TCM ARCHIVES: LAUREL AND HARDY COLLECTION - DVD review

...for me their talents lay in the early short films they did together rather than in the more elaborate, bigger-budget affairs where they tended to get somewhat lost.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into." --Oliver Hardy

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy had been kicking around the Hal Roach studios for several years before they teamed up in 1927 to become one of the most-beloved motion-picture comedy teams of all time. From that point until 1951, they made over a hundred films together, many of them short subjects in the beginning and then full-length features.

In my childhood I came to them in the last stages of their career and never had the opportunity to see any of their films in theaters. Instead, I watched them with some bemusement on television in the 1950s. At this time I was a fan of Abbott and Costello and Martin and Lewis and could not quite comprehend or appreciate the earlier, gentler humor of Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy. Their comedy seemed too pokey and slow for me. I mention this because I must confess that I still haven't found their movies all that entertaining except in bits and pieces. Their soft shoe to "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine" in "Way Out West" is one of the highlights of their career. But for me their talents lay in the early short films they did together rather than in the more elaborate, bigger-budget affairs where they tended to get somewhat lost.

The movies in this two-disc collection, "TCM Archives: Laurel and Hardy Collection," are "The Devil's Brother" from 1933 and "Bonnie Scotland" from 1935. These movies are pretty typical of the pair's work of the era, neither of the movies showing their comedy efforts to the fullest. To be honest, I found the accompanying documentary and movie excerpts more fun than the feature films.

"The Devil's Brother":
Based on Daniel-François Auber's 1830 comic opera "Fra Diavolo," the movie originally opened under that title in 1933, but the studio quickly changed the name when they figured out that movie audiences were not all that familiar with the opera. As soon as they translated the title to "The Devil's Brother," the movie became more successful. It was made by the Hal Roach studios, directed by Hal Roach and Charley Rogers, and released through MGM. Along with Laurel and Hardy it co-stars Broadway singing star Dennis King and movie comedienne Thelma Todd.

The time is the early nineteenth century; the place is Northern Italy, where bandits roam the countryside and Fra Diavolo (the Devil's Brother) is chief among them. Actually, Fra Diavolo (Dennis King) is a charming rogue who poses as a nobleman, the Marquis de San Marco, in order to acquaint himself with the wealthiest citizens of the country and later rob them. The Marquis insinuates his way in the confidences of the rich, and then, learning where they hide their treasures, his gang holds them up. "Great lords lost their wealth to him--Great ladies their hearts."

When Stan and Ollie finally enter the picture, they seem like an afterthought. As Stanlio and Ollio, they are themselves robbed and decide if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. They determine to become highwaymen and steal for a living, too, but the first person they attempt to rob gives them such a sob story that they wind up giving the last of their own money to him! Eventually, they find themselves working for the Marquis/Diavolo as his personal servants.

The main part of the plot revolves around Diavolo's attempts to rob the jewels of the lovely Lady Pamela Rockburg (Thelma Todd), the wife of a very rich and very foolish old nobleman. Naturally, to do so requires that the Marquis also romance her.

Frankly, I enjoyed Auber's music more than I did the story or Stan and Ollie's antics. The laughs come in short and widely spaced intervals. I suspect you'd have to be a confirmed Laurel and Hardy fan to savor the movie. The filmmakers use the music, though, throughout the picture, and it holds up reasonably well. In fact, the funniest thing about the movie is that Fra Diavolo's singing should inspire such fear in people. You'd think he was a rap star. Stan and Ollie would soon do the musical "Babes in Toyland" to better advantage.

The movie reminded me how much the modern comic-magic duo of Penn and Teller owe to Laurel and Hardy, both in their stage demeanor and in their physical appearance. Hardy was forever the imperious, bellowing popinjay; Laurel always the quiet, gentle, disarming innocent.

As a side note, Stan does a tricky little bit of business called "Kneesy, earsy, nosey" that looks extremely easy when he does but turns out to be quite difficult to execute. If you see the picture, you won't be able to help trying it yourself, and good luck. 6/10

"Bonnie Scotland":
Directed by James Horne, who did about a zillion serials, B-pictures, and shorts, "Bonnie Scotland" finds Laurel and Hardy in the Scottish army and assigned to India. The point of this 1935 comedy seems in part to have been a parody of "Lives of a Bengal Lancer," which was a smashing swashbuckling success for Gary Cooper a few months earlier that year. Interestingly, the technical advisor on both films was the same man, Col. W.E. Wynn. Anyway, whatever the film's impetus, it turns out to have only the occasional flash of brilliance.

The story begins in Scotland, where Mr. McLaurel and Mr. Hardy have fled from the American police and where Stanley expects to receive an inheritance from his recently deceased grandfather. Stanley figures to get the whole of a rich estate but ends up getting only his grandfather's snuffbox and a set of bagpipes. The person who does inherit the old man's vast estate is his granddaughter, Lorna McLaurel (June Lang), but as a stipulation of the will, she is not to come into it until her twenty-first birthday, which would be in another year or so. In the meantime, the will also stipulates that her affairs be put in the charge of a relative living in India, and so off she goes. Following her is her love-struck boyfriend, a young law clerk named Allan Douglas (William Janney) and some scheming in-laws.

