Saturday 27 August 2016

Hellzapoppin' (1941)

Director: H. C. Potter
Writers: Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson, based on an original story by Nat Perrin, suggested by the stage play, Olsen & Johnson’s Hellzapoppin
Stars: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson and Martha Raye

Index: 2016 Centennials.

I knew that Hellzapoppin’ had a reputation for being, shall we say, off the wall, but I wasn’t prepared for how off the wall it actually was. I wonder how well prepared audiences of 1941 were, because this is so far ahead of its time that it took everyone else decades to catch up. Sure, we can see some progression from the Marx Brothers, Busby Berkeley and vaudeville, not to mention the wacky world of cartoons, but this goes beyond them to remind of The Goon Show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Blazing Saddles, to pick on just three insanely influential titles from future eras that clearly owe a major debt of gratitude to Olsen and Johnson, who I’m now realising were more than just another double act from the thirties, a lesser Abbott and Costello. I’ve seen a little of their work, like Ghost Catchers, and been impressed, but nothing so far had suggested the sheer insanity of Hellzapoppin’. This is because their brand of madness was hindered by film and best performed on stage, where they could imaginatively interact with the audience.

Indeed, this was sourced from a stage revue, which, by all accounts, was more outrageous still than this film adaptation. It began in 1938 and was a huge hit; its 1,404 performances over three years made it the longest-running Broadway musical at the time and it went on the road too, initially during the original run, but again after it: twice in 1942 and again in 1949. Olson and Johnson wrote the show, or as much of it as wasn’t improvised on the spot, and led the cast for much of its original run and for the Hellzapoppin of 1949 tour. The cast of each version was fleshed out by a wild variety of vaudeville performers and the material was updated often in order to remain topical. Its irreverent nature is ably highlighted by the opening newsreel clips of a Yiddish Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini in blackface and then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt reciting gibberish. It continued on with what Celia Wren called a ‘smörgåsbord of explode-the-fourth-wall nuttiness’. Given what’s in this picture, especially as it begins, I can buy that absolutely.

What I got from this film is that Olsen and Johnson, the only cast members who transferred over from the stage revue to the film adaptation, never found a rule that they didn’t want to break. The revue had clotheslines strung above the audience, which had a variety of stooges carefully placed to interact with the show, which often left the stage; chorus girls danced with members of the audience or even sat in their laps. Some signature gags made it into the film: a woman wanders around shouting, ‘Oscar!’ while a man does likewise trying to deliver a plant to ‘Mrs. Jones!’, a plant that keeps growing throughout the show. In the revue, it even continued on after the show had ended, as he was found stuck in a full sized tree in the lobby as audience members left the venue. Obviously, that end couldn’t be realistically transferred to film; neither could the buzzers that were fitted to random seats in what sounds suspiciously like what William Castle would call ‘Percepto’ when exhibiting The Tingler two decades later in 1959.

Universal did impose a little structure onto the picture, at least once we get into the main thrust of it which starts around thirteen minutes in. So much happens in the prior time that I gave up taking notes, even though I type at 160 wpm, and tried to absorb the insanity instead. I replayed those thirteen minutes to my son, who wouldn’t dream of watching a 1941 musical even if he got paid to do it, and saw him grin his way through and suggest that he wouldn’t mind actually seeing the picture. That’s how ahead of its time this stuff is. In fact, anyone who enjoyed the honest digs that Deadpool hurled at its own genre would recognise the approach here, 75 years earlier. ‘It’s a picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin,’ the director explains. ‘It’s a great script. Feel how much it weighs.’ The stars aren’t impressed. ‘Listen, buddy. For three years we did Hellzapoppin on Broadway and that’s the way we want it on the screen.’ The director disagrees: ‘This is Hollywood. We change everything here. We got to.’ The simple reply is, ‘Why?’

The layers aren’t merely deep, they’re Escher-esque. The entire film starts with Shemp Howard as a projectionist called Louie who kicks off the film from his booth. We watch him watch a traditional, glamorous musical number on his screen, before the staircase they’re descending folds in on itself and tumbles them straight down to Hell behind the opening credits. Now we’re watching the surreal musical number of the title, with its telling lyrics: ‘Hellzapoppin’! Old Satan’s on a tear. Hellzapoppin’! They’re screaming eveywhere. See the inferno of vaudeville; anything can happen and it probably will!’ Into a landscape of acrobatic dancing devils tormenting elegantly attired ladies and gentlemen who look like they might have wandered over from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers picture to be jabbed with pitchforks, turned on spits or canned for future consumption, ‘our prize guests’ show up by taxi. ‘That’s the first taxi driver who went straight where I told him to!’ Ole Olsen mutters.

