These notes accompanied The Crank’s screening of Hellzapoppin’ on February 18, 2016. The film, despite retrospective critical acclaim, has not been officially released on DVD in the United States. Additionally, the screening of a nitrate print provided a rare opportunity for students and other viewers to experience a vintage film artifact in a format rarely exhibited today.
THE CRANK PRESENTS:
HELLZAPOPPIN’ (1941). A Mayfair Production. DISTRIBUTED BY: Universal Pictures, Inc. PRODUCED BY: Jules Levey. DIRECTED BY: H.C. Potter. SCREENPLAY: Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson, suggested by the stage play Olsen & Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’. PHOTOGRAPHY: Elwood Bredell. EDITOR: Milton Carruth. MUSIC: Frank Skinner. SONGS: Don Raye & Gene De Paul. ART DIRECTOR: Jack Otterson. CAST: Ole Olsen (Ole), Chic Johnson (Chic), Martha Raye (Betty), Hugh Herbert (Quimby), Jane Frazee (Kitty), Robert Paige (Jeff), Mischa Auer (Pepi), Richard Lane (Director), Lewis Howard (Woody), Shemp Howard (Louie), Elisha Cook, Jr. (Selby). FORMAT: 35mm, nitrate. RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes. ORIGINAL RELEASE: December 26, 1941.
The comedy duo Olsen and Johnson, although not as well remembered as some of their contemporaries (one of their movies, Crazy House, includes a joke about how Universal Pictures valued Abbott and Costello more highly even in their own time), found resounding success on Broadway with their stage revue, Hellzapoppin’. Midwesterners both, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson first teamed up in vaudeville and thrived on comic banter, corny jokes, and general wackiness. Finding their early film ventures ill-suited to their brand of humor, the duo concocted Hellzapoppin’ for the stage. The revue boasted an “anything goes” style and, in true vaudeville fashion, it featured a variety of performers, including singing acts, dancing acts, unicyclists, and magicians (one of whom was Harry Houdini’s brother, Theo Hardeen). It even included film clips of figures like Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler, and Mussolini, with satirical voice dubbing in a style reminiscent of the Bad Lip Reading videos that circulate on the Internet today. Performers frequently broke the fourth wall and entered the audience’s space. Through it all, Olsen and Johnson improvised a humorous ongoing commentary on the action, reflecting an attitude that later proved ideal for a venture into self-referential cinema. Hellzapoppin’ began its Broadway run in September 1938. Variety called it “the maddest cocktail fed the New York theatre since Clayton, Jackson and Durante first wrecked the Palace stage some years back.” The review continued, “Its heavy hoke, zany slapstick and blank-cartridge explosions must leave the audience quite shell-shocked; if only moderately received, it will at least be heard during its Broadway run.” Heard it was; the show ran for 1,404 performances before closing in 1941, making it the longest-running Broadway musical to date at the time.
The Hellzapoppin’ film adaptation, made and released in 1941, followed hot on the heels of the stage show and, despite eschewing most of its performers and songs, carried its zany spirit, its penchant for prop comedy, and some of its notable gags, including the recurring “Oscar” and “Mrs. Jones” bits. A notable obstacle to translating the revue’s ethos to the screen was the prevailing notion that Hollywood films had to focus on a narrative, while the show had been a plotless showcase for musical numbers and Olsen and Johnson’s blackout sketches. The film’s writers ingeniously addressed this problem by working it into the scenario itself: the film becomes a metafictional piece (“a picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin’”) in which Olsen and Johnson butt heads with an exasperated director who forces the duo into a love story. They, however, have other plans, proceeding to wreak havoc on the director’s vision. Olsen and Johnson’s clash with the director is the conflict that truly drives the film, as opposed to the perfunctory love triangle of the story within the film. The inner story is about putting on a show, which the two comics feel compelled to throw into chaos. (They are given a thin narrative justification to do so, but there is no doubt that they would have found a reason regardless.) In the battle between Hellzapoppin’ and narrative and cinematic conventions, Hellzapoppin’ ultimately emerges victorious. Although critical reception was mixed — the film was included in a New York Times list of the ten worst movies of 1941 — Hellzapoppin’ was a financial success, and its style of self-reference and rapid-fire gags influenced Laugh-In, Mel Brooks, and Airplane!, among others, in the future. Leslie Halliwell, one of the film’s champions, wrote, “Hellzapoppin’ represents the truest flavour of burlesque that the Hays Office would ever allow the cinema audience to savour before the whole style became old-fashioned.”
Hellzapoppin’ successfully translates to the screen the elements that made it a hit on the stage. The play’s audience interaction takes the cinematic form of funny titles, asides, and exchanges with the projectionist, played by Shemp Howard of the Three Stooges. Where the stage show had magic acts, the film has a gleeful display of special effects. The film takes pleasure in putting peripheral attractions in the spotlight. Olsen and Johnson’s prop men are the key agents of the inner story, and the otherwise ignored black domestic workers, played by Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, put on the most memorable musical number in the film. “Too bad they’re not in the show!” remarks Jeff after their electrifying dance, underscoring the fact that they are in the film and have just amazed the film’s viewers. The Lindy Hoppers have nothing to do with the plot, but we don’t care; we are made to see that the plot is artificially imposed. The random elements that seem to come out of nowhere are in fact the heart and soul of this show, and anything else would be unfaithful to the spirit of Hellzapoppin’.
Cullen, Frank. Vaudeville, Old and New, Vol. 2. New York: Taylor & Francis Group, 2007.
Halliwell, Leslie. Halliwell’s Hundred. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1982.
“Hellzapoppin’.” Variety, September 28, 1938: 56.
Mayer, Arthur L. “Critics’ Curse Is Gold at Box Office Says Mayer.” Motion Picture Herald, January 17, 1942: 26.