Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

“It’s a picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin.”

Hellzapoppin Poster

Synopsis:
Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson make a movie based on their Broadway play about a love triangle between a poor but proud musician (Robert Paige), his wealthy love interest (Jane Frazee), and her fiance (Lewis Howard).

Genres:

Review:
The comedic team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson aren’t nearly as well known as Abbott and Costello or the Marx Brothers, but they possess a small cult following, and merit some attention by film fanatics simply for the uniquely zany sensibility they brought to their work. Their most famous production was the Broadway play Hellzapoppin’, which ran for over three years (from 1938 to 1941), and was finally turned into this enormously creative cinematic “adaptation”. The original show has been described as “a demented vaudeville brawl without the Marx brothers”, and the same can be said about its movie equivalent; indeed, the film’s opening sequence, taking place in Hell itself, is truly over-the-top, plunging viewers immediately into the mayhem that Olsen and Johnson were infamous for.

Unfortunately, the narrative itself — a silly musical about a love triangle, with a subplot involving man-crazy Martha Raye chasing Mischa Auer’s penniless baron — is tiresome at best, as is the final extended “sabotaged ballet” sequence. However, it’s what Olsen and Johnson do around their narrative that really entertains, as they construct an ongoing meta-commentary about the making of their own film, and break the “fourth wall” of cinema again and again — these moments are consistently inspired (see stills below for just a few examples). In addition, film fanatics are sure to be delighted by numerous cinematic in-jokes, including a nod to Citizen Kane (!), a brief Busby Berkeley homage, and a priceless “cameo” by Elisha Cook, Jr. These moments alone make Hellzapoppin’ must-see viewing at least once.

P.S. Watch for a hint of MST3K inspiration (was it?) as Olsen and Johnson sit with their backs to the camera, commenting as they watch themselves on-screen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Creative cinematic “trickery”
    Hellzapoppin Trickery1
    Hellzapoppin Trickery2
    Hellzapoppin Trickery4
  • Several fun cinematic “homages”
    Hellzapoppin Rosebud
    Hellzapoppin Busby Berkeley
  • The surreal opening sequence in Hell
    Hellzapoppin Hell2
    Hellzapoppin Hell3
  • Droll dialogue:

    Director: Now look, Selby, you seem like a bright young man – how old are you?
    Selby: Twenty-three.
    Director: Twenty-three. Well that’s a peak age. Uncle Sam needs young men like you. I assume you’re ambitious?
    Selby: Oh, yes!
    Director: That’s fine. What would you like to be?
    Selby: 29.

Must See?
Yes, as Ole and Johnson’s finest cinematic achievement, and a cult favorite.

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One Response to “Hellzapoppin’ (1941)”

  1. First viewing. Not a must. I could hardly wait for this turkey to end.

    It does indeed open with a rollicking theme song that promises an entertainment of unbridled anarchy. …Promises, promises.

    Perhaps what we’re told early on should clue in. In spite of being reminded that ‘Hellzapoppin” ran on Broadway for three years and worked just fine as is, a Hollywood-type tells Olsen and Johnson that changes are always necessary for film versions. (It’s perhaps no surprise that, in the end credits, we are informed that the film is – merely? – “suggested by the stage play…” – hmm…)

    Obviously, I’ll have no way of comparing what happened on-stage with screen, but what we get on film is:

    Lots, lots, lots of slapstick…
    dated verbal gags…
    a disturbing amount of ‘humor’ involving guns…
    many sappy songs…
    some peppy numbers that are still unmemorable (though there is a short, very physical dance number that offers the only relief)…
    a ballet that runs amok due to excessive sneezing, rampant flypaper and dogs chasing cats…
    and a bunch of other stuff (involving romance) that isn’t worth going into.

    Undoubtedly, the zany nature on display did inspire other comedians (and Warner Bros. cartoonist Chuck Jones; watch ‘Duck Amuck’ and you’ll see what I mean) – but the inspiration didn’t come from top-drawer humor; it just came from the idea that letting hell break loose can be liberating. The main problem with ‘Hellzapoppin” is that hell doesn’t pop much at all, at least not effectively.

    Though the other Olsen-Johnson flick I just watched – ‘Ghost Catchers’ – isn’t must-see, it’s sure better than this. At least it’s watchable.

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