Laurel & Hardy in THE DEVIL’S BROTHER (1933) , a/k/a FRA DIAVOLO – A rose by any other name

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(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.

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Laurel & Hardy in UNACCUSTOMED AS WE ARE (1929) – Their first talkie

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Just as the silent-film Laurel & Hardy went through fits and starts before becoming a bonafide team, so the team’s early “talkies” went through an uneven stage. Judging from the staginess of Unaccustomed as We Are (their first talkie, which explains the movie’s title), one would never guess they would so quickly adjust to sound in their second and third talkies (Men ‘o War and Perfect Day), only to slip back again with They Go Boom .

The movie’s premise has been worn thin by decades of unimaginative sitcom copies of it. Ollie brings Stan home for dinner, leading Stan to believe that he’ll get a hero’s welcome, only to have Mrs. Hardy (Mae Busch in full shrew mode) complain about having to fix dinner for another of Ollie’s friends. Through labored circumstances, the woman across the hall (Thelma Todd) tries to help Ollie, only to get accidentally undressed via Stan and Ollie’s blundering, paving the way for a confrontation with the woman’s irate husband, a cop (Edgar Kennedy).

L&H buffs well know that their later movie Block-Heads (1938) was a feature-length reworking of this situation, but despite the feature’s extra length, the situation plays better nine years later. Here, the stagy “talkie” atmosphere lays bare the story’s contrivances. Some of the individual gags are cute, especially those that play with the movies’ newfound sound (as when Mrs. Hardy argues with Ollie to the rhythm of the music playing from a phonograph). But the fitful nature of the movie emphasizes the dud gags as well as the funny ones.

The best thing one can say about the movie is that it showed Laurel & Hardy adjusting to sound far better than some of their peers. Much of this nit-picking comes from hindsight; in 1929, nearly any movie with sound was a hit. But even Laurel & Hardy themselves could and would do much better in the near future.

The 4 Marx Brothers in HORSE FEATHERS (1932) – Everyone sings I love you

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The following is my second contribution to “The Pre-Code Blogathon,” running through Apr. 3 at the blog Shadows and Satin. Click on the above banner, and read terrific critiques of racy Hollywood films released from 1930 to 1933, prior to the enforcement of the censorious Production Code!

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(WARNING: Spoilers abound!)

The majority of Horse Feathers involves Groucho Marx as the head of a college, but in the end, the college has about as much relevance to the story as the painting had to the Marxes’ Animal Crackers. The college itself figures only in a couple of scenes: the introduction of Prof. Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho) as Huxley College’s president, where he belittles and yanks the beards of the faculty, only to have them follow him unquestioningly with a lot of heigh-de-ho; and Groucho’s wayward biology lecture, which ostensibly takes place in a college classroom but, for all of its idiocy and puns, might as well be a vaudeville stage where the Marxes used to perform “Fun in Hi Skule.”

The crux of the movie involves (a) football and (b) the college widow. Let’s cover the more crucial topic first. Wagstaff’s primary reason for becoming the college’s president is to keep an eye on his collegiate son Frank (Zeppo), who is busy making time with Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), the college widow.

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(As casting goes, Zeppo playing the son of Groucho [in real life only eleven years older than him] is unmatched in outrageousness until Hitchcock’s North by Northwest [1959], where Jesse Royce Landis plays the mother of Cary Grant, who was two years older than her in real life.)

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I don’t know much about 1930’s slang, but was “college widow” a euphemism for “master’s degree in slut”? And did every college have one of these widows? Groucho, Chico, and Harpo certainly don’t need any introduction to the term. Groucho’s only real resentment of Zeppo’s dating Connie is that he didn’t get to her first, and whatever slackness Groucho exercises in this task is more than taken up by Chico and Harpo.

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(As if it wasn’t already clear enough what being a college widow entails, Groucho’s every entrance into Connie’s room shows him closing a very phallic umbrella he brought with him [even though it’s not raining] and removing his rubbers. No further comment.)

Then there’s the topic of football. Seems that Huxley hasn’t had a winning football team in 44 years, and Wagstaff shows his priorities when he asks Frank where he can find some decent football players. Frank tells him to go to a local speakeasy where two great football players hang out.

Strangely enough, Groucho’s “speech” to the college students in the previous scene had segued into the medley “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It / I Always Get My Man.” Then he goes to the speakeasy and, after about ten seconds of interviewing Chico, he determines that Chico and Harpo are the two great football players. So he doesn’t get his man, and what he’s against appears to be ever having a hope of winning a football game.

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(And check out that duo who really are the great football players. They’ve been in college for so long, even their football is growing whiskers.)

Some of the Marxes’ most memorable scenes and one-liners occur in Horse Feathers (as well as a somewhat disconcerting sight gag showing Harpo shoveling books into a fire, one year before Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and started doing the same thing in earnest).

