46. Below Zero (1930)

It’s not often I say this about a Laurel & Hardy film, but I find it very hard to laugh at much of ‘Below Zero‘.  It’s a very bleak, unfriendly, cold and at times downright violent affair, with the boys doing their utmost to weather storms of all kinds.

BelowzerotitlecardIn 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 Stan and Ollie 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”

a6c710428b08d3f6e9e6e3b85020a8fdThe 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 the similarity with ‘Tootin’, Randy Skretvedt tells us in his exhaustive book, that thanks to detective work by fellow authors David Hayes and Rob Stone, the original inspiration for the film was actually MV5BY2RjMzFhMzItMzNjZS00MTAxLWJhMDItNmVhMGNkNjVhYmM4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDUyOTUyNQ@@._V1_UX630_CR0,0,630,1200_AL_found to be a Clyde Cook two-reeler, co-written by Stan for the Hal Roach Studios, called ‘Starvation Blues‘ (1925), and there are reportedly many similarities between the first half of both films. 

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,

“Oh, Mr. Whiteman!”. Referred to Ollie’s resemblance to jazz musician, Paul Whiteman (above)

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, or 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 35th 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!”

Below Zero 3 HQLady 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. There 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.

Below Zero 2 HQThis 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, ran 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.

MV5BYWViMmVjNjUtNzg1Mi00OTMyLTgxYWUtYjY0YzM1Yjk0MWI3XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzEzMDAyNTI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_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.

below_zero021Despite the bleak and depressing undertone to 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? “

Below Zero 4 HQThe 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.

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17 thoughts on “46. Below Zero (1930)

  1. I always find that ending upsetting. You’re right, it does show the love and friendship the two shared. One of the reasons I really can’t watch “The Bohemian Girl” is the ending bothers me. They go to save Ollie’s daughter and no thanks is given to them for the love they gave, plus I think it was grotesque. What do you think?

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    1. I’ve never been a big fan of The Bohemian Girl, partly for the same reason as you, but I’m not overly keen on the comic operettas, with perhaps the exception of Fra Diavolo. To be honest, it’s been that long since I’ve seen TBG that I couldn’t really comment on it in detail. You’ll have to wait until I discuss it in the blog…so only a few years to wait, at he current rate 😀

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  2. I’ve seen Below Zero several times since childhood and I have never found, at least in my experience, to be a depressing film; I view it as a surreal comedy from the boys, especially the ending. I also find it to be an empathetic short, because one feels more sorry for the boys than usual because of their predicament.

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      1. Well, that’s my point about my critique: the picture is not depressing as you state, but rather a strange outing for them because it has very little dialogue and it tends to be more empathetic towards the than is customary in their work due to their circumstances in this film. Plus, the storyline is very simple, with little to no plot at all.

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  3. Interesting review on “Below Zero” but for once, I find myself disagreeing with you slightly. I ‘discovered’ Laurel & Hardy some time in 1975 (actually my Dad got me interested in them). Back then, Laurel & Hardy films were hardly off the television (BBC 2) and at that time, there was a marathon of their films which used to be on at around 5:40pm (just before the news). I had recently been given my first audio cassette recorder for Christmas and I recorded part of the soundtrack to this film. I still have that recording, complete with mine and Dads laughter, so for me, this holds special memories (as Dad passed away several years ago). I’ve never really thought about the ‘violence’ being any more brutal here than in a lot of their other films but thinking about it now, I can see how that might be perceived. I usually give this an airing around Christmas time. As a side note, for years after seeing the film for the first time, I wanted to have a steak exactly like the ones we see there. I’m still waiting.

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    1. Great comments Peter, thanks. Quite a few people have disagreed with some of my comments Peter, and that’s okay, it all makes for good discussion. To be honest, up until writing this blog, I never thought anything about the violence or depravity etc. and I just enjoyed the film for the film’s sake. It’s only when you come to study it and break it down and really consider the themes that we’re dealing with, do you start to realise that its actually a bit grim – the topic, not the film. I do enjoy Below Zero, it’s a Laurel & Hardy film, so how could I not…What I find most delightful is how special these films are to fans like us. Your case with your father is quite typical and you’re very lucky to have that tape – hold it dear and treasure it, its a beautiful thing to have. Thanks again for visiting the blog and sharing your thoughts.

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  4. I’ve always wondered why Stan, when he realises he has the policeman’s wallet, doesn’t immediately extract the money and put it back in his pocket. Instead, he shows it to Ollie in full view of the policeman himself! Of course this was necessary for the ending to work and it’s far from the only instance of somebody acting illogically for plot purposes.

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    1. I know what you mean Gordon. My mother always has the same sort of comments. They drive her up the wall! But of course, as you say, these things are very necessary. Thanks for visiting the blog and for commenting 👍🏻

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  5. Below Zero is as close to harrowing as a Laurel and Hardy film gets. They start with nothing to their name but their instruments, which are soon smashed to splinters, and things get steadily worse throughout. But at its heart I think it’s a film about love; no matter how rock bottom things get for the boys, they always have each other, and nothing they ever did encapsulates that like Ollie desperately trying without hesitation to get back into the restaurant to save Stan. They are, as always, sweet innocent spirits, devoted to each other no matter how harsh the world is to them, and that’s why we love them.

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