Although Below Zero is a great film with many great gags and superb performances throughout, I have to be honest and say that I find it very hard to laugh at much of it. To be fair, it’s very rare for me to feel that way, especially about a film from the Hal Roach era, but there is one dominant reason for this. The world we find the boys inhabiting is very bleak, unfriendly, cold and at times downright violent, with Stan and Ollie doing their utmost to weather storms of all kinds and ultimately to stay alive.
In some ways, it could be argued that Below Zero, perhaps more than any other of the boys’ movies, is a product of its time and serves to shine a light on what was a reality of life, for many people in the US, at the close of the roaring twenties and the beginning of the thirties.
The film is set during the Great Depression of 1929, caused by the Wall Street stock-market crash in late October. Stan Laurel personally suffered heavy losses during the crash, losing around $30,000. Add to that the following winter being a particularly severe one and it is in this world that we find our boys struggling to survive. The opening title card reads:
“The freezing winter of ’29 will long be remembered – Mr. Hardy’s nose was so blue, Mr. Laurel shot it for a jay-bird”
The film opens with the boys trying to make a small few dollars on the streets as a couple of buskers. Reminiscent of their fruitless musical adventures in the silent You’re Darn Tootin‘ (1928), this time Ollie is playing a double bass and Stan is sitting at a small harmonium.
Despite Stan and Ollie’s best efforts, not a single coin is dropped into their cup from the numerous people that walk by, each and every one of them totally and rudely ignoring our desperate heroes.
After Ollie declares that they should move to “a better spot“, having been unsuccessfully playing in their current location for over two hours, Stan packs up and moves aside, revealing a sign behind him that reads ‘Deaf and Dumb Institute‘. This first gag, whilst massively frustrating to Ollie, illustrated by an overly long close-up reaction shot, does give us some hope that the people that have been completely ignoring them, were perhaps not being rude after all, rather they simply weren’t able to hear them or respond verbally to them. Perhaps then, the world is not such an unfriendly place after all? Sadly, time soon tells that it is unfriendly, so chances are they were just downright rude and uncaring after all.
The boys set up for a second time and strike up, when immediately a lady (played by Kay Deslys (We Faw Down, Perfect Day)) appears at an upstairs window and calls down to the ‘musicians’, referring to Ollie as “Mr. Whiteman”. (The reason for calling Ollie this name escaped me for years,
until I read in Glenn Mitchell’s, Laurel & Hardy Encyclopedia, that it was a direct reference to Ollie’s visual resemblance to contemporary jazz musician Paul Whiteman).
Once she gets the boys’ attention, she asks them how much money do they usually make per street? The boys confer and reply about 50 cents per street, so Kay Deslys throws down a dollar and asks them to move along a couple of streets. Once again, what initially seems like friendly charity, turns out to be a cruel slap in the face.
The first half of the film is very light on dialogue and relies heavily on the boys’ pantomime skills. There are some nice bits of business between the boys, including a great bit of tit for tat, following Stan falling over his instrument. This does act as a highlight, in what otherwise is a pretty dark and downbeat outing.
Not even the appearance of Charlie Hall does anything to lighten the mood, neither for Stan and Ollie nor for the viewer. Charlie, who plays a completely miserable character, is busy shovelling snow from the pavement/sidewalk and takes great offence to the boys’ rendition of ‘In the Good Old Summertime‘. He shows his displeasure by throwing a couple of very creamy looking snowballs into Ollie’s face.
On an interesting and related side note, an article entitled ‘Ka-Plop and Ka-Bloop’, by Helen Louise Walker, appearing in ‘Motion Picture Classic‘, June 1930, cited in Wes D. Gehring’s, Laurel & Hardy: A Bio-Bibliography‘, and also reprinted in full in the 30th Anniversary Edition of The Laurel & Hardy Magazine (Dec 2008), contains an interview with Stan and Babe, where they mention these very same snowballs:
“We’re making a picture now with snowballs. And we make them out of pineapple sherbet, beaten whites of eggs and corn flakes. Not bad at all, if you swallow some!”
Lady Luck then seems to laugh in their face again, as a passing ‘blind’ man spots a coin hidden in the snow in front of them. He scoops it up, pockets it and carries on his way.
When finally there is the sound of a donation dropping into their cup, it turns out only to be a pigeon egg, laid from a bird sitting on a window ledge high above them. In annoyance, Stan quickly makes a snowball and lobs it up at the bird, just as regular extra, Baldwin Cooke opens the window and sticks his head out, right into the path of the snowball. Cooke retaliates by throwing a snowball back, but instead of it hitting the boys, it lands in what Randy Skretvedt describes as “a bucket of beer”, being carried by the formidable Blanche Payson (Our Wife, Helpmates).
