Hot damn! You know you're in for something a little different in Hellzapoppin' (1941), when the opening, Busby Berkeley-esque chorus number is crudely interrupted when the staircase under a bevy of beauties collapses and they all slide into Hell, where they are tormented by a number of imps and demons. Enter, stage left, comedians Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, who quickly reveal this was all part of an elaborate movie currently in production for Miracle Pictures -- "If it's a good picture, it's a miracle." (Aw, I see what you did there, Joe Dante.) Seems the director doesn't think they can get any of this blasphemous nonsense past Joseph Breen and his censoring hatchet men, but, fear not, the screenwriter (Elisha Cook Jr.) has a brand new pitch. And from there, things really get wild and raucous in this musical comedy extravaganza -- and even a bit surreal. Case in point, when the melodical romance between the two leads (Jane Frazee and Robert Paige) is crudely interrupted by a persistent 'message' from the theater:
"Yeah, go home, Stinky."
Yeah, Stinky. Go home.
I honestly haven't seen this kind of anarchy in a movie since the Marx Brothers first broke out in the early 1930s with Monkey Business (1931), Duck Soup (1933) and A Night at the Opera (1935). Between constantly talking to the audience, to the Stinky Miller interlude, to the running feud with the projectionist (Shemp Howard), which leads to a reel mix-up and more Duck Amuck type shenanigans, the fourth wall is not only breached in Hellzapoppin' but obliterated. Even the Frankenstein Monster shows up.
The team of Olsen and Johnson were highly successful vaudevillians who first paired up way back in 1914. They made their film debut in 1930 with Oh, Sailor Behave! (1930), but then split time between motion pictures and live musical revues for most of their careers. (Johnson is credited with writing "Your in the Army Now.") And so, they had been performing and honing their act for nearly thirty years before they wrote and produced a stage version of Hellzapoppin' in 1938, which was later adapted to film by Universal in 1941. And not only do you get the comedy styling of our headlining act, we get ample support from Martha Raye (-- who has a couple of adorable musical numbers and suffers a ton of abuse), Hugh Herbert as the roaming comedy relief, and Mischa Auer, who is hilarious as always as a doofus ballet dancer. Not to mention the show-stopping Lindy Hop number, featuring musicians Slim Gaillard, C.P. Johnstone and Slam Stewart and the hired help stealing the movie in a dance number to end all dance numbers.
Hellzapoppin' was my first exposure to Ole and Johnson, and while I find them to be genuinely funny, and I like their Wheeler and Woolsey approach of letting everyone in the show being in on the joke, essentially making themselves the straight-men in a lot of gags, alas, nothing else they've done lives up to the pure comedy fusion of this film. Ghost Catchers (1944) comes the closest, from what I've seen, but it just can't match the bonkers bedlam found in Hellzapoppin'. And in the good news / better news department, it appears after decades of being stuck in a legal quagmire, Hellzapoppin' has finally managed to crawl its way out of litigation purgatory and eke out a home video release on DVD. There's also a fairly decent print up and streaming on YouTube right now if you want to give it a test spin before committing to a purchase. Either way, I don't think you'll regret it.
Hellzapoppin' (1941) Mayfair Productions Inc. :: Universal Pictures / P: Jules Levey / AP: Alex Gottlieb, Glenn Tryon / D: H.C. Potter / W: Nat Perrin, Warren Wilson, Alex Gottlieb / C: Elwood Bredell / E: Milton Carruth / M: Frank Skinner / S: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige, Mischa Auer, Elisha Cook Jr., Shemp Howard