Tag Archives: H.C. Potter

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”

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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 Continue reading 336. HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

LIST CANDIDATE: HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)

Hellzapoppin’ has been promoted onto the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies! Please visit the official Certified Weird entry.

DIRECTED BY: H.C. Potter

FEATURING: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye,

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 Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941)