When Hal Roach saw how well Laurel and Hardy had supported opera star Lawrence Tibbett in THE ROGUE SONG, he determined to star his top comics in their own operetta. Though L&H themselves were initially skeptical about the project, this eventually became one of their favorite films. All American prints carry the title THE DEVIL'S BROTHER, while European audiences, more familiar with the 1812 Auber operetta, saw it under its original title of FRA DIAVOLO.
FRA DIAVOLO seems to be beloved and admired by most Laurel and Hardy
scholars, so I go into this review knowing I am a minority of
one. Let me say at the outset that I do like this film, I just
don't like it as much as some other Laurel and Hardy features,
including several that I know in my heart are lesser films overall.
My main problem is that for the first half of the film, I don't connect with many of the comedy scenes. I do laugh when Stan is yelling into the deaf man's ear "We're a couple of BANDITS!" but the hanging scene leaves me cold. The idea of Stan being forced to hang Ollie is something the writers thought would be clever, and that's the main problem with it. Every line Stan utters to Ollie seems like something the writers are making him say rather than something that would naturally spring from Stanley's mind. Stan's trademark crying loses much of its comic value when it is extended over an entire scene as it is here. And the routine's payoff - the branch breaking under Ollie's weight - is weak and not filmed in any way that would enhance what little comic value it had. The only moment here that I find mildly amusing is when an annoyed Ollie has had enough of Stan's nonsense and disgustedly tells him to hurry up and get on with the hanging: "Stop wasting my time!"
Stan and Ollie's arrival at Castle Finlayson suffers from the opposite problem - instead of being too clever, it is not clever enough. (Yeah, I know, I'm fussy sometimes.) They could have thought of far funnier ways to create havoc than fall over each other and be chased by a bull. Again, I don't laugh much at this scene, and so, the first twenty minutes of the film are a washout for me.
The plot scenes are made a little palatable by the presence of Dennis King, Thelma Todd and James Finlayson, but these scenes do go on beyond their value to the story, and the music does not help either. I enjoy almost every song in BABES IN TOYLAND, and at least two songs from THE BOHEMIAN GIRL, but I just finished watching FRA DIAVOLO and I'll be damned if I can recall one melody beyond "On younder rock reclining...".
But enough grumbling. The moment Stan starts playing finger games in the pub, subsequently frustrating Ollie and Innkeeper Henry Armetta, FRA DIAVOLO suddenly becomes a wonderful film. This film needed a scene that allowed the Boys to be themselves for a few minutes, without anybody bursting into song, worrying about Finn's fifty thousand francs or scheming to capture Diavolo. Dennis King works well enough with Laurel and Hardy that I wish he had done a few more films with them. Even when he is telling them that he will cut out their tongues or slit their throats, he remains a charming rogue. Employing two bumbling overgrown children around as his henchman is a bad idea, like Goldfinger keeping James Bond around even after he discovers Bond is a secret agent, but, as in GOLDFINGER, had the villain killed the heroes when he had the chance, there would be no movie. So we can be thankful that Diavolo is all bark and no bite.
Stanlio is incapacitated for most of the second half of the film, first from sleeping powders and then from wine. Since Stan's decision-making faculties are suspect to begin with, a Stan whose mind is even more dulled by drugs and alcohol makes him all the more funnier. The Boys are at their most childlike at times in FRA DIAVOLO, fighting with each other when they should be carrying out Diavolo's plans. When Ollie pushes Stan offscreen, Stan retaliates by thwapping Ollie over the head with a metal tray, leading to one of Ollie's funniest and most violent takes, one where for he looks like a two year old child about to throw a temper tantrum because some other kid just knocked over his blocks. It's a delightful and surprising moment, one of my favorite moments in any Laurel and Hardy film. The rest of the film moves along nicely (with the occasional intrusion of a song or two) and it would be hard to complain about a climax that features Stan and Ollie recreating their laughing scene from Blotto.
FRA DIAVOLO was the one Laurel and Hardy feature that I hadn't seen until well into my adult years. After all the praise that had been given to it over the years, I was looking forward to finally seeing one of The Boys' best films. My subsequent disappointment, finding it far less funny and a bit more dull than I had anticipated, is something that has not worn off on repeated viewings. I enjoy the isolated routines of THE BOHEMIAN GIRL and the gentle comic business of BABES IN TOYLAND much more. I may be nuts, but sometimes I even prefer a scrappy retread like THE FLYING DEUCES over the splendidly produced FRA DIAVOLO, not because it is a better film (it isn't) but because it flows better and Laurel and Hardy's antics are interrupted by song and plot every ten minutes. DIAVOLO is a good film, with an excellent cast and some very funny scenes by Laurel and Hardy. But it is not one of my favorite features.
JL: Sez you! I find little not to like in this film, even the non-Laurel & Hardy moments. I enjoy all of L&H's operettas (with some reservations about the other two), but I find FRA DIAVOLO to be their most successful attempt at the genre. The film boasts some classic comedy routines; a leading man (Dennis King) who, for once, isn't an insult to his gender; memorable supporting performances by Fin and others; and a somewhat racy pre-Production Code subplot featuring Thelma Todd, who was never lovelier. I even like the songs.
