Film 2018: Hellzapoppin’

There’s something decidedly modern about the humour in this classic 1941 comedy film. I heard about it from my Uncle before I ever saw it, and he was disparaging, primarily because he was in the British Navy in the Pacific during the Second World War, and Hellzapoppin‘ seemed to be following him around and he just saw it too many times.
By the time I got to see it for myself, in the Eighties, after he’d died, I’d been long influenced by Spike Milligan and the Goons and, to a lesser extent because I’d simply missed watching it when it was at its prime, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The absurd, the eccentric, the just plain silly, the story within a story being acted by the story-tellers: I loved Hellzapoppin’ the moment I saw it, and I can’t help but imagine that the late, great Spike knew this film well.
The film stars stage and revue comics Olsen and Johnson, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. Hellzapoppin‘ was a tremendous stage success in New York, an anarchic revue that reputedly was different every night. Given that by its very nature, the revue is impossible to actually put on screen, naturally the film is about putting Hellzapoppin‘ on screen, as a framework for Olsen and Johnson, and their troupe, to run riot, especially as the revue in its filmed form is about putting on a serious show which disintegrates into an anarchic revue… Already, I’ve lost count of how many levels this film is supposed to be working on simultaneously.
In fact, there is good cause to describe this film as indescribable.
Nevertheless, it’s perfect for a Sunday morning in a disrupted weekend, ninety minutes of anarchy on the framework of a musical whose songs are oddly attractive to the ear of someone with no interest in the music of the times.
The film begins with its projectionist complaining about having to appear on screen whilst he’s cueing the film up. This is ex-Stooge Shemp Howard, simultaneously trying to get a kiss out of his over-sized blonde usherette girlfriend. He’s also supposed to be cousin Louie, who only got the job by being family, and is constantly being shouted at by Chic and Ole, who start to argue about whose cousin he is…
So then it’s into a big production number for the title song, about dozens of chorus girls descending a staircase that turns into a slide that drops them into Hell, full of demons with horned hoods and painted on curly moustaches and goatees, brandishing tridents and generally jumping around until Chic and Ole arrive in a puff of smoke and a taxi (that’s the first taxi-driver who took me straight to where I told him to go!), and the song going on about anything could happen and it probably will, until Chic and Ole run off the set to where the Director’s yelling cut!
And it’s chaos backstage. A woman asks for an autograph on her husband’s recommendation, gets disgusted when she learns it’s Olsen and Johnson and goes marching around shouting for “Oscar!”, an elderly man tries to deliver a pot plant to a Mrs Jones and keeps reappearing, desperately calling for her, the plant getting bigger every time.
Meanwhile, the Director tries to impress on Chic and Ole that they got to have a story (which Hellzapoppin‘ apparently doesn’t) and that it’s got to be a love story, because Hollywood has always got to change everything and it’s got to have a love story. This one’s about Jeff Hunter, poor playwright, about to put on a show that should catapult him to Broadway (Robert Paige) and Kitty Rand, millionairess banker’s daughter and aspiring actress.
Kitty loves Jeff, who loves Kitty but won’t try to win her hand until he has money of his own, meanwhile her parents prefer Woody, who’s Jeff’s best friend whilst being perpetually half-asleep. Chic and Ole play props men and co-boarders with Jeff, and that’s about as much sense as you can make of it. Selby, the scriptwriter (Elisha Cook, Jr, as a 97 pound weakling) starts to read the script, the boys look at a photo of the Rand estate, which turns into filmstock, with them in it, and basically we’re rolling.
Chic and Ole are funny of themselves, with Chic, the slightly taller of the pair coming closest to the straight man, and Ole possessed of a tittering giggle that never quite gets irritating. They’re not first rank as a comedy pair, and this is clearly a peak for them, but they’re in charge of their material and they’re ahead of their time in breaking so many of the ‘rules’ of film.
First and foremost among these is the ‘fourth wall’, which is broken multiple times over, and not just the obvious one between Chic, Ole and the audience. A lot of the comedy is born out of the desire to play, the anything goes as long as it gets a laugh spirit, with the unrelated running gags and the high-speed whirl of jokes (which are actually quite moderately paced now we’re in the Twenty-First Century but which must have scorched the audience’s fingertips at the time).
The boys are amply aided by a strong supporting cast, especially the bumptious singer/actress/dancer/comedienne Martha Raye as Betty, supposedly Chic’s younger sister, a Brooklyn girl with an eye for a man and a loud and goofy willingness to send herself up: the film lights up with energy whenever she’s onscreen, which is three-quarters of the picture. Film comedian Hugh Herbert plays his standard persona as a mild-mannered man with a nervous giggle who’s presented here as a detective and master of disguise, wandering in and out of scenes, and Mischa Auer is wonderfully rubber-bodied as Prince Pepi, a genuine impoverished foreign prince making a living by posing as an obvious gold-digging phoney pretending to be an impoverished foreign prince.
Paige and Frazee excel as romantic leads who try to play their parts straight, for the most part, to anchor the storyline in a way that enables everyone else to bounce off it, though they have their moments: a romantic duet about a cottage in the hills keeps having messages to the audience superimposed over it, telling Stinky Miller to go home, until the pair stop their song in exasperation to demand Stinky go home, and wait stern-faced as the silhouette of a boy stands up and moves across the screen, whereupon they resume the song just as if nothing has happened.
Jeff’s show is a serious musical, starring Kitty, Betty and Pepi and masses of singers and dancers. Chic and Ole have successfully cleared the way for Jeff to propose to Kitty by conning Woody into thinking Kitty’s a baaad girl, only to get the mistaken impression that she is, so they set out to wreak havoc on the show to save Jeff, who has a big Broadway producer watching. Scooter hopping bears, talking dogs, “Mrs Jones!!”, Chic and Ole turning half invisible, everything is thrown in bar the kitchen sink, which features in its own gag earlier on, but the producer loves the show as a comedy so everyone’s happy.
Except the Director. What’s all this, he demands of Selby, who merely comments that he saw Hellzapoppin’ in New York and liked it. Enraged, the Director fills him fulla lead, not that Selby’s bothered: he always wears his bullet-proof vest round the studio (drinks glass of water, which springs out of multiple holes…)
That’s about as much sense as I can make out of the movie without telling you all the gags. Olsen and Johnson and screenwriters Nat Perrin, Warren Wilson and Alex Gottlieb take full advantage of the possibilities of film trickery, whose very crudeness only multiplies the gags by making them so obviously faked. The songs sit snugly in their slots, fitting their many moments in the story, and there’s a magnificent and show-stopping moment midway from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, with some hot, jumping jazz and some ferociously fast and athletic dancing that’s universally agreed to be the finest capture of Lindy Hopping on screen ever.
It’s done with a blazing comic grin, but it’s one of those scenes that take your breath away, however little it has to do with anything else.
But Hellzapoppin‘ manages to be ahead of its time and to out-zany the Marx Brothers, who were now in decline from their great movie years, and it’s still a heap of fun nowadays. Personally, I think it funnier that any one single Marx Brothers movie, though clearly the Brothers’ longer run of fame and success counts in making them the better comedians. Chic and Ole made two more films, only one of which, the last, I’ve ever seen, and it couldn’t touch Hellzapoppin
Still silly after all these years.