Sunday, 9 March 2014

Below Zero (1930)

With Laurel and Hardy, the two main characters stay the same, but their circumstances and situations vary from film to film. Sometimes they have wives, sometimes they have jobs, and sometimes they have houses. In Below Zero, they have none of these, only a harmonium, a double bass, and their rather limited musical ability, with which to try to survive a harsh winter.

The humour comes from familiar sources, slapstick, misunderstandings (playing music outside a deaf centre is never going to be a success), bad luck and petty fighting with each other and the rest of the world, which invariably leads to destruction of property. The duo’s instruments do not survive the first half of the film, as they eventually push a woman too far. As in other Laurel and Hardy films such as Big Business, the destruction almost becomes a stylised ritual, and the duo make no attempt to stop it, seemingly almost resigned to their fate.

The direction is straightforward, largely consisting of pointing the camera at the stars and fixing it there. However, there is one scene, involving a bird laying an egg that uses editing to tell the joke by implying through the juxtaposition of shots, a sign that the language of film was getting more sophisticated as people began to explore the unique possibilities of the medium.

Below Zero also contains two elements of Laurel and Hardy that can sometimes be overlooked. First is the touching bond of friendship between the two, which is always there even if it is often buried beneath the bickering. When, after being beaten up and thrown out of a restaurant, Olly is calling out for Stan, he seems genuinely concerned that his partner is missing.

The second is the bizarre, cartoonish climax that sees Stan end up with a grotesquely distended belly after drinking the entire contents of the huge barrel of water in which he has been dumped, the sort of gag I would expect to find in a Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes cartoon. However, such bizarre surrealism is something that crops up from time to time in their films, such as the ending of Dirty Work, where a mad scientist and his anti-aging serum turn Olly into a chimp.  

Below Zero was one of several films reshot in foreign languages, in this case Spanish, in order to cash in the popularity they had achieved as silent film stars in Europe. Instead of dubbing the film it was completely remade, with Stan and Olly saying their lines in broken Spanish (and Stan struggling to get past his Lancashire accent), and most of the other actors with speaking parts replaced by people who speak the language.

For financial reasons, these versions needed to be slightly longer than the usual 20 minutes, leading to extra or reworked scenes. These range from the opening scene introducing the policeman, and the back-story about his wallet and money that the duo inadvertently acquire, to extended version of the scene with a blind man, that lacks the short simplicity (and humour) of the English version. These feel exactly like the padding that they are, and interesting though it is to watch, this version adds nothing to the original, which favours quality over quantity.