(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Sometimes, the grim hostility in Laurel and Hardy’s movies seems to stem from nothing else than some scriptwriters eager to goose the film into action. At least the grimness of Below Zero makes some sense. It’s winter, it’s the start of The Great Depression, and Stan and Ollie are about penniless. L&H biographer Randy Skretvedt has said he prefers the L&H movies’ original black-and-white format to colorization because of the time and mood of the films. This movie definitely nails its period.
Laurel & Hardy’s early team efforts usually reflect a three-act structure (for example, their silent You’re Darn Tootin’ had scenes at a band concert, a boarding home, and outside a restaurant). Below Zero has sort of a two-and-a-half-act structure. It has a long, almost unrelenting setting in the frozen outdoors, then a scene in a restaurant, followed by a short attempt at redemption in the outdoors again, outside the restaurant. It’s as though even the movie was aware of its grimness and wanted to give L&H a break, miniscule as it was, at movie’s end.
Stan and Ollie’s roles as itinerant street musicians seem an extension of the same role from You’re Darn Tootin’. One can almost imagine them having played on the street for a year, to no good end, until the Depression and winter set in. After many fruitless attempts to collect money for their talent, Ollie urges them to move on and then discovers that Stan had parked their act in front of a home for the deaf. Ollie does the inevitable camera-look — but then, considering how eager he is to sing “In the Good Old Summertime” while his listeners get frostbitten, who is he to judge?
Stan and Ollie find a wallet in the street and then go to great lengths to evade a vagrant who noticed them perusing the wallet. A policeman comes to their rescue (for once), and magnanimous Ollie offers to take him out for a steak dinner as recompense. After eating in the restaurant and observing a patron who was violently ejected for lack of pay, Ollie decides to double-check his funds. Turns out that the cop was smiling down on them sooner than Ollie had thought — the cop’s photo is in the wallet. Eventually the cop figures out the situation and tells the restauranteur that he’ll pay for his own meal and leave Stan and Ollie to fend for themselves.
Stan and Ollie are rousted and dumped behind the restaurant. Ollie nearly gets run over by the omnipresent motorist before yelling, dramatically and quite convincingly, for his buddy. He finally finds Stan hidden in a water barrel. When Ollie sees that the barrel is empty and asks Stan where the water is, Stan replies, “I drank it!” and rolls out of the barrel looking eighteen months pregnant. (These days, such a premise would probably inspire an R-rated sequel.)
As implausible as the freak ending is, it’s almost a relief after what Stan and Ollie have been through. It’s comforting to know that their friendship can survive such unrelenting harassment, but this might be about as close to the edge as we’d ever want to see them.