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But even by the loose standards of Marxian farce, that football-game climax is one “Oh, brother”-inspiring scene after another. Wagstaff turns up in the football game himself — evidently, college presidents’ perks include playing on the team whenever you want — and frequently goes off to the sidelines to continue making time with Connie, even while her thug-boyfriend is sitting right beside her. Oh well, it figures that a bunch of guys who never went to college would do a college movie about a bunch of guys who can’t play football right.

“Why, that’s bigamy!” – “Yes, and it’s big-o’-ME, too!”

(P.S. Two trivial notes, both shown in the clip below: First, Horse Feathers has my favorite Chico piano solo. I first heard the tune on a Marx Brothers compilation LP when I was a kid, and it has stuck with me ever since. Only decades later did I notice that Thelma Todd is a little surreptitiously free with her hands during Chico’s number.)

(Second, this is the movie with Groucho’s famous comment to the movie audience prior to Chico’s piano solo. It’s a pity they couldn’t have inserted this line as a public service announcement into the Marxes’ later M-G-M movies.)

Laurel & Hardy in CHICKENS COME HOME (1931) – Another round of battle-ax wives

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Most of the comedy in Chickens Come Home assumes that you buy into the premise of most women being either (a) deceitful blackmailers or (b) the ones who pass judgment on Type (a). The principal females in the movie are: a hussy (Mae Busch) who comes to collect money from Ollie to keep herself quiet about her lurid past with him; Ollie’s wife (Thelma Todd), who automatically assumes the worst about Ollie when her suspicions are aroused; a gossipy old biddy (Patsy O’Byrne) who is only too thrilled to report bad news; and Mrs. Laurel (Elizabeth Forrester), who, at movie’s end, makes a cameo appearance wielding a hatchet. This is not exactly a movie to show at NOW membership drives.

The movie begins with Ollie running for mayor after having established himself and Mr. Laurel as “dealers in high-grade fertilizer” (insert your own political commentary here). Enter the scarlet woman (Busch), carrying an incriminating photo of herself atop Ollie’s shoulders in a beach-bathing-suit pose. (Amazing, what passed for a scandal in the 1930’s.) Ollie tries to bluff his way out of the situation, but of course Mae is not one to take “no” for an answer. She tells Ollie to be at her apartment at 7:00 that evening with the cash.

Ollie is hosting a campaign dinner at his home that night and sends Stan in his stead. (Unbeknownst to Stan, Mrs. Laurel has threatened to break Stan’s arm if he isn’t home for dinner that night. Ah, these zany wives!) Ollie keeps trying to break away and help Stan, but Ollie’s nosy butler (James Finlayson) can’t think of anything better to do than thwart Ollie’s moves to get some hush money. Meanwhile, Mrs. Hardy (who, in hindsight, comes off like Hillary Clinton) intimates her own suspicions to Ollie by passing him a sheet-music song to sing to the guests: “You May Be Fast, But Your Mamma’s Gonna Slow You Down.”

Mae eventually breaks into Ollie’s party with Stan in tow, leaving no choice but for Ollie to introduce them as “Mr. and Mrs. Laurel.” (For some reason, Mae the blackmailer does nothing to thwart this lie. Ah, these zany women!) Ollie gets Mae alone and threatens to shoot her if she doesn’t leave, whereupon she faints. Stan and Ollie position Mae on Ollie’s back, throw a coat over her, and try to walk “Mrs. Laurel” out of the party. The ruse backfires, of course, and the last we see of the real Mrs. Laurel, she’s sharpening that hatchet before chasing after Stan. Ah, those…

Of course, most great comedy is politically incorrect, but Laurel & Hardy’s comedy gets rather painful (for me, at least) the closer it gets to death threats from the wives.

Laurel & Hardy in ON THE LOOSE (1931) – A memorable cameo

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

On the Loose is a short subject starring Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts — who, if we are to believe film historians, were meant to be the female Laurel & Hardy. I’ve seen only two of their shorts (and one with Patsy Kelly replacing Pitts as Todd’s partner), but it seems to me that L&H lifted even the most mundane plots out of the doldrums by sheer dint of personality, whereas Todd and Pitts/Kelly were relegated to sitcom-type plots that played a lot on familiar female stereotypes. (Watch how quickly this short gets Todd down to her undies in the name of plot development.)

The labored story revolves around Todd and Pitts’ flashbacks to yet another of their dates with men who regard going to Coney Island as an “original” idea for a date. At movie’s end, the duo have decided to settle for a quiet Saturday afternoon at home, when who should appear at their door but Stan and Ollie. Guess where they want to take the girls. Just guess.

Other than L&H’s lively cameo, about the only other chuckles come from L&H veterans Charlie Hall and Billy (here billed as “William”) Gilbert. Otherwise, the amusement-park bits are pretty much retreads of similar scenes in L&H’s early silent short Sugar Daddies.

