Hellzapoppin’

I have one of those Mill Creek comedy collections, full of mostly completely forgotten comedies from the 30’s, 40’s and early 50’s, mostly B flicks, some lousy, some with moments, and some really funny. They range from sophisticated–the nearly completely forgotten Animal Kingdom, a Noel Coward thing from 1932 written by the same guy who did Philadelphia Story and a real gem–to virtually plotless Hal Roach things that are excuses to pull out every slapstick bit he ever used in a silent short. I’d never actually seen Olsen and Johnson and gotta admit in their couple films in this monstrous box set (fifty movies!) they completely break me up, much funnier than Abbott and Costello, and their physical comedy bits are really similar to the Marx Brothers, you can certainly get the feel of the vaudeville both came from. In fact, that led me to Hellzapoppin’ on YouTube (a beautiful print), which was the Universal Studios version of Olsen and Johnson’s huge Broadway hit Hellzapoppin (Universal’s grammar nazis insisted on the apostrophe). The Broadway show was, by all accounts, the most anarchic thing in the history of American entertainment, utter madness, script be damned, incredibly loud, with action on the stage, behind the stage, in the audience, in the aisles, and in the lobby as people left. None of its 1,404 performances were alike. Skits could be dropped, or stopped midway, or completely altered, or destroyed by manic improvisation. Musical numbers rarely made it uninterrupted. Shills planted in the audience would start yelling or weirding out or heckling or loudly announce, over and over, they were going to the bathroom. Things were dropped from the rafters onto the audience, and buzzers jolted them out of their seats. The fourth wall was not just broken through, it was shredded, it was inverted, it was drawn on, it was pulled inside out, it had its own fourth wall (would that be a fifth wall?) Critics hated it. Audiences loved it. It was vaudeville’s last crazy act, really. That was our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ world, vaudeville, this sort of unapologetic cornball Yiddish and yokel and music hall madness. It’s the anarchy you see in the early Marx Brothers flicks, in Duck Soup and Monkey Business and Horse Feathers, before MGM tamed them. Universal tamed Hellzapoppin, too, or tried to, with an inane love story and too many uninterrupted musical numbers (though Martha Raye was no comic slouch, and there’s a killer jazz and lindy hop bit, just perfect, perhaps the best swing dance movie scene ever). But Olsen and Johnson (and screenwriter Nat Perrin, who also wrote Monkey Business as well as conceived and wrote the original Addams Family) manage to keep the anarchy going, with the fourth wall shattered in a zillion pieces. The first fifteen minutes apparently come closest to the dementia of the live show, and it is probably the most intensely manic comedy I have ever seen on film including the Marx Brothers. It’s more low brow than the Marx Brothers, with none of their intellectual cachet, and I imagine neither Olsen nor Johnson ever sat around the Algonquin Round Table, but it is absolutely insane. Wonderful stuff. If you’re a fan of screwball comedy in its purest and most uncompromising form, or just want to see what it was that died when vaudeville died, I imagine Hellzapoppin’ (apostrophe’d) is essential. Besides, it has the hippest Citizen Kane reference ever: “I thought they burned that thing.”

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One thought on “Hellzapoppin’

  1. OK, you’ve convinced me to check out “Hellzapoppin'” on the Internet Archive. (I can’t do YouTube.)

    If the pack you have includes “The Villain Still Pursued Her” I would recommend that one. Very funny deadpan spoof of mid-19th century melodramas which also breaks the fourth wall at times. Sort of the “Airplane!” of the 1940’s.

    Like

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