Friday, November 6, 2009

Film Review: Hellzapoppin'

"Hellzapoppin'" *** (out of ****)

"Hellzapoppin'" (1941) was based on a Broadway musical/comedy revue (of the same name) written by the comedy team Olsen & Johnson and Nat Perrin (who also wrote the movie version). The play opened in 1938 and became one of the most successful Broadway productions of the 1930s, running for 3 years and 1,404 performances after closing in 1941.

It was said audiences would never see the same show twice. Major portions of the show were ad-libbed. The show thrived on chaos. Cast members would hide out in the audience and then run onto the stage. Audience participation was a major component of the show. Musical numbers would be disregarded mid-way through for comedy sequences. The appeal of the show was the "anything goes" mentality of it. What was real and what was part of the show?

Naturally Hollywood became interested in producing the play into a movie. With something this successful you already had a formula which seemed to work. There was a built in audience. But with a movie you can't ad-lib as much. You need a script and a sense of direction. The camera needs to know where to move and what is suppose to be in frame.

"Hellzapoppin'" is one of those goofy, off-the-wall type of comedies. The kind of movie where "anything can happen and it probably will" so goes lyrics to the theme song. Think of the Marx Brothers' comedy "Duck Soup" (1933) or the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Diplomaniacs" (1933). This film starts off with a title card which reads, "any similarity between "Hellzapoppin'" and a motion picture is purely coincidental". And that pretty much is a warning for the kind of comedy to expect. You are either going to go along with it or resist it all the way through.

Lucky for me, I normally like these kind of movies. I enjoy comedies which sacrifice story for a joke. There is nothing remotely realistic about "Hellzapoppin'". We watch the movie for the jokes. We don't expect much else from it. If it makes us laugh it has succeeded. If you're looking for relatable characters, decent story-line or a satisfactory ending, well, you walked into the wrong picture. Everything is built around the jokes. Each scene has about 5 or 10 jokes which fly at you. One is bound to hit the target. If you are in the right mood, maybe two or three will work.

The movie is about a movie within a movie. Sound confusing? Wait a minute. If that confuses you, you are just going to have to play catch up. Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson play themselves. They are on a movie set filming the movie version of their stage hit "Hellzapoppin'", but the movie director (Richard Lane, a character actor most movie buffs will know for roles in the Laurel & Hardy 40s comedy "A-Haunting We Will Go" (1942), which is not as bad as most people may lead you to believe. And "Louisiana Hayride" (1944). breaks up the scene and tells the boys they can't continue. People won't want to see a movie like this. It is too broad and outrageous. So a writer has been hired, Harry Selby (Elisha Cook Jr, best known for his roles in 40s noir films such as "The Maltese Falcon" (1940) and "The Big Sleep" (1946) were he played gangsters and thugs). Harry is suppose to add a love story into the pot in order to give audiences something to root for. So the boys actually watch the movie we are suppose to be watching.

Here they play prop men (still themselves) who are working on a new play headed by Jeff Hunter (Robert Paige). Jeff is in love with the lead actress, Kitty Rand (Jane Frazee, who appeared in the Abbott & Costello comedy hit of the same year "Buck Privates"). But Kitty is suppose to marry Jeff's best friend Woody (Lewis Howard). And Jeff would never dream to come between them, despite the fact it is obvious Kitty loves Jeff. But there is also the social difference between them to think of. Kitty comes from a very wealthy family while Jeff is a working class man. He is poor but proud and would never speak of his affection for Kitty unless he was able to financially support her. If his play is a hit then he might be in a better position to do so. But how to get Woody out of the way. This is where Olsen & Johnson come in.

The boys have decided the best thing to do is to get Woody to dump Kitty. The way to do this is to make Woody think Kitty is having multiple affairs. So they tell Woody Kitty is fooling around with one of her co-stars, Pepi (Mischa Auer, whom you might recognize from the Abbott & Costello comedy "Hold That Ghost" (1941) which I have also reviewed). Helping them out with this plan is Betty (Martha Raye, a one time famous comedienne who appeared in the Charlie Chaplin comedy "Monsieur Verdoux" (1947) which is vastly underrated and a few films with Bob Hope including "College Swing" (1938)

But by describing "Hellzapoppin'" I'm making the film seem "sane". It all makes so much sense. But that is not the effect of the movie. The movie, like the play, thrives on chaos. Olsen & Johnson break the fourth wall. Don't don't just break the wall they smash it. They engaged in conversations with the projectionist (Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges). Who does listen to their orders. There is a camera man who rather focus on pretty ladies then follow Olsen & Johnson. The projectionist, at one point, mixes up the reels putting the team in a cowboy and Indians movie. We get a musical sequence in Hell. With some bizarre images such as women being roasted over a spit fire. During a romantic scene a "message" appears on-screen informing one of the audience members (a young boy) that his mother wants him home. After the image appears a few times, the characters stop singing a song and yell at the boy to go home.

