Los Chicos

BELOW ZERO (1930) is a strange, bleak little comedy, in which Laurel & Hardy attempt, hopelessly, to busk for change in a snowstorm, playing “In the Good Old Summertime,” and never realising that that might not be what people want to hear right now. Everyone is really mean, until they meet a friendly cop, but then that goes bad too. It’s not unusual for the boys’ films to plant them in an unsympathetic world where violence and hostility are the norm, but it IS unusual for a character to say “Two for the morgue,” and then for the lights to go out amid screams of terror…

Well, it turns out the Spanish-language version, TIEMBLA Y TITUBEA is, in a way, even darker. When Stan and Ollie, pursued by a ruffian, bump into the cop, in the US version the ruffian runs off. In the version shot for Spanish-speaking audiences, with the boys learning their lines phonetically, the cop draws his sidearm and fires of a series of shots at the departing thug. Nobody seems to think much of this — the boys watch with blank curiosity — at least until, after a brief exchange, the target, way way offscreen, fires back, blowing all three of their hats off, at which point everybody runs away.

It’s a reminder that the boys were early adopters of the use of offscreen sound — think particularly of those moments when a character, usually Ollie, slips and goes flying out of frame, followed by a deafening crash, the results of which will only be visualised, as a POV shot, moments later, when someone, usually Stan, comes to see what’s happened — but among those who used it most strikingly and persistently.

Also, maybe it points to perceived differences in the US and Mexican markets. Did somebody say, “Better get some gunplay in or they won’t go for it south of the border”?* Maybe they also got everyone to play the scenes faster, despite the language difficulty, since the Spanish short lacks some of the wonderfully protracted delivery that makes BELOW ZERO such a stark experience.

*To play the Mexican version of Russian Roulette, you simply load a pistol, cock it, and throw it at the ceiling. The gun has an equal chance of going off when it hits the ceiling and when it falls to the floor, and is just as likely to kill or wound anyone else in the room as it does you, with neighbours and passers-by standing a fair chance of injury too. 



5 Responses to “Los Chicos”

  1. Charles W. Callahan Says:

    The cop was played by Frank Holiday who played one of
    “Dice” Raymond’s thugs in George Stevens’ SWINGTIME with Fred & Ginger. Leo McCarey contribruted some gags to
    BELOW ZERO and Stevens was the cinematographer.
    You are entirely welcome.

  2. A grim depression sensibility was pretty common in comedy shorts and cartoons, although this is one of the darker ones. In “Moving Day”, Mickey Mouse and friends are evicted. The NY-based Fleischers had slum settings. For the Three Stooges, blue collar was often a desperate aspiration.

    You could get away with unsentimental and semi-realistic jokes about poverty and even death for a while; later you’d need to crank up the sentiment or the surrealism. Many two-reelers — not just Laurel and Hardy’s — ended with the heroes in a very bad way, trusting you’ll accept it if the closing gag is big.

    Grim in a different way is a French “feature” cobbled from “Be Big” and “Laughing Gravy”. The first has prosperous married men trying to sneak off to a party. The second has down-and-out roommates in a sorry flat. A connecting title explains that between times their wives divorced them and left them impoverished. Though it’s just two shorts linked, as a feature it invites you to take the boys as characters with lives; the downward mobility leaves one worried that they’ll fall further still.

  3. Different cop in the Spanish version — forgot to look him up.

    Buster Keaton has a dark sensibiiity that breaks through in the upbeat success stories he tries to tell, as when College ends on a couple of gravestones. Buster seemed to find death irresistible.

    But with Stan Laurel, the stories are generally of failure: all will end in disaster, inevitably. Below Zero seems to take a chunk of its story from Chaplin’s The Immigrant: find money, go to a restaurant, discover the waiters beat up anyone who can’t pay, lose the money… but the outcome is very different indeed, with Stan following Durrenmatt’s dictum (not yet formulated): “A story is not finished until it has reached its worst possible conclusion.”

  4. A lot of L&H features end not with explicit tragedy or pathos but with the boys in comic flight mode (“Fra Diavolo”, “Blockheads”, “Swiss Miss”, “Pack Up Your Troubles”, “Pardon Us”). They’re energized by fear, seem to have a fair start, and are arguably no worse off than they were at the beginning.

    Nominally happy endings will often entail some final insult to Ollie’s person and dignity (“Way Out West”, “Babes in Toyland”, “Our Relations”); occasionally Stan will be in for punishment as well (“The Bohemian Girl”, “Saps at Sea”).

    “Sons of the Desert” is ambiguous. Stan, of course, is pampered for truthfulness. Ollie’s initial guess that Mae Busch is going to leave him may have been hoping against hope; one suspects the bruising status quo will endure.

    “Chump at Oxford” and “Flying Deuces” are outliers. The former is actually sentimental with the boys reunited. The latter has a stranger reunion: We see Ollie ascend to heaven after a plane crash (for a alternate universe “Matter of Life and Death”?). Next we see Stan schlepping along as a hobo (Where?) when he finds Ollie reincarnated as a horse.

    The later films don’t really count, although some of the endings are definitely odd. In “Bullfighters”, a character with valid reason to hate them swears to skin them alive. And the fadeout is Stan and Ollie as skeletons (“Here’s another nice mess …”).

  5. Hal Roach hated Stan’s “freak endings,” apparently, and the weird physical gags creeped me out as a kid, too. They may be a bit like cartoon characters, but they’re infinitely more real and physical, so boduly distortions have some force, and the slapstick comes with a bit of an “ouch” factor, especially once sound arrives and you can hear Ollie wail.

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