James A. Stewart says the plots in these two Laurel and Hardy features were "a nice mess," but the comedians make up for it.
"Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into."—Oliver Hardy to Stan Laurel
Englishman Arthur Stanley Jefferson came to America in the same comedy troupe that produced Charlie Chaplin, while Georgia native Norvell Hardy worked at a movie theater before heading for Hollywood, their official site notes. In 1926, they found themselves working together at the Hal Roach studio and, like peanut butter and chocolate, a natural team was born. They moved easily from two-reelers to silents, and eventually made a name for themselves in feature films as well.
Facts of the Case
When Laurel and Hardy starred in these two movies, the idea of comedians moving from two-reelers to feature films was still rare. Hal Roach hedged his bets by making sure there was a romantic plot, one that didn't involve Laurel and Hardy. Basically, that left you with what looked like two unrelated movies intercut, eventually being tied up neatly by the two clowns at the end.
From today's standpoint, it's clear Hal Roach should have had more faith in his two star comedians, giving them full rein and maybe even making one or the other of our clowns the romantic lead once in a while. These early comedies weren't smooth; they have some slow patches. However, Hal Roach had been specializing in two-reelers, and was only reluctantly moving into the new area (for him) of feature-length comedies. In the 1930s, there wasn't a storehouse of film history for him to draw on as he shaped his scripts. So we have plots…
The Devil's Brother
Based on an unlikely source, the French comic opera Fra Diavolo by Daniel-Francois-Esprit Auber, this 1933 movie features Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy as two unlikely assistants to that master jewel thief. In the accompanying commentary, it's pointed out that producer Hal Roach had long wanted to bring this favorite opera to the screen and saw possibilities through two minor characters, Giacomo and Beppo, who could be portrayed by Laurel and Hardy. Interestingly, playwright Tom Stoppard made his name years later with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a similarly inside-out version of a classic stage work.
Here, we're introduced first to Fra Diavolo (Dennis King, The Vagabond King), who tells his band about his exploits, describing his effect on the beautiful ladies as the face of his own lady Rita (Nena Quartero, The Monkey's Paw) wears her jealousy obviously.
Next, we meet soldier Lorenzo (Arthur Pierson, Sweet Surrender), who is seeking approval to marry Zerlina (Lucile Browne, Soup to Nuts). He believes that capturing Fra Diavolo will earn him the hand of his true love.
Finally, we meet…I think you know these guys already and you'll know there's a shift in tone coming from their trademark theme, "The Cuckoo Song." The two men are riding into the scene on mules. No, just one of them is. He's waiting patiently, at least at first, since his friend's stubborn animal has stopped. It seems Ollio (Oliver Hardy, Sons of the Desert) and Stanlio (Stan Laurel, Sons of the Desert) have arrived to make use of their small fortune.
"Our life's savings. Wouldn't it be terrible if we lost this?" Ollio says, eventually holding up the two bags containing their money. As you'd expect, a voice from nowhere tells him to keep the hands where they are before two bandits take the money.
"Oh, well, come easy, go easy," Stanlio says, with a mangled philosophical air.
When he finds that Ollio isn't into philosophy, Stanlio has another thought: "Why don't we start at the top?…Why don't we become bandits?"
Ollio likes this idea better. He tries posing as the dreaded Fra Diavolo to relieve a traveler of his money. Wouldn't you know that the traveler would turn out to be Fra Diavolo himself? Soon, the thief invites the pair to join his band (or face death) and they head to a remote inn, where the bandit hopes to charm Lady Pamela (Thelma Todd, Horse Feathers) out of her money.
One of the most remarkable things about The Devil's Brother to a modern viewer will be character actor James Finlayson's (The Flying Deuces) performance as Lord Rocburg. "D'oh" is his catchphrase as things go wrong. As Leonard Maltin notes in commentary, a more modern character appropriated that little wordoid. You also get to see popular comedienne Thelma Todd in all of her pre-code sultriness as she plays an unhappily married coquette looking for a dalliance, her teasing proving an obstacle to Fra Diavolo's plans.
While this film can be slooooow, interrupted too often by Dennis King's operatic singing, the humor builds through the picture, leaving us with a fantastic parting gag.
The reading also finds Stan MacLaurel and Oliver Hardy (Guess who plays these two!) arriving in town, thinking Stan has inherited the estate. To establish his credentials, Stan presents his police mug shot. "That was taken three years ago. You can see I wasn't feeling very good," he says as he hands the sheet to the estate lawyer. Once that's out of the way, Stan gets the bad news: he's come all this way and all he inherits is a set of bagpipes "blown at Waterloo" and a snuff box. At least it has snuff in it.
They aren't just broke, either. "There we were, comfortably settled in jail, with one more week to serve—and you had to talk me into breaking out to go on this wild goose chase of yours," Hardy chides his pal. Since he's the one who's been boasting about Stan's inheritance, you suspect it didn't take much to talk him into it, but no matter. They're in trouble now, since the landlady sees that they didn't inherit and is kicking the troublesome twosome out of their room for nonpayment of rent.
