(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
(First off: Despite what the credits tell me, I cannot bring myself to call this movie The Devil’s Brother. The title is only the English translation of “Fra Diavolo,” which is how the bandit is referred to throughout the movie. So when referencing the movie in this review, I will call it Fra Diavolo.)
Fra Diavolo was conceived as a partial solution to the problem of converting Laurel & Hardy’s short-subject-time humor to feature length; that way, a “real” plot could occupy the movie while L&H come on every so often to do a comedy routine. As Marx Bros. biographer Joe Adamson said about the Marxes’ A Night at the Opera, this makes the movie less a self-contained feature than a lot of mini-movies collected under one umbrella. That said, the Laurel & Hardy mini’s in Fra Diavolo are awfully good.
You have to be willing to suspend a lot of disbelief before you get to the good stuff, though. Dennis King is believably charming as the titular rogue bandit, but then there’s Arthur Pierson as Lorenzo, the lieutenant trying to impress his girlfriend’s father by trying to capture Fra Diavolo. As L&H-supported simps go, Pierson’s wimpiness is on a par with Felix Knight’s Tom-Tom in March of the Wooden Soldiers. Lorenzo’s display of conviction at hunting down a major thief is about as convincing as a kid putting on a plastic badge and saying, “I’m a policeman.”
Secondly, Hal Roach ingenue Thelma Todd is — at least at a Laurel & Hardy level — downright sexy as Lady Pamela, who nearly gets the (dowry-stuffed) petticoats charmed right off of her by Fra Diavolo. But what sort of alternative universe is this where someone as sultry as Todd is married to James Finlayson?
Lastly, when Laurel & Hardy (here dubbed “Stanlio” and “Ollio”) arrive on the scene, their rationale for turning into bandits is laid out in the most naked exposition imaginable. Ollio holds up two bags of money, loudly declares it to be his and Stanlio’s life savings, and immediately gets it stolen by some mountain bandits. Why not just hold up a sign that says, “We didn’t know how to get the plot started”?
But once the L&H subplot gets going, the comedy gems keep right on coming. Their first attempted hold-up is a hard-of-hearing old man, forcing Stanlio to scream in his ear, “We’ve come to take your money!” The man’s elaborate story of hardship reduces L&H to tears and causes them to give him money, which he neatly pockets in an already bulging money bag.
Their second attempted victim works out even worse–they try to hold up Fra Diavolo by posing as him, but he gives their game away by finishing his own theme song. Fra Diavolo’s idea of mercy is to spare Stanlio’s life if he will hang Ollio. It’s hard to imagine a more hopeless comedy premise for L&H (at least until they reach Fox and MGM in the 1940’s), but they manage to make it fairly funny.
After that, the movie offers nothing but iconic images of Laurel & Hardy comedy: Stanlio driving everyone to distracting with his earsy-kneesy-nosey game; a sleeping-powdered Stanlio not holding Ollio very steady atop a mountain of chairs; Stanlio running out of flask space for some wine and solving the problem by getting drunk; and (as shown below), Stanlio and Ollio laughing helplessly and making the viewer do the same.
And you gotta love any boss like Fra Diavolo. Twice, The Boys try to hoodwink this guy at his own game, and just like Harpo and Chico Marx’s hard-luck boss in Duck Soup, he keeps on giving them one more chance. Which means that by movie’s end, he kinda gets what he deserves.