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Below Zero
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,Below Zero

Below Zero

Below Zero (1930) may not be Laurel and Hardy's best or funniest short film, but it is perhaps one of their most representative: a perfect catalog of all the attributes that define "Laurel and Hardy."

It is possible to say this because Laurel and Hardy maintained such ritualized consistency across their films. Their brand of comedy was about ritualized consistency.

Stan Laurel, despite his muddle-headed screen persona, was the brains behind the troupe, and as such he was famous for recycling material. He even had a somewhat formalized policy about reusing ideas--he figured that it took around seven years for an audience to forget, which meant anything he'd done seven years ago or longer was fair to remake. It was a license to steal from himself--because, if you're gonna steal, steal from the best.

Of course, this policy only applied to specific plots or jokes. The general Laurel and Hardy style treated slapstick comedy like a ceremony, and allowed for nearly infinite repetition.

One of the architects of this style was Leo McCarey. Along with Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, McCarey was one of the greatest comedy directors of his generation. He had gotten his first break as a filmmaker at Hal Roach Studios, directing Charley Chase. Working with Stan and Ollie, McCarey helped fashion some of the boy's most iconic and popular silent films, later passing the director's baton to Jimmy Parrott. Jimmy was a former silent clown in his own right, and Charley Chase's brother, and would be one of the most reliable and inventive directors for the Laurel and Hardy team throughout the 1930s.

Below Zero finds Jimmy Parrott in the director's chair, and McCarey as writer--a potent combination. The film opens with Stan and Ollie busking on a street corner. That they are terrible musicians should come as no great surprise, but the people who pass them by don't even seem to shudder with disgust. They just ignore the boys, who eventually give up and decide to seek out a better location. Only as they pack up their instruments to leave does Ollie notice something significant--Stan has been seated in front of a sign identifying the building as the Deaf and Dumb Institute. Their begging was literally falling on deaf ears.

Remember that rule about seven years? Well, seven years previously, Stan Laurel opened his film Kill or Cure (1923) with the same gag--Stan obliviously proffering a sales pitch to non-responsive customers outside the Deaf and Dumb Institute.

For that matter, the idea of Stan and Ollie as street musicians hustling for spare change is a reworking of material from the 1928 short You're Darn Tootin', a production which McCarey supervised.

As with that earlier film, this set-up will lead inexorably to escalating comic violence, as the boys' music provokes people around them into acts of anger and havoc. What's different this time, crucially different at that, is the presence of a soundtrack.

Laurel and Hardy are poor street musicians, but even in the silent version this idea was effectively conveyed. Where Below Zero brings something new, it isn't just in the ear-grating quality of the music itself, but the way it is continually interrupted. They stop playing, to argue with or interact with the people around them, only then to return to the song--by starting over at the top. And so it goes, with the music reduced to stuttering fragments that only vaguely suggest a tune, performed mindlessly by routine.

The effect is entrancing, even hypnotic. The humor resides in the thoughtless habit, and the ceremonial precision with which pointless behavior is presented. The joke is in the music, starting and stopping and restarting.

Modern viewers may have missed the musical gag embedded in this sequence, but it comes to the surface as soon as Oliver Hardy starts to sing along with their performance, revealing that they are playing "In the Good Old Summertime." In the middle of a snowstorm.

Stan Laurel had always enjoyed this kind of incongruity. In Big Business (1929), Laurel and Hardy attempted to sell Christmas trees in the blazing California sun, and in The Fixer Uppers (1935), they try to sell greeting cards that simultaneously mash-up birthday wishes with Christmas and 4th of July sentiments. But if Stan Laurel the comic genius thinks a lack of context is funny, the people in his movie don't enjoy the joke--and soon Stan and Ollie find themselves battling angered passers-by willing to resort to violence to shut them up.

The ritualized comic violence of this scene is another longstanding Laurel and Hardy hallmark. They have successfully filled entire movies with this stuff (for example, the afore-mentioned Big Business), but here the story takes a twist into new territory.

Well, "new" is perhaps relative. What happens next is that the boys find a wallet, which leads them to enjoy a meal at a restaurant that gets out of hand; they are on the hook for more of a bill than they can afford, and will be physically punished for that debt. We cannot call this "new" because it is the plot of an earlier Stan Laurel film. In fact, we are talking about the earliest surviving Stan Laurel film, Just Rambling Along, from 1918. And in that 1918 relic, the waiter who takes exception to Stan's inability to pay his bill is none other than Jimmy Parrott. Returning to this material roughly twelve years later, both Laurel and Parrott improve on it substantially.

Back in 1918, Laurel was still working in the shadow of his former friend and colleague Charlie Chaplin. Just Rambling Along is a riff on Chaplin's The Immigrant (1917), but a weak one. In The Immigrant, Chaplin finds himself trapped in a restaurant with no money and a furious waiter ready to tear him limb from limb if he tries to dine-n-dash. Miraculously, Chaplin escapes this situation, gets the girl, and becomes rich all in one sudden, fortuitous leap. Stan's 1918 version finds no such magic, and seems content to fade to black with Jimmy Parrott pummeling the life from Stan's helpless body--if this counts as a joke, it is the cruelest kind of slapstick.

Below Zero follows the same pattern, but only up to a point. The angry waiter grabs Stan by the collar, and drags him outside for his punishment--and then opens the door for one of Laurel's bizarre sight gags. The brute tosses Stan into a barrel of freezing rainwater, from which he soon emerges, his belly comically distended from having drunk the entire contents. Stan whispers something in Ollie's ear, and proceeds to run around frantically. Yes, we get a bizarre sight gag topped by a potty joke! And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you finish a movie.

Hal Roach, the producer whose name adorned the studio, hated these kinds of illogical jokes. He fought Stan repeatedly over them--and tended to lose, because Stan was responsible for most of the money coming into the studio. But that didn't make Roach any happier.

What we find in Below Zero then is a grab-bag of what made Laurel and Hardy great--from their most esteemed collaborators and their most familiar gags to examples of copying past ideas and finishing with a surrealistic vision. This is Laurel and Hardy at the height of their powers.

Producer: Hal Roach
Director: James Parrott
Screenplay: Nat Hoffberg (titles, uncredited); Leo McCarey (story, uncredited); H.M. Walker (dialogue)
Cinematography: George Stevens
Film Editing: Richard Currier
Cast: Stan Laurel (Stan), Oliver Hardy (Ollie), Bobby Burns ('Blind' man/deadbeat diner), Baldwin Cooke (Man at Window), Kay Deslys (Woman at window), Charlie Hall (Annoyed Shopkeeper Throwing Snowball).
BW-20m.

by David Kalat

Sources:
Simon Louvish, Stan and Ollie: The Roots of Comedy.