336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

“The expanse of humour in American life has historically shown the health of the democratic system in its ability to absorb criticism and analysis, even in their most pointed, satiric, sardonic, or absurdist forms, or when cast solely as entertainment.”–Russel Carmony, “The rise of American fascism — and what humour can do to stop it”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, , Mischa Auer, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Lewis Howard, Shemp Howard, Richard Lane, Elisha Cook Jr.

PLOT: The film begins with the projectionist (who will play an active role in the story) loading a reel of film: a musical number set in Hell. That scene ends with the arrival of “our prize guests,” Olsen and Johnson, who are in turn interrupted by the director who objects to their series of gags and demands that they have a story “because every picture has one.” The director presents them with a script for “a picture about a picture about ‘Hellzapoppin”, which loosely revolves a love triangle among socialites who are also staging a play (with disastrous results).

Still from Hellzapoppin' (1941)

BACKGROUND:

  • Hellzapoppin’ was the film version of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson’s stage variety show, which opened on Broadway in 1938. The show had no running plot, but consisted of a collection of comedy sketches, musical numbers, and audience participation routines that played off current events and would change from performance to performance. Olsen and Johnson often improvised their routines. With 1,404 performances, it was the longest-running show on Broadway up until that time.
  • The original show closed on December 18, 1941; the film debuted on December 26, 1941. Olsen and Johnson revived the show many times, and it went on road tours (with rotating casts, often without Olsen and Johnson) throughout the 1940s.
  • One of the few bits that was recycled from the play for the movie is the man who wanders through the scenes carrying a potted tree, which grows bigger as the production progresses.
  • Hellzapoppin’ received an Oscar nomination for “Best Original Song” for “Pig Foot Pete.” The song “Pig Foot Pete,” however, doesn’t appear in Hellzapoppin’.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The rapid pace of the visual gags makes this one almost impossible to pick. The opening seven minutes in Hell alone could probably yield half a dozen respectable candidates. We’ll go with the moment that Olsen (I think) blows on his diminutive taxi driver, transforming him in a flash of smoke into a jockey on a horse (with, for some reason, a tic-tac-toe game stenciled on its side). The fella is immediately launched from his saddle on a trip into Hell’s sulfurous stratosphere—but that’s already another image altogether.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Canned guys and gals; Frankenstein’s monster hurls ballerina; invisible comedian hemispheres

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A staircase collapses, dumping socialites into Hell where devils with pitchforks do somersaults off trampolines and juggle flaming torches. Women are roasted on spits. Farm animals tumble out of a taxicab like it was a clown car. The projectionist runs the film back and plays a scene again, to a different conclusion. And that’s just the first five minutes! “This is Hellzapoppin’!”


Fan-made trailer for Hellzapoppin’

COMMENTS: I can’t tell which one is Olsen and which one is Johnson. This may seem like a small point of confusion in a movie in which we are watching a movie about Olsen and Johnson watching the making of their own movie (in which they are also acting) while frequently talking back to the projectionist and audience. But it’s another illustration of the rule-breaking (or rule-ignoring) nature of Hellzapoppin’. Classic vaudeville comedy teams (“double acts”) made sure their individual characters were distinct so they could play off each other as foils. There’s no “straight man” and no “funny man” in Olsen and Johnson; they are interchangeable wiseacres, a sort of minor Greek chorus who almost could have been entirely dispensed with without changing the shape of the movie. This probably explains why the team never became as famous as , , or the . In fact, Olsen and Johnson weren’t a performing team so much as they were a writing team who just happened to serve as emcees for their own skits. Unlike most comedies of its era, Hellzapoppin’ was founded on concepts and unstructured gags rather than personalities. Though taking their cue from a bawdy variety show tradition, their smart, outside-the-frame thinking made Olsen and Johnson the ancestors of conceptual sketch comedy troupes like  or the Kids in the Hall. Had they been better self-promoters, or gotten better breaks, they might have been as famous as the foregoing comedy icons. As it is, they left us with one indisputable, original comic masterpiece, whose very title became synonymous with a style of hectic, relentless comedy.

