LIST CANDIDATE: HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

DIRECTED BY: H.C. Potter

FEATURING: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert

PLOT: Although Ole and Chic work tirelessly to undermine any consistent plot, the film is

ostensibly about their attempts to sort out a love triangle between their high society friends in time for a big musical revue.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Made at the height of Hollywood classicism, Hellzapoppin’ breaks every rule of conventional filmmaking, then makes up a few more so it can break them, too. A nonstop barrage of postmodern comedy infused with explosive surrealism, it only has a few spare that moments that aren’t weird in one way or another.

COMMENTS: Adapted from comedy duo Olsen and Johnson’s long-running Broadway musical of the same name, Hellzapoppin’ is an unruly, unstoppable hodgepodge of absurd running gags, mind-boggling non sequiturs, and endless meta-humor, all of which are used to disrupt its self-consciously hackneyed romantic storyline. This is take-no-prisoners, joke-a-minute filmmaking, with no regard for cause-and-effect, segues, or good taste; in fact, with their fondness for violent physical humor mixed with disorienting editing tricks, Olsen and Johnson could be the hallucinogen-puffing cousins of the Three Stooges.

It’s fitting, then, that Hellzapoppin’ should be introduced by Stooge Shemp Howard, who plays Louie, the film’s grumbling projectionist. He rolls the opening credits, and a line chorus girls—with a very literal “BANG!”—is transformed into a gaggle of garishly costumed demons, all of whom promptly fall into the bowels of hell. This is definitely strange, as is the infernal musical number that follows, but it’s nothing compared to the incipient arrival of hell’s “prize guests” (naturally, Chic and Ole). The second they burst out of their cab, which is inexplicably driven by an irate jockey, the two of them begin shooting off wordplay and self-referential jokes like machine gun fire. Each zany incident tops the one before it: one of Satan’s minions is drafted into the U.S. military; a woman and her adult son fall through the floor and into an untapped oil reserve; and Chic accidentally blows up the cab with his breath.

That last point leads into a rather revealing scene where Chic and Ole, curious to find out how the explosion occurred, demand that Louie rewind the movie. “What’s the matter with you guys?” cries Louie. “Don’t you know you can’t talk to me and the audience?” Undaunted, Ole replies: “Well, we’re doin’ it, aren’t we?” and Chic adds, “Yes, folks, this is Hellzapoppin’!” as the two of them break down into uncontrollable giggles. This is their philosophy throughout the film: it doesn’t matter whether they, as actors on screen, shouldn’t or can’t do anything. This is Hellzapoppin’, so they do it anyway. As if to drive that point home, a man solves a tic-tac-toe game on a horse’s rump, and the director of Hellzapoppin’ calls “Cut!” Chic and Ole retreat into the movie studio, eagerly peeling back another layer of the film’s reality, and begin arguing with the director about the role of “story” and “logic” in a movie. All this, and they’re only getting started.

The film’s real story, if you can call it that, doesn’t begin in earnest until about 10 minutes in. After a noisy, fruitless walk around the studio, the director sits Chic and Ole down so he can explain the romantic intrigues between socialite Kitty Rand and her two paramours, Woody and Jeff, who are also best friends. But even this is done in a formally radical style: the three of them watch the scenario unfold through moving pictures, commenting derisively on the action and imitating the voices of Kitty’s parents. In doing so, they anticipate the advent of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” by roughly half a century. Then, as if everything else had been erased from memory, the boys settle comfortably into this new story, determined to help their pal Jeff win over Kitty.  We’re introduced to a new supporting cast: Hugh Herbert is a delirious detective/trickster god; Martha Raye is Chic’s manic, man-hungry sister; and Mischa Auer is the gold-digging Prince Pepi.

Thus, against the backdrop of a weekend-long party at the Rand estate, Chic and Ole are all set to lob one Molotov cocktail after another onto the film’s narrative scaffolding.  Granted, the cliché-ridden story plods along amidst their hijinks, but it’s barely audible underneath the cacophony of their never-ending interruptions.  Either Chic is trotting out a novelty-size lighter, or Herbert’s detective is gleefully shooting arrows in all directions, or Louie is messing up the film’s projection, leading to a fun-with-editing scene right out of Buster Keaton’s surreal masterpiece Sherlock Jr.  Whenever the film begins to sink into anything resembling normality, the characters are ready with an especially jarring break of the fourth wall.

Everything comes to a head during Jeff’s musical revue, which takes up the film’s last half-hour. For convoluted reasons (motivated by strangely conservative sexual mores), Chic and Ole decide to sabotage the performance with every means at their disposal—starting with the relatively mundane, like flypaper and sneezing powder, but escalating to the cruel and unusual, like tacks scattered under the dancers’ feet and a litter of kittens let loose on the stage. During one unbelievably outré moment, Chic’s sister flies off the stage, only to be thrown back by Frankenstein’s monster, and land on the back of a bear riding a pogo stick. As the end approaches, the gags get more and more outlandish, and the movie overflows with talking animals and half-applied invisibility spells.

As the film-within-a-film ends, the screenwriter for Hellzapoppin’, played by film noir mainstay Elisha Cook, Jr., proclaims his love for the original musical, and the fed-up director shoots him repeatedly.  Cook takes a drink, and water streams cartoonishly out of his bullet holes.  It’s an appropriately nonsensical ending for a movie that could very well be the love child of Duck Soup and Un Chien Andalou: barbed with caustic satire in the least expected places, and totally dismissive of character motivation or logical causation.  Although Olsen and Johnson’s names are forgotten today, Hellzapoppin’ has had a profound influence on countless filmmakers, including Mel Brooks and Joe Dante, and their aggressively meta-cinematic brand of comedy feels right at home in the 21st century.   And even in an era when characters break the fourth wall on a regular basis, the raucous, high-energy antics on display in Hellzapoppin’ still feel freshly transgressive. It’s simply audacious to break that many rules and still have a grin on your face.

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)

4 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)”

    1. I put in a Video-on-Demand link above. I am pretty sure that the only DVDs available are bootleg copies. I’m not sure that the VOD version is an officially licensed release, either, but Amazon accepted it, so that should be good enough. The rights are owned by Universal, and they may put out a legitimate release someday, but they tend to be bad about exploiting their back catalog.

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