by A.J. Hakari
With a medium like cinema that’s constantly pushing its boundaries, it can be enlightening to look back at where it started. Certain viewers have difficulty seeing anything “old” as a game-changer, but once upon a time, flicks like those were unprecedented to someone. Hellzapoppin’ can definitely be counted in such ranks, though not by way of addressing social issues through revolutionary means or anything so serious. No, it’s just plain baffling that something this frenetic, surreal and fourth wall-demolishing got bankrolled by a major studio at all, let alone in the 1940s. Yet here it is, the film version of a Broadway smash that brings just a touch of narrative to its source material’s cornucopia of crazy, disjointed skits. One might think that something this nuts made this early on in movie history would be pretty rough around the edges, but save for a botched gag or two, Hellzapoppin’ has a smoother time applying method to its madness than any number of subsequent farces.
After more than three years and 1,400 performances on the stage, it was only logical that Hollywood call upon Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson (playing themselves) to turn their hit revue Hellzapoppin’ into a feature film. But how does one adapt for the big screen a show that had no real plot, encouraged audience participation, and was rewritten all the time so as to ensure the most topical of jokes? Well, against the boys’ wishes, Tinseltown has imposed upon the whole mess a traditional love story, one involving a young playwright (Robert Paige) and the rich girl (Jane Frazee) that he adores. Olsen and Johnson themselves join the cast to play a pair of troublemaking propmasters, but that doesn’t mean they’re about to abide by any rules. In between evading a nosy private detective (Hugh Herbert) and keeping a handle on Chic’s man-hungry sister (Martha Raye), the guys engage the viewers, quibble about the plot, and argue with the projectionist (Shemp Howard), making this one of the biggest free-for-alls the musical genre has ever seen.
“Any similarity between Hellzapoppin’ and a motion picture is purely coincidental.” So declares a title card not two minutes into the run time, and this is after we’ve already seen a chorus of dancers plunged into a fiery netherworld of demonic imps and dwarf cabbies (“The first taxi driver that ever went straight where I told him to!”). But folks getting prodded by pitchforks and rubbing elbows with farm animals is just a mere sample of the insanity to come, for there’s hardly a frame that doesn’t have you wondering what sights will pop up next. Not even the “normal” characters are spared, as they’ll gladly interrupt a swoony ballad to tell a kid in the “audience” that his mom wants him to go home. There isn’t much rhyme or reason as to what takes place, and although this viewing was my second go-around with the flick, I still had my worries that all the randomness would be too much to endure. But surprisingly, I liked Hellzapoppin’ even more than the first time, and it’s all due to the movie’s near-impeccable timing. I couldn’t tell you the reasoning behind most of the editing choices, why Olsen and Johnson wanted to literally rewind the film or wheel out talking bears in some scenes and not others. But everything just works anyway, as some unforeseen product of wackiness is bound to make our expectations do an about-face each time we think we’ve got the film figured out.
Ostensibly, Hellzapoppin’ is mocking its own creation, satirizing the movie business and pointing out how foolhardy it is to try encompassing the Broadway-born zanython into one motion picture. But while this aspect of the movie is certainly evident, it’s not its entire reason for being, which is actually kind of a relief. The jabs Olsen and Johnson do take at the Hollywood system only last so long before they’re onto the next skit, making their point without being lingeringly smug about it. They really are just around to have a load of laughs, and while I can’t say how the show played out on stage, the guys seem pretty comfortable with airlifting what elements they could and incorporating visual trickery that only the movies could pull off to incite more chaos. Of course, as is in any comedy, there are bits that don’t gain as many giggles as others. Not being a fan of Herbert’s in the first place, his scenes as a disguise-donning private dick were among the film’s most grating for yours truly, and while Raye and Mischa Auer are energetic as can be, not much is done with the pair outside of having the former pursue the latter’s royal moocher for the whole running time. But the flick is ultimately much more hit than miss, tossing out gags at a blinding pace and screeching to an anarchic halt just as its welcome started wearing thin.
To date, Hellzapoppin’ has yet to receive a proper home video release here in the States. It’s an ideal candidate to be picked up and restored by some specialty label, one that would stuff it to the gills with one-on-ones with comedy scholars and the like to introduce the film to a world that’s largely forgotten who Olsen & Johnson were. If you stumble across Hellzapoppin’ during your cinematic travels, watch it; even if you hate it, you’re not likely to see anything else like it anytime soon.