Written and filmed February-March, 1930. Released by MGM, April, 1930. Produced by Hal Roach. Directed by James Parrott. Two reels.
Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Tiny Sandford, Frank Holliday, Blanche Payson, Bobby Burns.   

STORY: It is the cold and bitter winter of '29, and passersby are less than enamored with the offerings of penniless street musicians Laurel and Hardy. One hulking brute of a woman smashes Ollie's bass fiddle over his head, and throws Stan's concertina into the street, where it is promptly smashed by a truck. The Boys' fortunes seem to change when they find a wallet stuffed with money. They offer to buy lunch for a friendly cop, only to discover after the meal that it is the cop's wallet they have found. An angry waiter throws the boys out into the cold and snow, depositing Stan into a half-frozen rainbarrel. Ollie frantically searches for his chum, who emerges from the barrel grotesquely bloated, having drunk its contents.


JL: Oh man, I've got a thousand and one mixed feelings about this one. The cheery mood of Blotto is nowhere to be found. It's as sad as it is funny; the best gags break your heart as much as they make you laugh. Here's one instance where the change in their characters over the years is apparent. In 1930, they were down-on-their-luck vagabonds who faced a cold cruel world that destroyed their best intentions. By 1940, in A CHUMP AT OXFORD, they were again down on their luck, but were now the main cause of their problems. I see elements of both approaches throughout their Roach years, but I now see how they gradually became more dimwitted as the years passed.

JB: Below Zero is a prime example of how important atmosphere is to a film, and the atmosphere in this film comes from the wintertime settiing, the never-ending falling snow, and the unpleasant citizens who walk through this film, all fo which just casts a slight veil of cold, bitter sadness over everything.  Gags that would be plain funny in other films are funny and poignant here.

     All the Boys wish to do is sing a song and make enough money to get a bite to eat, but they are either ignored, asked to move along or treated with open hostility everywhere they go. The only person who is kind to them is Officer Holliday, and even he turns on them in the end. The moment when Stan discovers that the wallet they found actually belongs to their newfound policeman friend is almost heartbreaking.

     The supporting cast adds to the film too, especially Blanche Payson as the mean woman who destroys the Boys' livelihood, and Leo Willis, who plays the petty thief.  They have rockhard, ugly, unforgettable faces, like those found among the gangsters in THE GODFATHER. The kind of faces that can haunt you at night.

     Near the end of the film, after the Boys have been beaten senseless and thrown in the back alley, we see Ollie in a panic, calling out Stan's name desperately. He even grabs a piece of wood and tries to break back into the restaurant. It is the first time that we realize that Stan is not just Ollie's friend, but somebody that means something to him. Just about everything Ollie has, including his dignity, has been stripped away by the film's climax, but it is the potential loss of Stan, his only friend in the world, that finally causes him to fight back. This moment is not emphasized in any way, it just happens and then it is over, quickly followed by Stan coming out of the rain barrel having drunk all the water and now in dire need of a trip to the nearest bathroom.

     I'm sure nobody back in 1930 was thinking in these terms. Back then, it was just another afternoon at the movies with Laurel and Hardy.  But today, Below Zero stand as one of their most touching meditations on friends, strangers and the fleeting nature of happiness.  Even if they never intended to meditate on such things.

JL: It's hard-core pathos, as opposed to sappy, orphan-kid-type pathos. I figure any film that's this much of an emotional roller-coaster has to be a great film.

     And again, when I was a kid, Stan's balloon-belly at the end bothered me as much as the cheesy animated mouse. Now, I love it. But that must have been some enormous shirt he was wearing for it to stretch so far and not even pop a button.

Copyright © 2012 John Larrabee, John V. Brennan

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