Fra Diavolo (1933) by matthew c. hoffman

On March 31, 2016, we had our first capacity crowd of the season. Over 90 patrons attended our screening of Fra Diavolo. The feature presentation was preceded by two comedy shorts starring Thelma Todd & ZaSu Pitts: Bargain of the Century (1933) and On the Loose (1931). Thelma and ZaSu alone generated more laughs than the Wheeler & Woolsey film from the previous week!

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Producer Hal Roach was best known for his shorts starring Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang, but in 1931 he was also responsible for putting together the team of Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts—the only female comedy team in Hollywood. Thelma Todd, a former school teacher turned model, was one of the great comediennes—as well as one of the great beauties of the screen. Thelma worked with all the popular comedy acts of the time, from Joe E. Brown to Buster Keaton, from the Marx Brothers to Laurel & Hardy. She even worked with Wheeler & Woolsey in a couple of their films including their best, Cockeyed Cavaliers.

ZaSu Pitts had been a dramatic actress in the silent era best known for her role as the wife in Von Stroheim’s Greed. Together, these two ladies starred in 17 shorts that ranged in quality. Some were terrific, others suffered from weak material. The Bargain of the Century, which we screened earlier tonight, was one of their best. When ZaSu Pitts moved on to bigger things, Patsy Kelly replaced her. Kelly, a former Broadway dancer, brought a lot of energy to the shorts she made with Thelma. These were generally better in quality than the earlier films, although there were some clunkers. The Kelly-Todd comedy series came to an end in 1935 with the tragic death of Thelma Todd at the age of 30.  Tonight’s film is one of several that Thelma made with Laurel & Hardy.

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Fra Diavolo is based on the 1830 comic opera by French composer Daniel Auber. It was a production Hal Roach had seen as a youngster in his hometown; its memory would inspire him to turn it into a film starring his most popular comics: Laurel & Hardy. Fra Diavolo’s most recent antecedent had been The Rogue Song, which was an operetta produced by the MGM studio and starring Metropolitan Opera star Lawrence Tibbett. Laurel & Hardy had been borrowed from Hal Roach to appear in this now lost film, but they were essentially just comic relief. In Fra Diavolo, they would be more an integral part of the storyline.

Set in 18th century Italy, it’s the story of a bandit who poses as a marquis in order to rob the rich. He seduces Lady Rocburg in the hope of stealing the 500,000 francs she keeps hidden in her petticoat. With him are his two man-servants. In the original operetta, these characters were wandering vagrants called Giacomo and Beppo, but in the movie they have become Stanlio and Ollio.

Dennis King portrays the bandit Diavolo. Born in England, King became a musical theatre star, performing on the Broadway stage in the mid-1920s. His first movie role was in 1930’s The Vagabond King. Though he’s quite good playing opposite Laurel & Hardy, King would appear in only two more films after this. Diavolo’s victims are portrayed by Thelma Todd, as the coquettish Lady Pamela, and Jimmy Finlayson, as her pompous husband, Lord Rocburg. The juvenile leads are played by Lucille Brown as Zerlina and Arthur Pierson as Lorenzo. The cast is also filled with many familiar faces that would be instantly recognizable to fans of the Hal Roach comedies. (Film historians Leonard Maltin and Richard Bann point out these great character actors on the excellent audio commentary for the dvd.)

Stan and Ollie, as Stanlio and Ollio, perform some of their best routines and comedic bits, such as the kneesy-earsy-nosey scene in which Stan shows his physical coordination by clapping his knees and grabbing his ear with one hand and his nose with the other and then reversing the hands and doing it again. There is also Stan’s “finger wiggle” and the wonderful sequence of him getting “spiffed” in the wine cellar. Both men are terrific in a film that seamlessly blends operetta with comedy. Fra Diavolo was a personal favorite of Stan Laurel’s.

The film was previewed at 117 minutes but nearly a half hour was cut out—most of this footage dealt with musical interludes involving Dennis King as well as the subplot of the two young lovers, Zerlina and Lorenzo. Hal Roach was proud of this production, although the MGM sales people didn’t know how to market Fra Diavolo. They insisted on changing its title to The Devil’s Brother. The film received mostly positive reviews and became a huge hit overseas. The foreign gross was four times larger than its domestic gross.

In The Films of Laurel and Hardy, William K. Everson writes about one of the film’s most famous sequences which also underscores our point about seeing these films in a group setting. “Unquestionably, though, the funniest single gag in Fra Diavolo was a repeat of one of their best routines. Hopelessly drunk from sampling all the wares in the wine cellar, they collapse in helpless laughter. Everything that happens, including their own arrest and threatened execution, merely spurs an even greater laugh reaction. From giggles to chuckles and then to belly laughs, the sequence builds, grows and feeds on itself, relying not on incident but only on the infectious quality of laughter itself. Such a sequence, for maximum effect, demands a large and cooperative audience, and in 1933 the film certainly got such audiences, yet even on television this classic sequence still retains its remarkable comic persuasion.”

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