Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Hellzapoppin' on DVD? When hell freezes over.

OK, I just watched Hellzapoppin' for about the 3rd time this month, starring the world's most dangerous comedians, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, and my question is:


For those of you who're lining up to see Spamalot on Broadway, or even fans of the glorious grounbreaking Goon Show should get a look see at this movie type motion picture film and see where their inspiration could have come from. Hellzapoppin' is a breathless melange of insane movie trickery, fast paced gags upon gags, and more gags. Yes, Universal put a "story" in the film, but only begrudgingly, and to be honest, it works. Leonard Maltin, in his Movie Comedy Teams, gives plenty of space to Hellzapoppin', but insists that it was a shame that Universal had to spoil the fun by injecting a typical romantic plot. I say HA! First of all, the romance is kind of fun because NOBODY takes it seriously, and if the film were only a copy of the Broadway version it would have become tiresome, and too pointless to sit still for. Even the craziest of the early Marx Brothers' films had a so called plot to hang the gags on. The gags in this film are so brilliantly layered. A gag that occurs early in the picture might not see it's punchline until near the end. The optical department must have worked nights on this film due to their glorious use of the medium itself. Ole and Chic have a running commentary with the projectionist (played by a very funny Shemp Howard) at the theatre where the film is playing. Unfortunately, Shemp is wooing plump theatre usherette, Jody Gilbert when he should be watching the film. This sets off a series of hysterical "film" gags that still amaze me with their cleverness.

Ole and Chic began as musicians in vaudeville playing straight jazz. Eventually they realized that comedy would get them better bookings, and before you could say "nepotism", they acquired a troupe of crazies (including a good deal of family) and toured with them across the country, and into Europe and beyond. This led to their Broadway smash, Hellzapoppin', which was basically a ritzed up version of the shows they'd been doing for years in the hinterlands. NYkers fell all over themselves to get tickets. Olsen and Johnson were now Broadway stars and could write their own ticket. They even became Broadway producers, hiring new team on the block, Abbott and Costello for the Bobby Clark starrer, Streets of Paris.

Olsen and Johnson made a few films before Hellzapoppin'. Warners was the first to sign them, although they really weren't sure how to use them. The best of their three features for Warners was Fifty Million Frenchmen, where they tangled briefly with a bearded Bela Lugosi. Five years later they showed up at Republic Studios, of all places, where they made one pleasant situational film, Country Gentlemen, and an almost precursor to their much zanier Universal films, All Over Town. When Republic didn't ask for any more films (and these were VERY low budget offerings), they went back on the road, and then on to Broadway history.

Universal called in 1941. They made Hellzapoppin' there, and then Crazy House, Ghost Catchers, and See My Lawyer, the weakest of the bunch. Crazy House has some hilarious gags (actually all the films do), especially in the first quarter of the film, and Ghost Catchers is a downright hoot. Unfortunately, the films were loaded to the breaking point with novelty acts (mostly musical numbers by long forgotten performers), which made them less appealing to the average young viewer. Let's face it, most of the kids I watched old comedies with couldn't take one or two of the musical numbers, must less 10! We wanted more Olsen and Johnson madness, and we didn't get it. Their film careers over, they did more Broadway, more touring, even a water show (Hellzasplashin'), and an ice show. They even tried TV with a summer replacement series, Fireball Fun For All. But their intricate gags, and prop laden schtick was too cumbersome for early live television and it came off as forced. These two funny men passed on in the early 60's within two years of each other. They are buried side by side in Las Vegas.

Regardless of their checkered cinematic past, Hellzapoppin' is a pip. It belongs right up on top of the classic comedy list, next to Duck Soup, and Million Dollar Legs. It's so ahead of it's time as be frightening at times. A friend of mine, upon seeing it for the first time asked, "Did Orson Welles see this? He must have loved it!". I totally understand what he meant. It's innovative the way Citizen Kane was innovative (there is even a nod to hip is THAT?). Most of the gags performed in Hellzapoppin' had to be inspirations to the great animators of the golden era. I could only think, "Wow, this is crazier than anything Tex Avery did up to that time.". It's true. Avery HAD to have seen this movie.

And so should you. It's only around in bootleg copies, but that's better than no Hellzapoppin' at all.

Shame on Universal for not releasing this classic, and shame on the snooty film community for ignoring a film that is funnier than anything made today by a longshot.

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Anonymous Thomas Pluck said...

I've wanted to see this movie for ages, here's hoping hell freezes over soon.
How can something so influential be forgotten?

8:22 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

You can find it fairly readily on Ebay.. I can't vouch for the print quality, though.

11:26 PM  

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