Thelma Todd, before dying in 1936 of a speculated murder that has never been proven, gave ample support to comics such as L&H (in their first talkie, Unaccustomed as We Are) and The Marx Brothers (memorably earning Groucho’s leers in Monkey Business and Horse Feathers). But she seems better as comic support; here in a starring role, it takes Laurel & Hardy to get a full-fledged laugh for the movie.

Laurel & Hardy in ANOTHER FINE MESS (1930) – Stan in drag is not a drag

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Another Fine Mess is based on a sketch written by Stan’s father, which was also the basis for their first “team” film, Duck Soup. It’s been well-documented that Stan’s dad disapproved of his son’s version of the sketch, but as Laurel & Hardy pictures go, you could do far worse.

Here, Stan and Ollie are vagrants on the run from an irate cop whom Stan mistakenly addressed as “Ma’am.” Through circumstances beyond their control (as usual), they end up hiding in a mansion and having to pose as the owner, Col. Buckshot (Ollie), and his maid Agnes (Stan!), under the pretext of showing the mansion to potential renters.

It’s the wispiest of premises, and it’s not helped by intrusive music and sound effects. But on the plus side is Ollie’s hammy interpretation of Col. Buckshot (“last of the Kentucky Buckshots”), and a priceless give-and-take between Stan-as-Agnes and Thelma Todd, exchanging some “girl talk.” It goes on a bit long (as most of their three-reelers do) but has its fair share of laughs.

And definitely check out the movie’s opening, where two chorus-girl types walk on-screen and recite the movie’s credits out loud. And you thought Stan in drag was bizarre!

MONKEY BUSINESS (1931) – The Marx Brothers bust loose

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(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

Monkey Business is where the Marx Brothers legend really begins. It’s as if the Marxes in Animal Crackers were wind-up dolls that Hollywood grabbed and ratcheted up their pace a few notches. Viewing the two movies in chronological order is like being Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, going from a nice, homey starting point to a Technicolor land of comedy.

The Marxes are stowaways on an ocean liner, passing the time singing “Sweet Adeline” while hiding in herring barrels, after which they take off the barrel lids and are even polite enough to bow for a non-existent audience. (They love applause in this movie. At one point, the four of them interrupt their own chase to noodle around on some instruments for thirty seconds, which gets them more audience response. And don’t even get me started on Harpo’s attempts to get undue attention.)

The ship’s captain is oddly wishy-washy about finding these stowaways. After spending the first few minutes of the movie declaring his vengeance on these guys, Groucho and Chico come into his quarters and blithely eat his lunch, at which point the captain declares his suspicion (twice) that Groucho might be one of the stowaways. The captain’s relationship to the stowaways turns out to be like Tom’s relation to Jerry; he acts like he wants to catch them, but he really doesn’t, because then the fun would be over and he’d have to go back to running the ship.

As always, the ostensible plot is in the movie mainly for the purposes of getting tossed aside. Seems that two rival gangsters are on board, and each needs a bodyguard. How do we first get a hint of this? It’s when Groucho, trying to escape the captain, ducks into the room of one of the gangsters, who is so macho that he doesn’t even let this intrusion break the pace of his ongoing argument with his wife (Thelma Todd). Groucho eventually makes whoopee with Todd in one of the finest courting scenes that doesn’t star Margaret Dumont. Then Groucho’s supposed to be all scared when the gangster returns and points a gun at his kisser. Hey, big fella, you didn’t notice this guy slipping into your closet earlier?

Later, the Marxes trump the captain’s apathetic attitude by being cavalier about the possibility of getting caught. When the ship is ready to unload the passengers, Zeppo discovers that Maurice Chevalier is on the ship and takes his passport. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico take this news blithely, as though Zeppo had just announced that the morning paper had arrived. How often do celebrities go around waving their passports to get them stolen, anyway?

As if that affront to reality isn’t wacko enough, the four of them decide that the only way they can possibly make it off the ship is to present Chevalier’s passport to the clerk and then present themselves as Chevalier by singing one of his songs. It’s not enough for one person to impersonate a celebrity. All four of them decide to play the same celebrity, and to do so by singing a song to some disinterested passport clerks. Offhand, I’d say that the Marxes don’t really want to get off that ship anymore than that captain really wants to catch them.

Monkey Business is like a great freeing of inhibitions, not the least of which are the Marx Brothers’ own hang-ups. You’d never guess these were the same guys who politely walked through Animal Crackers. If there’s any single scene that symbolizes the movie’s spirit, it’s that of Harpo dreamily exiting a Punch-and-Judy show on a kid’s cart — a beautiful long shot observing his wheeling away, as though the cameraman can’t believe it anymore than we can.

(Trivia: Arthur Sheekman, a good friend of Groucho’s who is credited in the movie with “additional dialogue,” was married to 1930’s actress Gloria Stuart, who made a memorable impression six-and-a-half decades later as the woman with a past, in James Cameron’s Titanic. Good thing the Marx Brothers weren’t stowing away on that ocean liner.)