Sometimes you hear Laurel and Hardy praised for being “clean” and “innocent”. Well, this is true in certain respects. The on-screen characters of Stan and Ollie are certainly sexual innocents who know how keep a civil tongue in their heads. But if modern film comedy is far less squeamish about sex and profanity than the comedy of Laurel and Hardy will accommodate, today’s movies tend to be far more squeamish about other topics – topics such as economic destitution and the sheer cruelty of the world we live in.
I cannot imagine Adam Sandler, or Ben Stiller, or Will Ferrell ever making a movie as unflinchingly and heroically bleak as Below Zero. Film comedy is, in many ways, far more sentimental these days, and demands redemptive and happy conclusions for its protagonists, no matter how absurd such conclusions might be.
Below Zero, like Some Like it Hot made 29 years later, is a film that concerns two struggling musicians during the bleak winter of 1929. (Both Below Zero and Berthmarks anticipate key features of Billy Wilder’s masterpiece.) The world of Below Zero is a dog-eat-dog loveless world, bereft of compassion and empathy. Perhaps Stan and Ollie aren’t the greatest musicians in the world – though Ollie sings a bit – and who wouldn’t pay to hear Ollie singing? Perhaps “The Good Ol’ Summertime” is a rather tactless song to perform during such bitter weather? But surely Stan and Ollie don’t even remotely deserve their fate in this two-reel tale of woe.
They have a run in with their habitual antagonist Charley Hall while he’s shoveling snow. Then they have a far more serious encounter with Blanche Payson, a terrifying character who destroys their musical instruments – their only tenuous means of survival. They are left standing in the snow without food, shelter, or the means of acquiring food and shelter. And then, because despair is always sharper when seasoned with temporary hope, Stan finds a wallet in the snow. Chased by a ne’er do well who likes the look of the wallet, they are rescued by a police officer (Frank Holliday). What happens next is an illustration of the consequences of generosity in a wicked world.
Ollie insists on treating the cop to a slap up feed, on sharing their good fortune with someone else. So they repair to Pete’s restaurant where the enormous Pete (Tiny Sandford) serves up enormous steaks “with plenty of onions”. This is clearly the first decent meal our heroes have enjoyed in weeks – or possibly months. It’s also an opportunity for Ollie to pretend he knows about fine dining and for Stan to expose his honest ignorance of the subject. Unfortunately when it comes to paying the bill, Stan discovers that the wallet they’ve found belongs to the cop they are dining with. The cop is not slow spotting his own wallet either and immediately leaps to the deductive conclusion that Stan and Ollie are pickpockets. (Why pickpockets would hang out with a cop whose pocket they’ve picked is not a question that occurs to this officer? What sort of pickpockets treat their mark to a big meal rather than just try and put as much distance between him and themselves as possible?) Instead of arresting Stan and Ollie, he leaves them to pay their share of the bill on their own. The lights are then extinguished, so as to imply that the scale of the scale of the violence being meted out defies any representation. You see the same tactic used in Scram, made two years later.
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 fact that Stan is not as other men and is capable of drinking the entire contents of the barrel should not distract from the hideous and disproportionate violence meted out to someone whose only crime is poverty.
All of this bleakness does not mean that Below Zero is not funny. Stan and Ollie were at the height of their powers and every exchange and inter-action is exquisitely timed. The look on Stan’s face as he slowly realises who the wallet belongs to and the consequences of exposure is painfully hilarious or hilariously painful – whichever way you choose to look at it. Stan has a similarly slow wallet consciousness scene in Their Purple Moment (1928), which also involves Tiny Sandford. But this film’s power to shock is still remarkable. Most film comedy nowadays assumes that well-intentioned idiocy should always be rewarded. The world of Laurel and Hardy habitually eschews such sentimental eschatology, frequently leaving its protagonists with no discernible way out of an impossible predicament. Stan looks hilarious with his ludicrously bloated belly, but Ollie’s distress at this spectacle seems very very real.
By the end of this film you will love Stan and Ollie all the more because nobody they share screen time with for these 20 minutes seems capable of love or compassion. Stan and Ollie on the other hand demonstrate generosity to the cop and concern for one another. They are hopeless. They are losers. But they are better by far than the vicious world they inhabit.