Director: H. C. Potter
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Fans of Hollywood films that veer into the zany and absurd frequently cite films by the Keystone Kops and the Marx Brothers for the early years, and then skip forward to people like Mel Brooks and Jim Carrey. In between, we had at least a couple of doozies that I can think of: one seemingly drug-induced Busby Berkeley film, The Gang’s All Here (1943), and the one under consideration here, Hellzapoppin. The comedy team responsible for making Hellzapoppin a hit on Broadway was composed of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, vaudevillians who knocked around theatres, radio, and a few unsuccessful movies until they struck gold with this off-the-hook revue some people call “kitchen sink” comedy for its haphazard mixing of anything and everything.
The stage version of Hellzapoppin was a plotless collection of improvisation, blue humor, sketch and blackout comedy, sight gags, music, gunshots from Olsen and Johnson’s ever-present starter’s guns, and rummaging around in the audience. Although critics panned its low-brow humor, audiences kept coming back for more, keeping the show running for 1,404 performances, a new Broadway record. Universal optioned the show, intending to translate it faithfully to the screen. Naturally, more conservative heads prevailed and tacked a plot on. Even so, by repeatedly breaking the fourth wall and creating non sequiturs galore, the creative team of Hellzapoppin managed a successful subversion of the filmic form.
The film begins on a stage—a theatrical stage or a sound stage?—presumably as the members of the Hellzapoppin cast are assembling their acts. Devils work in the bowels of hell and swing around the stage as a “Hellzapoppin” theme song is performed. It’s a pretty exciting opening.
It becomes clear that Hellzapoppin is moving from a Broadway theatre to a Hollywood soundstage, as scenery and props are being inventoried for the move. Olsen displays an item he says is Napoleon’s skull. (Olsen and Johnson had a thing about Napoleon.) In response, Johnson counters with a small skull, which he says is “the skull of Napoleon when he was a child.” Johnson remarks on a sled making its way out, “I thought they burned that,” and then the word “Rosebud” comes into view. A delivery man (Frank Darien) comes through with a small tree in a pot calling for Mrs. Jones; of course, this bit will bleed from the “stage” to the movie proper as the tree gets larger and larger, and Darien shows up in more and more outrageous delivery vehicles, including a kitelike contraption. This portion of the movie clearly is the stage play.
Soon, a producer shows up and argues that you can’t have a movie without a plot. He brings in screenwriter Harry Selby (Elisha Cook Jr.) who deadpans his “pitch” as a television-sized screen introduces the elements of the plot he has written—a wealthy girl named Kitty (Jane Frazee) who nurses a love for theatrical producer named Jeff (Robert Paige), who fights his feelings for her because he hasn’t enough money to get married and she’s engaged to his pal Woody (Lewis Howard). The girl yearns to be on the stage so, because she’s fabulously wealthy, the director of the picture (Richard Lane) says, naturally she’s built a huge stage on the grounds of her estate.
The proposed story with already-shot footage is being projected by Olsen’s cousin Louie (Shemp Howard), who has invited a healthy-sized woman up to his projection booth. Olsen and Johnson ask whether the film has any sound, and when Louie switches it on, the film opens up, with Olsen and Johnson appearing on Kitty’s estate.
Martha Raye lends her energy to the proceedings as Kitty’s goofy, man-hungry friend Betty. She takes possession of a block of ice that has been delivered to the estate, which is populated by the cast and crew of a stage show Jeff is previewing for a Broadway producer to help him strike it and declare himself to Kitty. At the same time, a fake Russian count (Mischa Auer) has heard that a fabulously wealthy woman has just arrived. When he asks who she is, he is pointed toward a woman “with all the ice,” referring to the obscenity of diamonds the woman is wearing. Just then, the woman moves, and the count sees Betty holding the block of ice. Naturally, his pursuit of her, discovery of her true identity, and her pursuit of him last throughout the film.
The plot is predictable, and Jeff’s show, which caps off the film, is disappointing, even though Olsen and Johnson do their best to ruin it in a strange attempt to ruin his future in order to save him from Kitty, who they think is a Jezebel, yada, yada, yada. What does work in this part of the film is the translation of the play’s audience participation to a movie audience. During a love song, title cards are transposed onto the scene that say “Stinky Miller, your mother wants you home.” They appear periodically, getting more insistent. Finally, Kitty and Jeff stop singing and directly address Stinky. A silhouette of a boy moves across the screen. “That’s a good boy,” says Kitty before resuming her song.
Cousin Louie’s camera movements provide additional intrigue, as he seems to be the cameraman filming the movie and trains his gaze on some bathing beauties when he should be following Olsen and Johnson as they walk. In another sequence, the film slips its sprockets, leaving a black bar at the bottom of the screen. The actors push down to reframe the film, but then the film slips too far, and the bar appears at the top. Disembodied hands reach up and push upward.
Hellzapoppin has one additional distinction. It has what many consider the best lindy hop ever filmed. I agree; see what you think.
Olsen and Johnson never duplicated the success of Hellzapoppin and have become a footnote in entertainment history. However, at least one heir to their comic tradition paid them homage. In a fictional town where everyone is named Johnson, one character is named Olsen Johnson. The film, of course, is Blazing Saddles. Mel Brooks knew exactly what he owed to Ole and Chic.