How Hollywood classic Hellzapoppin' defied categorisation, rejoiced in playing with possibilities of the medium
'At the Movies' is a fortnightly column on Hollywood's Golden Era (1920s-50s) revisiting films of historical, cultural and/or aesthetic significance. Read more from the series here.
A projectionist at a Universal theatre sets up his machine and projects a film. On screen, a bevy of beauties are seen walking down the stairs. The stairs turn into a ramp, the ladies slip and fall into an abyss. They end up in a bustling section of the netherworld where an army of devils is forging weapons and canning men and women into barrels. Amidst the commotion, a taxi appears out of which a seemingly endless number of animals step out. They drag two men behind them with a rope. The men have a fight with the tiny driver of the taxi, who hands them a bill several metres long. The two men burn down the taxi with a magic breath. Wanting to see this bit of action once again, they call out to the projectionist off screen and have him rewind the last portion. Somewhere between all this is a title card that reads “any resemblance between HELLZAPOPPIN' and a motion picture is purely coincidental”.
If the description above makes no logical sense, it is intended so. One of the challenges that Hellzapoppin' (1941), among the most unclassifiable films in the history of Hollywood, sets for itself is to disrupt conventional logic of film narratives and frustrate our expectations of them. Produced by Universal Studios and directed by HC Potter, Hellzapoppin' was adapted from a highly successful Broadway revue of the same name that premiered in 1938. The brains behind the revue, the comic duo of John “Ole” Olsen and Harold “Chic” Johnson, are also the “protagonists” of the film. They drag the viewer through a potpourri of one-liners, terrible puns, running jokes, action stunts, visual gags, song-and-dance numbers and meta-cinematic games connected by little other than their presence. Their sole weapon is interruption, their only guiding principle, incoherence.
But Hellzapoppin' does have a ‘story’ (“because every picture’s gotta have one”). After the frenzy of the first few minutes, Olsen and Johnson are revealed to be actors trying to make a film (“a picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin'”). In this film within the film, they are supposed to play guests at a party hosted by heiress Kitty (Jane Frazee). The affluent Woody (Lewis Howard) is in love with Kitty, but Kitty loves the playwright Jeff (Robert Paige), who doesn’t want to upset his friend Woody by returning her love. Olsen and Johnson, playing themselves, devise a plot to first hook up Kitty and Jeff, and then to separate them. Orbiting around these figures is an undercover Russian prince (Mischa Auer), a love-hungry young woman pursuing the aristocrat (Martha Raye) and a free agent of no defined purpose (Hugh Herbert) who outbids Olsen and Johnson in their charades.
It wouldn’t be a hyperbole to state that there’s nothing quite like Hellzapoppin’ in classical Hollywood. The film doesn’t particularly obey the conventions of a genre and appears to lie outside of established moviemaking traditions. Its parentage in cinema is therefore hard to establish. If it has a certain affinity to the anarchic spirit of the Marx brothers, especially Chico, its sense of play and gratuitous action have strong echoes of the Dadaist cinema of Europe, such as the work of René Clair and Man Ray. In its tendency to make up the narrative as it goes along, it also recalls the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, where a story or an image passed from the hands of one artist to another, the result bearing the signature of everyone and no one at once.
A more instructive comparison would perhaps be the world of Looney Tunes, the cartoon series produced by Warner Brothers where we find a similar kind of meta-humour at work. These cartoons, especially ones featuring Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, have an elastic narrative universe that accommodates every kind of absurd plot development and prepares the viewer to accept these bizarre turns of events as they are. Like them, Hellzapoppin’ constantly calls attention to its own artifice, as Olsen and Johnson slip in and out of the film (and the film within the film) to directly address members outside the story. They ask the cameraman to stop lingering on bathing beauties. They prompt the projectionist to adjust the misaligned frame weighing down on them. At one point, they instruct one particular member of the audience to go home.
It is also important to note that, before their eastward move to Broadway, Olsen and Johnson were renowned figures of the vaudeville circuit in the American Midwest. In the early 1930s, vaudeville, as a popular form of entertainment, was fighting a losing battle against Hollywood’s talking pictures, which poached both its audience and its talents. Chaining together unrelated variety acts was part of its tradition, but the competition with talkies appears to have obliged vaudeville to distinguish itself even more, not unlike the way cinema was forced to turn more spectacular when television posed a threat in the early 1950s. As a result, Olsen and Johnson’s act turned, per one report, “wilder and zanier”.
This change translated, in the Broadway avatar of Hellzapoppin’, into a gleeful transgression of the theatrical space. Accounts of the revue talk about the ways its action overflowed from the stage into the audience’s space. During the show, it’s said, that a man walked the aisles selling tickets for a competing Broadway musical, another interloper threw rubber snakes at the audience, while a lady ran up and down the hall calling out the name of a certain Oscar. This violation of the audience’s distance from the spectacle — domesticated later by the performances and ‘happenings’ of the 1960s art scene — makes the film’s regular breaking of the fourth wall seem tame in comparison.
Contemporary American reviewers of Hellzapoppin’ the film, for one, seem to have thought so. Writing for Time, James Agee wrote that the film “loses the frenetic quality it achieved on the stage” and that “Olsen & Johnson's ability to exude a kind of ectoplasm which engulfs a theatre audience and makes it participate in the show is necessarily cut off when the show is confined to the screen.” The notice in The New York Times called the comic duo “noisy, boorish and often downright sadistic”. Unburdened by comparisons to the Broadway version, the film appears to have better fared in Europe. The French critic André Bazin, for instance, likened the film’s operation to “the penetration of a neutron into a stable molecule” and stated that its gags “push the metaphysical limits of laughter”.
Even with eighty years of hindsight, we may perhaps not be able to improve on these reactions. For, despite all its chaos and confusion, Hellzapoppin’ conceals no great mystery. It is a film that wears all its enchantments on its sleeve. There’s a plainness and innocence in the way it rejoices in playing with the possibilities of the medium. Early on, Olsen and Johnson walk through the backlot from one set to another. Every time they enter a new space, the shot changes and so do their costumes, thanks to the magic of a straight cut. Footage is quickened, reversed or slowed down. Double exposures are used for amusing special effects. Off-screen space becomes integrated into the shots. And in the film’s crowning passage, familiar to many thanks to a viral clip on the internet, a group of black performers break into an astounding Lindy Hop dance number, jaw-dropping in its physicality and athleticism. It’s as pure as spectacles get.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
Updated Date: Apr 27, 2020 10:00:21 IST
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