Payson’s character, a lady that you clearly would not want to be on the wrong side of, wrongly thinks that Stan and Ollie are to blame and immediately engages them in conflict, which ends when she smashes the double-bass over Ollie’s head and throws Stan’s harmonium into the path of an oncoming lorry, which crushes it flat. Stan’s upset at this is quite heartbreaking to see. Usually, his crying routine is a guaranteed laugh-getter, but here, it really tugs at the hearts strings and we are left, not laughing, but really feeling for him.
With their means of providing for themselves completely obliterated, the boys’ situation starts to hit home, until Stan spots a wallet stuffed with cash, lying in the snow. Their good fortune, however, is soon spotted by a shady looking rogue, played by Leo Willis (The Hoose-Gow, Their Purple Moment), who chases after them, with dangerous intent, desperate to part them from their find.
Good fortune finally smiles on the boys as they run around the corner, literally into a police officer, played by Frank Holliday (Blotto), who chases the would-be thief away. Stan and Ollie are, of course incredibly grateful, not only for the intervention but also for some friendly interaction with another human being.
This image of the boys and Frank Holliday, show that there was a deleted scene involving a gag where all three of their hats get mixed up. Randy Skretvedt, in his comprehensive work, Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, explains that the hat scene remained in the foreign language versions, the Spanish version of which, entitled ‘Tiembla Y Titubea‘, still exists and is available on the UK 21 disc DVD set from Universal.
Randy informs us that in addition to the police officer chasing the villain away, he also fires off a couple of shots at him too (a bit harsh considering he hadn’t actually broken the law yet), and the rogue returns fire, from out of shot. The bullets only manage to knock off all three mens’ hats, leading to the hat familiar hat switching routine.
To show their gratitude, Stan and Ollie take the officer to his favourite restaurant, run by his friend, burly owner Pete, played by Tiny Sandford.
After ordering and devouring “three great big steaks, smothered in onions“, Stan takes out their newly-found wallet, ready to pay the bill. Stan is however soon stumped as he looks inside the wallet, only to find a photo inside of their policeman friend, who is sitting right opposite him.
It doesn’t take long before Officer Holliday spots his own wallet and he accuses the boys of being “a couple of cheap pickpockets”. Instead of arresting them though, he leaves them to settle the bill with Pete all by themselves. Obviously, without any money they are unable to pay, and so the lights in the restaurant go out and Pete and his thugs go to work on the boys, to the screams of the other diners.
Eventually, Ollie is physically thrown out into the snow and Pete himself smashes some ice from the top of a barrel of water and dunks Stan inside, replacing the lid. As Ollie comes to, he realises Stan is nowhere to be seen and is visibly worried for his friend’s safety. He picks up the biggest stick he can find and runs to the door, smashing at it and demanding to be let back in, to fight for his friend’s life.
Despite the bleak and depressing undertone of this film, ‘Below Zero‘ can arguably boast one thing. That there is no greater example of the strength of Stan and Ollie’s bond, of their love and dedication to one another. I can’t think of anywhere in their entire catalogue of films, where their relationship is proven so clearly and unreservedly.
The injustice of their experience is stark. The boys, starving and penniless, without a friend in the world, apart from each other, find some money, narrowly avoid being mugged and to show how grateful they are, they attempt to share their good fortune with their saviour by buying him lunch. Their reward? To be beaten to a pulp and left for dead.
Fellow blogger Conrad Brunstrom writes excellently about ‘Below Zero‘:
“Not only are Laurel and Hardy severely beaten up, but Stan is nearly murdered – isn’t he? If someone smashes the surface ice on a barrel of water that’s nearly full, throws your unconscious body into that barrel and rams the lid back on – that’s attempted murder by any known definition I would argue? In what kind of vicious society is inability to pay a restaurant bill deemed the basis of justifiable homicide? “
The finale of the film is a freak ending if ever there was one. Ollie, still pounding at the door, become sensible of a glugging noise in the barrel beside him. To avoid drowning and in a display of Stan’s ‘white magic’, he has drunk all the water. Ollie drags him out of the barrel, to reveal Stan’s hugely distended stomach, full of ice water.
The movie fades out with the boys’ next challenge – to find Stan a toilet!
‘Below Zero‘ may not be the usual Laurel & Hardy film, with its jaunty soundtracks and joyous gags, but it is still possible to find enjoyment within its dark themes. Watching Stan and Ollie is always a pleasure and I think this movie only serves to reinforce our love for them.
It is well-liked amongst fans and received great reviews on its original release, as this example from Screenland Magazine (January 1931) shows:
“A Laurel-Hardy victory. A riot-full of laughs and funny situations”.
Do let me know your thoughts on this blog and also on ‘Below Zero’, I’d love to hear them.