Unable to pay their hotel bill, Stan and Ollie are thrown into the street, their only salvation an unintended enlistment into His Majesty's Army, where they, too, are dispatched to India. Thus, in this convoluted plot maneuver we have everybody in India, where we follow two separate and wholly unrelated story lines. It was like this with the Marx Brothers as well; fearing that the leads would not be able to carry an entire picture, the producers insisted upon a secondary love interest. Oh, well.... In the film's accompanying audio commentary, Leonard Maltin explains that Ms. Lang once told him that during the entire shooting of the movie she never once met Laurel or Hardy. The two plot threads are so disconnected that the principal and secondary players are never in the same scenes together.

There is no doubt that Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were lovable characters, Laurel ever the sweet, goofy, naive one and Hardy the pompous, blustery one. But a little of them goes a long way, particularly when they're into hitting and kicking one another and falling down for laughs. However, there is no questioning the humorous touches in the film: We hear a local blacksmith hammering out the familiar Laurel-and-Hardy theme music on his anvil, and again we hear the theme played by a regimental marching band. Later, when Hardy is asking a landlady for "a room and a bath," she replies, "I can give you the room, but you'll have to take the bath yourself." Then, still later, when Laurel is explaining to the landlady that his friend is sick, he says, "You know, the only ting he can keep on his stomach is a hot-water bottle." They are cute bits and show where the film might have gone had it relied more on wit than on slapstick.

Without Auber's music to buck it up, "Bonnie Scotland" feels rather flat and disjointed. I'd say these Laurel-and-Hardy films might be acquired tastes, ones that I never fully acquired. 5/10

Video:
The video quality on both films is quite similar, with "Bonnie Scotland" a tad cleaner. The 1.33:1 standard-screen, black-and-white picture is in both instances rather too dark in nighttime shots, but given the age, the contrasts show up remarkably well. In daylight scenes, the contrasts are much better. Although there are a few signs of age one notices, especially in "The Devil's Brother"--lines, flecks, and flickering light--and some varying degrees of grain, the eye quickly accommodates them and they pose no distraction. These are doubtless the best prints we have yet had of the films.

Audio:
The sound on both films is an early monaural reproduced here through Dolby Digital 1.0 processing. The audio engineers do a pretty good job cleaning up any background noise inherent in the original copy of "The Devil's Brother, and the result is quite clear and easy to understand. However, I heard a little more noise on "Bonnie Scotland," odd since it is two years newer. The sound for both movies is also a touch harsh, metallic, and nasal, and most of the frequency response is limited to the midrange.

Extras:
Disc one contains the two feature films; English and French spoken languages; English, French, and Spanish subtitles; and twenty-two and twenty-four scene selections. Additionally, you may elect to play a theatrical trailer for each film; or hear a brief introduction to the films by Turner Classic Movie host Robert Osborne; or check out the audio commentaries on both films by Laurel-and-Hardy aficionados Richard W. Bann and Leonard Maltin, who for me were more interesting to listen to than just watching the movies.

Disc two of the set contains a pair of items: The first, called "Added Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story," was made in 2002 by Turner Classic Movies and is typical of the kind of high-class documentary Warner Bros. produces. Adapted from the book "The Great Movie Shorts" by Leonard Maltin, it is eighty-five minutes long and divided into fifteen chapters, narrated by Chevy Chase, with comments from people like Walter Cronkite, Sid Caesar, Hal Roach, Tim Conway, Rose Marie, Bob Newhart, and numerous other actors, producers, directors, writers, and composers. Needless to say, it's the film clips that count most heavily, and they are in abundance, including clips from Laurel and Hardy, the Three Stooges, Our Gang, Robert Benchley, and the like.

The second item is a collection of vintage Laurel-and-Hardy excerpts that include the magic act from "The Hollywood Review of 1929," about four minutes long and hosted by Jack Benny; a fragment from "Rogue Song" (1930) in early color, about one minute; two segments from "Hollywood Party" (1934)--the doorbell skit, four minutes, and the egg skit, four minutes; and three segments from "Pick a Star" (1937)--the introduction, thirty seconds, the Mexican tough-guy segment, three minutes, and the dueling harmonicas segment, four minutes.

The two discs are housed one atop the other, a hideous practice, in a three-section, foldout cardboard-and-plastic Digipak. The foldouts offer small, full-color posters for each movie and a complete chapter listing for each disc. The inner section of the packaging is further enclosed in an attractive cardboard slipcover.

Parting Shots:
The "Laurel and Hardy Collection" offers a lot more than just the two movies described above. Indeed, the movies probably take a back seat to the audio commentaries, the documentary, and the film excerpts, which make the set an attractive proposition to fans of old movies in general, not just fans of Stan and Ollie.

Ratings

Video
6
Audio
5
Extras
8
Film Value
6