This thoroughly cinematic adaptation of a legendary stage show that had set the record for performances on Broadway is unequivocably one of the most relentlessly inventive and ruthlessly funny movies in Hollywood history. Hellzapoppin's absence from the AFI's list of 100 greatest comedies can only be attributed to its longtime lack of availability on video (apparently due to legal entanglements). There really is no other excuse; for my money this film is even more anarchic and aesthetically daring than Duck Soup, trading the verbal wordplays of its predecessor with an onslaught of metacinematic sight gags.
Five minutes into the film, comedy duo Ole Olson and Chic Johnson make an explosive entrance, only to abruptly ask the film projectionist (Shemp Howard of Three Stooges fame) to replay the reel. Pressured to conceive of a filmic version of their stage revue, they walk through several period sets, instantaneously changing their outfits accordingly (the last is an snowy Eskimo set where they come upon the Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane). Moments later, they review footage depicting the nominal romantic narrative that Universal Studios imposed on their initially plotless production until they reluctantly decide to literally enter the film within the film.
The madcap invention is improbably sustained for most of the 84-minute runtime, working around a banal love story much like the Marx Brothers' films with MGM. A vivacious Martha Raye lampoons the love theme by chasing around the stork-like Continental cad Mischa Auer (hilarious in lame underwear). But the show-stopper is the much celebrated Lindy Hop sequence involving several Black domestic servants who without warning launch into the most jaw-dropping swing number captured on film. Throw in a few girls in hell being roasted on spits, synchronized swimmers and tight-bodied male divers cavorting in an Olympic pool, a talking bear on a pogo stick, and a host of other surreal visions, and you have a landmark in the history of humankind's liberation from common sense.
Want to go deeper?
Rarely shown in the U.S. these days, this 1941 film of the wildly deconstructive stage farce with Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson is still regarded as a classic in Europe, and it lives up to its reputation. The credit sequence establishes the wartime mood with its vision of hell as a munitions factory (where demons preside over the packaging of Canned Guy and Canned Gal), which is shortly revealed as a movie soundstage, the first of many metafictional gags. Very belatedly the movie gets around to telling a spare musical-comedy story (with swell numbers by Martha Raye and the jazz duo of Slim Gaillard and “Slam” Stewart, and some very acrobatic jitterbugging), but the main bill of fare is manic nonsense that almost makes the Marx Brothers look sober.
This image was found on a site called Encyclopedia of Cannibal Movies (!)
On a personal note, the film is credited to H.C. Potter. However it is completely unlike ANYTHING Potter otherwise directed on film. The cutting, camera setups, pacing are all completely in the style of then-Universal comedy ace Eddie Cline (who directed the other three Universal O&J films). I have always been convinced that Cline did most of the helming on this picture. Unfortunately, this is pure speculation on my part and I am the first to give NO credence to any suppositions that are not supported by primary source material (studio memos etc.).
Blogger Eugene Ionesco offers a lovely tribute to the film, focusing especially on the eye-popping "Lindyhop sequence" which he considers "the most exhilirating dance sequence ever committed to film:"
It's hard to believe it dates from 1941: it makes all subsequent movie dance routines look anaemic by comparison. The routine is so wild and abandoned it's hard to believe it's happening in real time and hasn't been speeded-up. The ferocity with which the dancers are propelled like projectiles by the leads in a series of ever-more improbable ariel moves seems, to the modern sensibility, to be not only politically incorrect but borderline illegal. One thing's for sure: never has a dance routine seemed so vital.
This is a moment of bona fide cinematic genius, the likes of which, I'll venture to say, has never been and will never be eclipsed in the history of Hollywood. The audacious power of this sequence is only reinforced by it's utter incongruity within the context of the movie. Like many of Hellzapoppin's best scenes there is no reason for this sequence to be included, it has no relevance to the "plot" but what delights here is the wonderfully organic development of this scene.
A couple of household workers (Slim and Slam) are tidying up a music room and when curiosity gets the better of them they can't resist trying out the piano and stand-up bass for themselves. At first hesitant, they quickly discover they have an improbable knack for knockin' out a swingin' tune. The sweet musical commotion attracts the interest of the cook who, needless to say, starts blowing a mean trumpet. More inspirational savant horn players, recruited from the ranks of curious passers-by, join in and a fantastic percussionist materialises from somewhere within the talented ranks of domestic servitude. The chambermaids start dancing wildly with the mechanics, the cooks with the female kitchen staff and before we know it we have a scene of intoxicating musical hedonism and astonishing dancing. The scene disappears as inexplicably as it appeared: the players and dancers melting back into their subordinate roles as domestic servants and minor players within the movie and the "plot" resumes as if nothing has happened. I'm sure this scene could be interpreted, politically and sociologically, as both a libertarian subversion of stereotypical class/ race/ gender roles and a reactionary confirmation of them but I'll leave that to the academics. One thing I do know is this scene is pure cinematic genius.
Hellzapoppin' routine to Count Basie's "Jumpin' At The Woodside" - as it was originally intended to be:
"For Hellzapoppin', I started from the beginning of "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and worked with about sixteen bars at a time, choreographing both the solos and the ensemble section as we went along. (Basie used to stay at the Woodside Hotel on 142nd Street when he played at the Savoy, and some of the jam sessions there inspired the song). I hate to keep saying I choreographed this and I choreographed that because it makes me seem egotistical, but for Hellzapoppin' I set up a routine for each team"
. . . "By the second day, the musical director at Universal started sitting in on rehearsals to listen to the music and watch us dance. His job was to create a composition for our number so the studio wouldn't have to get permission to use Count Basie's song."
-- Excerpt from "Frankie Manning: Ambassador of Lindy Hop"
Remarkably, just a couple of days ago the entire film was posted on the Stage6 video sharing site. Just two catches: it's 75 minutes long (compared to the 84 minute runtime listed on IMDb), and it's taped from Italian TV and therefore has Italian dubbing for most of the dialogue.
Biographical information on Ole Olsen and Chic Johnsen from Classic Images, including an excerpt from an original broadway review of the Hellzapoppin' stage show:
Broadway critic Brooks Atkinson wrote: "Folks, it’s going to be a little difficult to describe this one. Anything goes in Hellzapoppin -- noise, vulgarity, and practical joking. Olsen and Johnson make their entrance in a clownish automobile, and the uproar begins. There is no relief, even during the intermission, when a clown roams the aisles. You can hear some lymphatic fiddling by rotund Shirley Wayne who looks as though she has just finished frying a mess of doughnuts. It is mainly a helter-skelter assembly of low comedy gags to an ear-splitting sound accompaniment. If you can imagine a demented vaudeville brawl without the Marx brothers, Hellzapoppin is it ... and a good part of it is loud, low, and funny!"
The show consisted of two acts with 25 scenes, during which the audience was bombarded with eggs and bananas. Then when the lights went out, the audience was besieged with rubber snakes and spiders. A woman ran up and down the aisles shouting out in a loud tenement voice for "Oscar! Oscar!" Meanwhile, a ticket salesman began to hawk tickets for a rival show (I Married an Angel). The Broadway madness ran for a record breaking 1,404 performances.