This ladies and gentlemen is what you can expect from the film. If none of this reads as funny to you, it probably won't play out as funny either. You might find the jokes predictable or stale. The first time we see Olsen & Johnson is when they arrive in Hell by taxi. Johnson delivers the line "that's the first taxi driver that ever went straight where I told him." Funny? I think so. But as I said, I'm a sucker for this stuff.

Still I can understand why some may not like this. Sometimes the jokes and the situations feel a little forced. We know we should expect insanity and the situations feel a bit contrived. It doesn't feel spontaneous. And I will admit I don't have as much fun watching this as I do "Duck Soup", "Diplomaniacs" and the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby "road" movies like "Road to Morocco" (1942). But I'd be a hypocrite if I told you not to watch this. I laughed at the movie. I do think it is funny. There are plenty of sight gags and verbal puns to keep you busy.

I've written once before about Olsen & Johnson. I reviewed their comedy "50 Million Frenchmen" (1931), their second screen appearance. Ole Olsen, the taller, skinner one. The somewhat "straight man" of the team and Chic Johnson, the heavy set one known for a high pitched laughed, got their start on vaudeville. They later moved on to radio which eventually led to them signing a contract with Warner Brothers and later Universal (where they made their last four pictures).

Of all their films together (they appeared in 9 between 1930-1945) "Hellzapoppin'" is generally considered their funniest. It is the most representative of their style of comedy which became known as "nut" humor. Still there are those who say the transition to screen wasn't successful because the movie could not be as chaotic as the stage play. They had to "water" things down to meet with production code standards and a mass audience which either wasn't familiar with the play or with Olsen & Johnson's style of comedy.

Though I have focused on the team I should say they are actually a small part of the film. All of the laughs do not come strictly from them. There is madness going on around them and in scenes in which they aren't even involved. Funny man Hugh "woo-hoo!" Herbert is suppose to be a detective sent to try to keep Olsen & Johnson in order. But he seems as nutty as them. He says he is a master of disguises and in every scene we see him dressed in a new costume. Herbert is probably best known for his roles in Warner Brothers musicals like "Footlight Parade" (1933) and the Ruby Keeler/Dick Powell musical "Colleen" (1936). Where he usually played eccentric, older wealthy men. And Martha Raye adds a lot of humor as a "man hungry" actress trying to woo Mischa Auer, who wants nothing to do with her. So if you've never seen Olsen & Johnson, you may not actually understand their personas because they are not the center of attention.

The film also seems to be part of some confusion concerning an Oscar nomination. It is listed as being nominated in the "Best Song" category for the tune "Pig Foot Pete". And while there is music in the film (including a famous scene with Lindy Hop dancers) this song does not appear in the movie. It is a real song, but debuted in the Abbott & Costello comedy "Keep 'Em Flying" (1941). No one seems to be able to explain why this happened. Though I suppose it is only fitting for a movie as goofy as this to be nominated for an award for something which didn't exist in it.

The movie was directed by H.C. Potter, who was behind the very entertaining "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" (1948) with Cary Grant and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical "The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle" (1939). And as I mentioned before the script was by Nat Perrin who had worked with Bob Hope and wrote the Eddie Cantor comedy "Kid Millions" (1934), the overlooked "Thin Man" entry, "Song of the Thin Man" (1947) and wrote additional dialogue for "Duck Soup".

It is too bad Olsen & Johnson are forgotten now. They don't deserve to be. If you've never seen their stuff before I'd recommend seeing this but I'm afraid the "insanity" of the story may be off-putting to you. Perhaps you would like them with more formal material where they are playing characters and there is more of a coherent plot. But that wasn't typical of them. This is their most "pure" picture and the best example of what they were about. If you like "Duck Soup" you'd probably find something funny about this.

As is the case with all of their films "Hellzapoppin'" has not been officially released by Universal. There is a bootlegged DVD of the film available at I have bought this film from them and can say it is a good print which is worth buying.