Some may regard Laurel and Hardy's opening scene to be a bit pat and "written," but I regard it as one of their better entrances, in keeping with the more formal tone of this picture. It also has one of those "instant disaster" moments that the Boys did so well. One of their standard devices was that the catastrophes in their lives (losing their boat, blowing up a stove, dropping a platter of sandwiches, etc.) tend to happen with little or no warning, and their usual response to such moments was nonchalance or a resigned shrug. In FRA DIAVOLO, no sooner do we learn that the Boys have scrimped and saved to build themselves a little nest egg (two bags of gold that Ollio displays proudly) when they are robbed of their life savings by a gang of Diavolo's bandits. The setup has been carefully developed, and suddenly it's all over. The absurdly fast turn of events was L&H's method of generating laughs in moments of calamity. Stanlio's reaction to it is typical: "Oh, well. Come easy, go easy."
The Boys try to recapture their wealth by becoming bandits themselves, a task that, despite Ollio's reassurances of "Why, there's nothing to it," proves to be both beyond their abilities and ill-suited to their temperaments. They attempt to rob a hard-of-hearing woodchopper, whose pathetically over-the-top sob story (he's destitute, has more children and grandchildren than one of the Kennedys, his wife is sick, "and Grandma don't feel so good neither!") results in the Boys offering him a handout. The scene ends on another sudden turn, as we learn that the woodchopper was himself a con man, who empties the Boys' meager offering into his bulging bag of coins. A nice, self-contained little scene that would almost play well as a five-minute "half-reeler."
One scene about which we may be in agreement is the hanging scene, which strikes me as about the strangest scene they ever did. It has a morbid undertone (Diavolo has forced Stanlio to hang Ollio), and Stanlio's fib about being Ollio's illegitimate son reveals more about their past relationship than I care to know. The scene does set up an amusing running-gag rejoinder for Ollio ("Your son! Mm!"), but it is a scene with a bizarre and unpleasant tone. It's nice that they tried something a bit out of the ordinary, but it looks like they tried too hard. L&H's best comic moments tend to appear spontaneous and unrehearsed, but this scene suffers from too much effort. Nevertheless, it seems to be a favorite among many fans, as it's one of the most-quoted scenes in the film, and it's not so off-putting as to destroy the momentum of the picture.
The best-known comic highlights of FRA DIAVOLO include Stan's feats of manual dexterity ("earsy-kneesy-nosey" and "finger wiggle"), the drunk scene and the laughing scene that follows. The next two L&H operettas also feature moments of Stan's dexterity, but they inevitably seem weak imitations of the business in FRA DIAVOLO -- as if they're saying to their fans, "Remember how funny this was when we did it the first time?". Earsy-kneesy-nosie is probably the most inspired of these bits, if only because Stan is actually able to perform a difficult coordination trick. (For the uninitiated, it consists of slapping both knees, crossing your arms to grab an ear with one hand and your nose with the other, then slapping your knees again and grabbing your nose and other ear with opposite hands.) It's a surefire trick to impress the kids at school, as I learned when I was a young'un. I spent many an hour mastering earsy-kneesy-nosey rather than studying my algebra, and I know which one has better served me in life.
"Laughing scenes" were a part of L&H's repertoire -- they had done such scenes in Blotto and Scram! -- as they were a part of the comedy repertoire of the 1930s. It was the era of the "laugh record" -- phonograph records that featured someone gradually building to helpless, hysterical laughter as a band played a silly song in the background. (The folks at MAD magazine were issuing records like this as late as the '60s.) Built on the notion that laughter is infectious, Laurel and Hardy's laughing scene in FRA DIAVOLO works best with a full, cooperative audience. As such, it's an "iffy" scene, but performed wonderfully well by the Boys, who never considered, "Gee, this might not play so well on home video in another 50 years."
As stated, the non-L&H scenes in FRA DIAVOLO work fine for me. Yes, the young lovers are revoltingly sappy, but their scenes are brief enough to render them inconsequential. Dennis King is probably the best straight man they ever had, as well as the only one that could retain his masculinity while dressed in tights and a powdered wig. His scenes with Thelma Todd are loaded with sexual tension that goes beyond mere innuendo (it spilled over into real life as well, according to the gossip of the time). We don't often hear men and women discussing petticoats and undressing in a Laurel & Hardy film, but it's an example of the sort of suggestiveness that appeared in pre-code films. It was also a time when such humor was "naughty" rather than "dirty," and the bawdiness is certainly suited to the 18th-century context. Thelma Todd had greater comic opportunities in her two appearances with the Marx Brothers, but FRA DIAVOLO features her best role in a Laurel & Hardy film. It shows she had some acting range beyond her usual sassy-but-sweet persona, as she intones such lines as "Oh, no, my Lord!" with all the propriety required by the formal setting, but with just a hint of self-awareness to let us know she didn't take things all that seriously.
In all, FRA DIAVOLO is one of my favorite L&H films, and certainly my favorite of their operettas. Ask for it under the title THE DEVIL'S BROTHER. We call it FRA DIAVOLO because we're a couple of nauseating purists.
Thanks to Dave Heath, of Another Nice Mess: The Films of Laurel and Hardy (http://lordheath.com) for the use of this picture.