After burning up the taxi in a special effect, they ask Louie to rewind the picture so they can see that part again. ‘Don’t you know you can’t talk to me and the audience,’ he tells them, but rewinds it anyway so they can redo the effect and transform the cab into a horse instead, with a tic-tac-toe board on its butt. Does anything here make sense? Well, they then promptly walk off the set and argue with the director. ‘You’ve got to have a love story,’ he insists. Why? ‘Because every picture has one!’ He wants the studio’s writer, Elisha Cook Jr., to write one in and, after walking through a variety of sets with instant costume changes but a consistent running conversation, they sit down to watch what the studio wants in a photograph that turns into a interactive video, eventually adding Olsen and Johnson into the frame. They’ve been talking to characters in the photo, then overdubbing them with dialogue as if they’re robots on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Now they’re in the picture within a picture and we can finally maximise.

I adored those thirteen minutes of sheer cinematic genius and still have trouble believing that I’m watching something from 1941. It isn’t just the age, but the Production Code. We’ve spent most of the time in Hell, with an army of devils torturing the young and beautiful, and we’ve experienced at least one casual murder, one casual suicide and one casual animal killing. Sure, they’re all off-screen, but that’s not the point. Now we’re about to move onto mass theft, destruction of museum property and, eventually, rape, even if it’s a woman ravishing a man. That still counts and it was rather subversive in the Production Code era. I’m shocked at how much Olsen and Johnson got into this movie, all while showing us how Universal wouldn’t let them do what they want. It’s hard to quantify how surreal it was watching this introductory sequence and, to only a slightly lesser degree, the rest of the picture, but I had an absolute blast doing it, again not something I tend to have watching classic era musicals.

Of course, there are jokes, which come thick and fast, thicker and faster even than Mel Brooks delivered in Blazing Saddles. It’s fair to say that a decent amount are obviously set up gags that we can see coming: the balloons, the cactus, the kitchen sink. Others are just plain awful, like the coat of arms. Some are neatly topical, like the sled they pass walking through an eskimo set with the word ‘Rosebud’ painted on it. ‘I thought they burned that,’ comments Chic Johnson. Many are neatly self-deprecating. The man with the ever-growing plant interrupts the stars as he searches for Mrs. Jones. ‘We’re making a movie!’ they protest at him. ‘That’s a matter of opinion,’ he replies. The lady shouting for ‘Oscar!’ first appears asking for Olsen and Johnson’s autographs, but rudely snatches her autograph book back when she realises who they are. That suicide was of a cameraman trying to avoid the torment of making this very picture. The edgier the humour, the more important it is to be aimed as much inward as outward.

Now, this hasn’t sounded too much like a musical yet, the opening number really just a theme tune, but we do get there in the end. The romantic plot that Universal are so keen on introducing revolves around a simple love triangle, but it unfolds at a mansion in Long Island that’s packed full of people for a Red Cross benefit. It’s the Rand estate and the ‘disgustingly rich’ and beautiful young Kitty Rand is at the heart of that love triangle. One of her beaus is Jeff Hunter, a playwright who’s staging a revue called Broadway Bound in her spacious backyard, with its stage the size of a Busby Berkeley set; she loves him and he loves her, but he won’t marry for money. ‘That’s crazy,’ suggest our stars. ‘That’s movies,’ insists the director. The other is Woody Taylor, Jeff’s best friend, who has the eye of Kitty’s parents, perhaps because he’s also disgustingly rich. I can’t argue that this nod to convention doesn’t hurt to ground the outrageous humour but it also aids it in ways I didn’t expect and that impressed me.

The actors in this love triangle are well cast. Jane Frazee is a delightful young lady whose work here appears to be effortless. She’d previously appeared in a number of musicals, occasionally with her sister Ruth with whom she’d been performing for many years. She had a busy 1941, beginning it as the leading lady in Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates and ending it here as the leading lady in an Olsen and Johnson movie. In between were Sing Another Chorus, Angels with Broken Wings and Moonlight in Hawaii, all musicals, as was San Antonio Rose with its odd comedic double act of Shemp Howard and Lon Chaney Jr. Lewis Howard plays Woody Taylor like an honest but dumb waste of space, which is appropriate for the story but unfortunate for his chances to do much. It’s no surprise that Kitty ends up with Jeff Hunter, as Robert Paige is the epitome of the bland romantic hero musicals adored. He’s just like Allan Jones in the Marx Brothers films, a good looking prop with a good voice who couldn’t steal a scene from the stars if he tried.

