Thursday, August 7, 2014

Review - The Devil's Brother

August 7, 2014

The Devil’s Brother (a.k.a. Bogus Bandits) – US, 1933

It says a lot about audiences in the 1930s that MGM would greenlight a film like The Devil’s Brother, for, in truth, I cannot see any studio doing so today. The film is based on Daniel Auber’s extremely popular 1830s opera called Fra Diavolo. Just how familiar audiences were with it in 1933 is not for me to say, but many early Hollywood films were adaptations of well-known stories, classic novels, and popular operas. In fact, The Devil’s Brother was the first of three feature-length Laurel and Hardy films to be based on an opera, the other two being 1935’s Babes in Toyland and 1936’s The Bohemian Girl. (Charlie Chaplin had even done a parody of Bizet’s Carmen in 1914.) Today’s Hollywood seems content to adapt more modern Broadway musicals or to create movies around popular songs from recent decades. I have no doubt that were The Devil’s Brother proposed today, the pitch would be greeted with some of the loudest cackles you’re ever likely to hear.

Like the opera, the film is about a bandit known as Fra Diavolo, which means Brother Devil in Italian, hence the title of the film. Diavolo masquerades as an aristocrat so that he can rob genuine aristocrats of their cash and jewels. In an early scene, we watch as Diavolo explains to his band of merry thieves that he has set his sights on an English lord and lady. In flashbacks, we watch as he breaks down the lady’s defenses by serenading her with an old-fashioned love song. His methods cause the lady to smile sheepishly and blush, as she vainly attempts to conceal her budding interest in her serenader. Diavolo then begins whispering sweet nothings into her ear, and in no time at all, she’s showing him her jewels and telling him exactly how much they are worth. Mind you, all of this takes place in earshot of her husband, played by Laurel and Hardy regular James Finlayson. If only he were awake to hear it.

Diavolo is played by English actor and Broadway star Dennis King, and he is thoroughly convincing as both a bandit and a ladies man. King also has an impressive voice, and it is not hard to see why he gravitated away from film and into Broadway and television. The problem is that his voice does not inspire a tremendous amount of fear, regardless of the lyrics his character belts out. King could sing about annihilating an entire village, and it’s hard to imagine people doing anything other than running to hear the melodic way in which he delivers such a dire warning. And this creates a minor problem for the film, for Diavolo’s calling card is a particular song that he sings whenever he is up to no good. People hear it and head for the hills, yet the song and the voice behind it are simply not frightening enough for such fear not to seem corny. Besides, there’s really nothing in the film to suggest that Diavolo targets ordinary, hardworking folks like the ones we see scurrying for safety.

The film has a side plot involving a young woman named Zerlina (Lucile Brown). She is in love with a poor soldier named Lorenzo (Arthur Pierson), but her father has already decided that she shall marry an older wealthy man. Knowing that there is a bounty on Diavolo’s head. Lorenzo decides to catch the bandit himself and use the reward money as Zerlina’s dowry. Apparently, this plotline is featured much more prominently in the opera. However, here, it is reduced to a few short scenes, and neither these two characters nor Francesca’s father, played by Henry Armetta, is particularly well developed.

The reason for this change is likely to have been the expanded roles of the opera’s two comic characters, Giacomo and Beppo. Here, they are known as Stanlio and Ollio, played of course by that legendary duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Early on in the film, the two of them are robbed of their life savings and forced to start over. Such a set up would usually lead to them looking for work and running into people whom they end up helping. However, such a direction would not be faithful to Auber’s work. And so within no time at all, we see Stanlio suggesting that he and Ollio become bandits. It is a path that leads them to work somewhat begrudgingly with Diavolo. The film marks the first film that I can recall in which Laurel and Hardy are essentially villains.

The film has a number of memorable Laurel and Hardy bits, from the pair’s early unsuccessful attempt at banditry to an unexpected scene in which Stanlio is ordered to off Ollio if he wants to live. This leads to a confession and a follow-up question that had me in stitches. Other treasures include an infectious round of “kneesy, earsy, nosey,” which few viewers will be able to resist trying immediately. Stanlio follows this up with an equally challenging display of “Finger Wiggle,” which for the life of me I can’t get my hands to do. Oddly enough, the film contains fewer of these classic Laurel and Hardy bits perhaps because it has a more established narrative structure than many of their other films and, therefore, much less time to devote to scenes that do not move the story forward.

After a rather enjoyable, tight first hour, the film’s final act is somewhat of a letdown. It is almost as if the director felt compelled to stretch out inconsequential scenes just to reach the ninety-minute mark. It is during this part of the film that King sings a completely superfluous extended number and Laurel and Hardy engage in an equally long gag involving their bringing ale up from the cellar. Neither of the scenes justifies its length.  In fact, throughout the film, Laurel and Hardy seem to be competing with King for screen time, and the film struggles to find a balance between their comedy and his more serious musical numbers. Don’t get me wrong. The Devil’s Brother is still very enjoyable. It is both humorous and involving, and it includes a few reminders of what films were like during the pre-Code Hollywood days. The film just wears out its welcome a bit before the closing credits begin. (on DVD as part as TCM’s Laurel and Hardy Collection)

3 stars

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