When he finds himself homeless in his nightshirt, his pants kept under lock and key by the landlady until he pays his bill, Hardy sees an easy way to get new threads in a handbill offering tailored suits with 30 days' free trial. He and Stan go to check it out, wandering into the wrong room by mistake. Before they find out their mistake, they've enlisted in a Scottish army regiment headed for India. They get new suits of clothes and since it's Scotland, Hardy still doesn't have any pants on.
Bonnie Scotland has more of the side-splitting bits you're looking for, such as Hardy explaining the fine art of taking snuff to Stan and a hungry Stan using a candle and a bed frame to cook a fish in their inn room. You also get a good turn from James Finlayson here as their commanding officer in India, who takes offense at things like turning clean-up detail into playtime with a few dance steps.
These movies are awkward at times, switching abruptly between romance (and comic opera in The Devil's Brother) and Laurel and Hardy slapstick farce. The commentators note that, after previews, the studio made deep cuts in the plot portions of both films. Since the rhythm of these movies still isn't the rat-a-tat-tat of a comic farce, I'd regard the changes as gentle trims that seem to have improved the finished products a great deal. At any rate, the cuts are kinder than the ones that made these movies into two-reelers for 1950s television. Interestingly, the theatrical trailers ignore all plotlike aspects of the two movies, depicting both films as Laurel and Hardy laughfests. One describes Bonnie Scotland as "60 minutes of laughs" despite its 80-minute running time. Since there are slow spots, that could be considered an early stab at truth in advertising.
At times the slower pace can prove advantageous, because much of what Laurel and Hardy do in their comic bits is based on building situations and watching the reactions. When Hardy gives Laurel his instructions in sniffing snuff, Laurel sneezes, sending the powder all over Hardy's face for a priceless reaction. Of course, you know Hardy'll have to sneeze, sending him tumbling off a wall into the water below. Glug-glug-glug. Watch Hardy's face when he utters his catchphrase, which starts this review as it's uttered in Bonnie Scotland.
The two comedians are widely described as childlike, a description you'll understand fully when you watch Laurel in The Devil's Brother as he passes time by wiggling his fingers. Laurel also brings a gift for malaprops and a memorable cry when things go completely wrong. Hardy is the slightly more adult and responsible one, but he's just grown-up enough to take charge and land the pair in more hot water. He does quite a few pratfalls, but the thing that'll stick in your mind about Hardy is the way his reactions simmer until they blow with full steam.
The picture quality is uneven, mostly on The Devil's Brother, apparently due to source material. In addition to lines, spots, and grain, the black-and-white picture often flickers in night scenes (Now I know where that term came from!).
As they comment on the two movies, critic Leonard Maltin (Entertainment Tonight) and film historian Richard W. Bann sound like two old friends as they share the expected tidbits about Hal Roach's stock company, pointing out, for example, that one actor was also Hal Roach's night watchman. The low-key introduction by Robert Osborne is just like the ones you see on TCM.
Several clips from other Laurel and Hardy material are included here. The piece from The Hollywood Revue of 1929 was lame, but the Hollywood Party and Pick a Star excerpts were good, leaving me wanting more. There's also a two-minute piece of The Rogue Song that's in pretty bad shape. Complete two-reelers might have fleshed out this collection more.
I'm not quite sure why they included the 90-minute Added Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story here, since these two Laurel and Hardy pictures are feature length and the documentary gives less time to Laurel and Hardy than to Robert Benchley. Since Maltin wrote this documentary, the Laurel and Hardy material made its way into the commentaries anyway. Still, Added Attractions is a treat. If you're interested in learning about the moviegoing experience before World War II, this feature might be worth the price of the DVD, even if it almost completely unrelated to the rest of the collection.
It deals with comedy shorts like "Our Gang" and "The Three Stooges," but devotes most of its time to short subjects that didn't get constant play in the early years of TV. You see clips of the Warner Bros. Vitaphone shorts, made in Brooklyn, which preserved many a vaudeville act on film; Desi Arnaz and Ozzie Nelson leading their orchestras; golfer Bobby Jones teaching celebrities to golf; Pete Smith's comic narration, at first on sports but branching out into other subjects; "Historical Mysteries," which included a conspiracy theory about John Wilkes Booth; celebrities shown "at home," and "The Fitzpatrick Travel Talks," which brought the world's Technicolor splendor to audiences who couldn't travel during the Depression and World War II.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Since, as mentioned earlier, Hal Roach hadn't quite made the transition from two-reeler to feature film smooth yet, you might prefer to look around for a collection of Laurel and Hardy two-reelers to see the comedians in action.
If you've seen pieces of their work, this double-feature of feature-length Laurel and Hardy films lets you see what all the fuss was about. The slow pacing may come as a shock to modern viewers, but when Laurel and Hardy are turned loose, they demonstrate how they earned their place in comic history.
Not guilty. These movies weren't perfect, but they preserve the delightful personalities of Laurel and Hardy. Here's hoping TCM turns its archival eye to those lesser-known short subjects next.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Added Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story
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