Although Hellzapoppin’ was a success on stage, where it would often have plants in the audience and play pranks such as claiming there were spiders on the ceiling of the theater, Hollywood debated how to translate Olsen and Johnson’s brand of non-narrative, non-character based anarchy to the screen. They even joke about the difficulty inside Hellzapoppin’: after a series of rapid-fire free-association gags involving a taxicab driver who turns into a jockey and that ends with Olsen (I think) crying out in glee “this is Hellzapoppin!” and shooting a chicken, the exasperated in-film director yells “cut!” and complains, “We can’t shoot this kind of stuff! Pictures are different! You gotta have a story!” Maybe they do, maybe they don’t; but if Olsen and Johnson are going to concede to narrative conventions, they’ll do so with their fingers crossed behind their backs, making sure that Hellzapoppin’s story never gets in the way of Hellzapoppin’. They walk through various sets—a jail, an 18th century drawing room—magically changing costumes on their way as they go to meet the timid writer who’s penned them a love story. They watch the screenplay unfold in a magic picture frame—sometimes the characters talk back to them, and sometimes they supply the voices—then are startled to see themselves appear in the treatment, as prop handlers. Along the way, extraneous characters and crew members are shot (usually offscreen) whenever they become inconvenient. The movie’s almost fifteen minutes old, and we still haven’t gotten past the setup and into the story. But don’t worry, things will hardly slow down—or cave in to the illusion of reality—when we do.

The action moves to Kitty’s parent’s Long Island mansion, which is mostly a poolside set where a team of stunt divers and synchronized swimmers constantly perform in the background. Although Olsen and Johnson may technically be the stars of the picture, they refuse to hog the spotlight. Much of the comic relief goes instead to Hugh Herbert, who inexplicably wanders around the sets chuckling at his own chaos: he’s introduced as a “detective” (which may itself be a ruse) and later is revealed as a magician who turns Olsen and Johnson (partially) invisible. There’s also a fake Russian prince who’s actually a real Russian prince (it’s complicated). A young Martha “Big Mouth” Raye, as Olsen’s (I think) kid sister, plays the prince’s foil, in a running subplot where he woos her when he mistakes her as a wealthy heiress, to his regret. Raye is a great sport, cast as the boy-crazy uggo, and she also belts out most of the (so-so) tunes. Speaking of tunes, the movie takes out time for one of the greatest musical numbers of the era, when the black servants (performed by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers) stumble onto some instruments and do an impromptu celebration while the white folks aren’t looking. Done in incredible long takes, the dancer move at superhuman speeds, somersault and toss each other through the air, and leapfrog their partners. You won’t believe that humans were once capable of moving like this; you’ll break a sweat watching it. This performance is legendary among swing dance fans, and is alone is worth the price of the DVD. (“Too bad they’re not in the show,” quips the in-film playwright after the hop crew scatters).

Need more chaos? There’s the constant fourth-wall breaking. Louie the projectionist (future Stooge Shemp Howard) refuses to follow the action, choosing instead to focus on a bathing beauty. The picture shakes when he fights with an usherette in the projection booth, resulting in the film becoming misaligned, with the characters top halves acting in the bottom half of the screen and vice versa. Flustered, Louie then gets the reels mixed up—a western shows up on the screen, and when Johnson (I think) insults that “phony Hollywood Indian,” he gets buckshot in his tuchus. (Tex Avery learned a thing or two from Olsen and Johnson). When a joke turns out too corny even for this pair, Olsen (I think) takes the page out of the script and tears it up. In a nod to the pandemonium of the stage show, the movie is “interrupted” by announcements aimed at an imaginary “Stinky Miller.” At the end of the movie, the director doesn’t like the result; so, he shoots the screenwriter.

