Directed by H.C. Potter
Written by Nat Perrin & Warren Wilson, based on a story by Nat Perrin.
Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Mischa Auer, Clarence Kolb, Shemp Howard, Elisha Cook, Jr., Richard Lane
A friend of mine mentioned Hellzapoppin’ on Facebook in the highest terms, so I decided to move it from my list of “Movies I’d like to see” to my list of “Movies I’ve seen.”
It was worth it.
It’s an adaptation of a hit Broadway play that became the longest running show during its original run. The play was evidently nothing but craziness – non sequiturs, dumb jokes, weird running gags, musical numbers, and an “anything can happen” attitude. The cast not only interacted with each other, but with audience members, both real and planted.* It was a smash, the Hamilton of the 1930s.
Of course, it was made into a movie. The film starts in the projection booth, where Louie (Shemp Howard, the once and future stooge) is setting up the film, which shows a group of chorus girls descending a staircase. But the stairs collapse like a funhouse, and deposits them in hell for the first musical number.
We eventually meet Ole Olson and Chic Johnson, who start out with one surreal gag after another (including asking Louie to rewind the film), until the director (Richard Lane) stops things to say they need a plot, pointing out the writer they hired, Harold Selby (Elisha Cook, Jr.**). The script is a standard 30s “let’s put on a show” plot. When Olson and Johnson complain is far too clichéd, the director shows them the film – with them in it.
The issue isn’t the plot, which is only an excuse to hang gags. Indeed, the story takes a back seat to Olson and Johnson’s jokes and antics, along with sight gags and surreal humor. The conventions of film are played with and destroyed, with the characters not only breaking the fourth wall, but just about anything you like. The film becomes mis-centered, with the top half below the bottom half (and the actors know it). During one of the romantic scenes, a slide keeps showing up asking about “Stinky Miller” and telling him to go home. The main running gag involves a man walking around with a tree – the grows each time you see it – calling for “Mr. Jones.”
The cast is filled with first class comics. Hugh Herbert*** plays a “master of disguises” detective. Mischa “The Mad Russian” Auer is Pepe, a deposed prince who is out to marry the heiress. Martha Raye is the comic female lead.**** A favorite of mine, Clarence Kolb (of My Little Margie) is a straight man caught up in the madness.
The plot is inconsequential, and the movie comes to life mostly when Olson and Johnson are on stage and move it from standard gags to complete madness.
It was highly influential. Laugh-In owes everything to it, and I noted a scene that showed up in Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. Every movie where actors knew they were in a movie owes it a debt.
Despite their brilliance, Olson and Johnson were far too anarchic for films. They tried to recapture the success of Hellzapoppin’, but never succeeded, either on Broadway, movies, or TV.
The movie may not have been up to the legend of the show, but it’s amazing how fresh and funny it still is today.
*I read that the theater management was not happy that the show required actors to sit in the audience for various gags because they couldn’t sell the seats for a sold-out show.
** Cook – best known for his roles in The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep is strange to see as a naïve young kid instead of a gunsel.
***Herbert was satirized in a lot of Looney Tunes, with his trademark “hoo-hoo-hoo” sign of nervousness.
****When I first knew of Raye, she seemed to be one of Bob Hope’s road show has-beens. But her role here and especially in Monsieur Verdoux shows a clever comic talent.