Laurel and Hardy Collection (TCM Archives) (DVD)
They were one of the movies' most successful and best-loved comic duos, probably because their irresistible slapstick antics were underscored by an indomitable optimism. Beginning with shorts made at the Hal Roach Studios, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy struck a universal chord by sharing a contentious yet benign friendship that always survived whatever indignities their mutual bumbling brought upon them. This TCM Archives two-disc collection focuses on the team at their zenith during the sound era and spotlights two features produced by Roach for MGM. The Devil's Brother (1933) (also known as Fra Diavolo) is a laugh-filled adaptation of the Auber operetta in which "Stanlio" and "Ollio" tangle with a notorious robber baron. The delightful Bonnie Scotland (1935) is a misadventure that takes the boys to Scotland and India.
Unlike many silent screen comedians, Laurel & Hardy made a seamless transition to talkies, and this TCM Archives double-feature showcases some of their funniest work from the early 1930s. As always, TCM/Warner has packaged this must-have set for true film buffs: The prints are pristine, image quality is crisp and clean, sound quality is the best available (allowing for some hiss and minor drop-offs due to the age of the soundtracks), and bonus features have been chosen with care and authority, including several highlight excerpts from Laurel & Hardy short subjects. While continuing to enjoy their priceless partnership with producer Hal Roach, Stan & Ollie were at their sound-era peak in The Devil's Brother (1933), a hilarious adaptation of the Auber operetta Fra Diavolo (also the film's alternate European title), in which "Stanlio" and "Ollio" find themselves entangled in the exploits of the Marquis de San Marco, a notorious singing bandit named "Fra Diavolo" (played with adequate panache by Dennis King) who's set his sights on the lovely Lady Pamela (played by '30s screen queen Thelma Todd). Plots in Laurel & Hardy films are almost always perfunctory, but this is one of the better ones, lending Stan & Ollie ample opportunity to cut loose with Roach-invented gags and trademark slapstick. The highlight has to be Stan's drunken laughing fit, a miraculously sustained bit of hilarity (with Ollie eventually joining in) that's absolutely infectious and irresistible--it's impossible to watch without laughing right along with Stan.
Bonnie Scotland (1935) finds L&H in Gunga Din territory (or if you prefer, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer) as they arrive in Scotland hoping to collect "MacLaurel's" inheritance, only to end up recruited into a Scottish infantry regiment in the Indian desert. The comedy is mildly compromised by a standard-issue romance plot involving costars June Lang and William Janney, but whenever Stan and Ollie are onscreen, the laughs are consistently plentiful and timelessly entertaining. Adding expert context to the comedy, audio commentaries by film historians and lifelong L&H fans Leonard Maltin and Richard W. Bann are packed with knowledgeable information out each film, the careers of the cast members, working methods at Hal Roach studios, shooting locations, and fascinating anecdotal details (such as the fact that long-time L&H supporting player James Finlayson was the direct inspiration for Homer Simpson's beloved exclamation, "D'Oh!" on TV's long-running animated sitcom The Simpsons. The package is rounded out by "Added Attractions: The Hollywood Shorts Story," an excellent TCM feature-length documentary, narrated by Chevy Chase, that extensively chronicles the many varieties of short subjects produced during the 1930's and '40s--essentially an extension of Vaudeville and newsreels that gave rise to many of Hollywood's finest performers during the golden age of the studio system. All in all, this is a perfect DVD set for longtime Laurel & Hardy fans, or newcomers to their classic brand of comedy. --Jeff Shannon