If only all those other films did what this one does with these beautiful people. As Kitty and Jeff share a suitably soporific number on the empty backyard stage, a note is plastered up on the screen over them: ‘If Stinky Miller is in the audience, go home now!’ it reads and I howled with laughter. After another message is ignored, they interrupt the song to reinforce it themselves, imploring the kid directly, as does Hugh Herbert, who pops around a theatre curtain. And, sure enough, Stinky Miller stands up in silhouette and walks out. I have enough trouble with classic musicals anyway, but I’m going to ache for a recurrence of this scene in all that I see from now on. Further comedic manipulation of musical numbers ensues, but they’re livened up generally through most being sung by Martha Raye, who would have been a hundred years old today, 27th August. I haven’t seen many of her pictures, but I did enjoy her performance here because she provided a bridge between the comedy and the songs.

Raye was a real character, born to vaudevillian parents who started her out in their act at the age of three. She sang for orchestras and on radio, eventually finding her way to film in 1934. Her debut feature two years later was alongside Bing Crosby in Rhythm on the Range and, like Frazee, she came to this from a 1941 Abbott and Costello movie, this time Keep ’em Flying. She was so well known that Warner Brothers caricatured her as a jazz singing donkey in a 1937 cartoon, The Woods are Full of Cuckoos. Her prominence was something that stayed throughout her career, helped by her relentless work for the U.S.O., which saw her described as the female Bob Hope. My better half knew her best playing up her ‘Big Mouth’ nickname in a set of annoyingly omnipresent commercials for Polident denture cleanser. In her private life, she was a conservative Republican and devout Methodist who taught Sunday School classes, but still managed to marry seven different people, divorcing six of them within just over two decades.

She seems to have had a lot of fun here and the most memorable musical numbers are hers, especially Watch the Birdie, which sees her pausing the picture at key moments during the song. Oddly, given that Jeff’s words to her screen brother, Chic Johnson, when he sees her are, ‘Don’t tell me you brought her?’ she gets a good proportion of the singing time in his backyard revue. Given that the wild situation comedy leads Olsen and Johnson to sabotage Jeff’s show under good intentions, that involves Raye singing while inhaling sneezing powder, being stuck to flypaper and even being chased by a man trying to read a pulp in her spotlight. I have no idea how these apparently disconnected performances were supposed to gel together, but I enjoyed the sabotage, not only the bit where they nail the antebellum skirts of a bevy of beauties to the stage and they walk right out of them. Raye is even thrown into the audience, after the introduction of tacks, only to be thrown back on by the Frankenstein’s monster!

At the risk of letting this review keep going forever, there’s much more here that’s worthy of comment. As befits a show rooted in a vaudeville revue, there are a collection of talented folk doing impressive things. Some are actors, as you might expect for a film; I’ve mentioned Shemp Howard and Elisha Cook Jr., but Mischa Auer and Hugh Herbert get plenty of screen time too. The former is a real nobleman pretending to be a fake one for effect and he’s the character who’s surely raped by Martha Raye’s. The latter plays a private detective for no reason I could ascertain, except to give him a vague excuse to wear more disguises than can comfortably be imagined. Others are performers, such as the Olive Hatch Water Ballet, who put on a Busby Berkeley style show in the pool, and Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, credited as the Harlem Congeroo Dancers, who perform what appears to be an insanely dangerous dance routine to the accompaniment of Slim and Slam, both musicians and dancers sadly having to pretend to be exuberant servants.

What I have to come back to most, however, is just how much Olsen and Johnson play with the traditional filmgoing experience. At one point, Shemp Howard’s projectionist is trying to get it on with an usherette, only for her to bump the projector. Suddenly, the stars are separated on screen by the projector showing half of consecutive frames in a device I’ve only ever seen done in cartoons before; they even fix the problem themselves by reaching up and pulling the frame down, a move I might expect of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck rather than a pair of comedians in a 1941 musical. Then they’re upside down. Then the cavalry rides through as they’re in a completely different picture, which magically interacts with them. ‘The big dope!’ Olsen says of a native American with a rifle, who promptly changes his aim to shoot the star. I have to call out the visual effects of John P. Fulton for special praise, as many of them are seamless, including the zany extension of concepts that he had first explored in The Invisible Man.

To suggest that this film surprised me is an understatement. While I’ve seen many of these actors before, this was easily the most I’ve seen our birthday girl, Martha Raye, and I’m eager to explore how versatile she was in pictures as varied as Never Say Die, The Phynx and Pufnstuf. I’m also now highly aware that I’ve overlooked Olsen and Johnson’s contributions to thirties comedy. The gags aren’t all as original as they sound, not only because of a host of cartoons but because of silent comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton too; Sherlock Jr. especially came to mind while watching. However, I’ve never seen the lunacy of the Marx Brothers ratcheted up this high before and I’m intrigued as to how much this double act managed to get this across on the more inherently restrictive medium of film, as compared to the stage. I want to revisit Ghost Catchers and especially find Crazy House. IMDb credits might suggest that Olsen did little except co-write You’re in the Army Now, but this film proves otherwise. Now let’s watch it again!

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