Hellzapoppin’ takes constant pains to remind the audience that it is a motion picture, and then to subvert the basic elements of cinematic narrative and structure. It’s homegrown pop-deconstructionism made for laffs, done decades before . The insanity reminds us of a souped-up Duck Soup—nearly Surrealist in its freedom of expression. I like to think of this, 1933’s Soup and ‘s bizarre Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (also from 1941) as part of a great trio of American anarchist comedies. All three arose at a time of international darkness and anxiety. Duck Soup was seen as a parody on Mussolini (who banned the film). The other two, released during wartime, were seldom explicitly political—although Hellzapoppin’ includes a couple of digs at the draft, including a slyly subversive one that almost could have fit into Catch-22 (when the twenty-something screenwriter is reminded of his patriotic duty and asked what he’d like to be, he answers “29”). The stage show of Helzapoppin‘, which played off current events, began at the dawn of Fascism: early sketches reportedly included Hitler speaking in Yiddish. But despite never mentioning the Fascists by name, the trio of films mock the core totalitarian values of predictability and conformity. In the two 1941 films, the Hollywood studio system stands in for government as the authority figure to be lampooned and gleefully disobeyed (Fields pitches an unproducible surrealist screenplay about a man falling from an airplane into an aerie inhabited by a beautiful chick and her buzzard mother, while Olsen and Johnson constantly and effortlessly sabotage the formula screenplay their overseers force on them). These movies were arch escapism, certainly, aimed at giving the home front some relief from worries about the darkness and war in Europe. But their structureless structures embody implicit ideas about America’s stubborn indivdualist freedoms. Hellzappopin‘s theme song insists that “anything can happen, and it probably will!” The message is not just to be comfortable with uncertainty, but to relish and embrace it. What could be more explicitly anti-totalitarian?

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Hellzapoppin’ is full of sudden noises; it is also chockful of an anarchic collection of unfunny gags; it is not only insane, it is labored. Theatregoers coming out of the Rivoli yesterday wore startled expressions on their faces.”–The New York Times (contemporaneous)

“The stage show, a cross between a fire in a lunatic asylum and the third day at Gettysburg, becomes only a small Balkan war in the movies. Stripped of its unsurpassable insanity, the name for it is ham vaudeville.”–James Agee, Time (contemporaneous)

“Truly a one-of-a-kind bewildering comedy from 1941. Take the Marx Brothers at their zaniest and most energetic and run the amp up to 11, and then add some bizarre surreal gags and meta-fiction where the movie characters interact with the projectionist and film-makers, and you may get this musical comedy (based on a stage play).”–Zev Toledano, The Worldwide Celluloid Massacre

IMDB LINK: Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)- Overview – In keeping with the film’s underappreciated nature, Turner Classic Movies’ Hellzapoppin’ page is a little bare

Hellzapoppin’ (film) – TV Tropes’ listing of devices used in the film (most of which are either subverted, or subversive)

‘Hellzapoppin’ in Arlington: Well, That’s Show Business – A Washington Post article on a 2007 revival of the revue gives some insight into the original stage production

Classic Film Clips: Hellzapoppin’ – Background on the amazing dance number from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers (credited in-film as the Harlem Congeroo Dancers)

Lindy Hop – Hellzapoppin (1941) – Excerpt from the dance number

LIST CANDIDATE: HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)‘s original review for this site

HOME VIDEO INFO: For many years, Hellzapoppin’ was MIA on DVD, until an outfit called Reel Vault released a budget disc in 2015 (buy). The print looks great considering its age; there was no noticeable deterioration or artifacts. Extras are scant, with only a short picture gallery of lobby cards, but overall this is a welcome and overdue addition to the home video ranks—and a very affordable one.

(This movie was nominated for review by “kengo,” who wrote ” it doesn’t seem that funny now, but there is a lot of weird here – post modern structuralist stuff where the characters physically interact with the projection of the film and the audience. Plus a bunch of absurdist running gags and what appears to be a trip to hell, with song and dance numbers… not at like all like other movies.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

3 thoughts on “336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)”

  1. I absolutely love this movie, I saw it for the first time in 2016 and was blown away by how inventive and laugh out loud funny it is, and completely disagree with Kengo that it isn’t that funny now.

  2. Me too, I love this film. So far ahead of its time. And that Lindy Hop sequence is the stuff of legends. Absolutely jaw-dropping.

    Another worthwhile inclusion in the 366 canon.

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