Wednesday, March 28, 2007

HELLZAKINDASORTAPOPPIN’

by Kevin Kusinitz

The worst thing to ever happen to movies was the movie studio. In the beginning, directors churned out two-minute shorts and sold them to theatres. The end. No middleman, no one providing “notes.” At least censors made you clever. Studio heads forced you to be different.

Exhibit A: Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson’s Hellzapoppin. The Third Banana has already linked to the first ten minutes -- probably the wildest reel ever projected onto a screen in the ‘40s . Very much of its time and way, way ahead of it, as if anticipating the Naked Gun movies and their spawn.

You thought I was going to say that was the best part, right? Well, you’re wrong, because the fun continues for another five whole minutes. It’s only in the following hour or so that an insipid story kicks in, leaving Olsen & Johnson to become -- as John Lennon referred to the Beatles in Help!-- extras in their own movie. As if to drive the point home, they literally disappear near the end. This is how Universal expected to make them into movie stars: take what made them the hottest act on Broadway and pulverize it out of ‘em.

I understand the reasoning behind adding a through-line for Hellzapoppin -- there was no way to re-create the plotless stage version, if only because musical comedy revues tend to be dull going on film. But did they have to devote said through-line to not one but two romantic mix-ups and the putting on of a show and the pedestrian musical numbers? (Nat Perrin, one of the writers of Hellzapoppin, helped to similarly emasculate the Marx Brothers in The Big Store the same year.) Only the astonishing swing dance by the Harlem Congaroo Dancers feels at home. Somehow W.C. Fields turned the same movie-within-a-movie shtick of Never Give a Sucker an Even Break into the most hallucinatory movie of the ‘40s, so what gives? Did Universal figured one weird release a decade was enough?

It’s not a total loss. Olsen & Johnson are funny guys, better than Abbot & Costello (who never seemed to like each other, onscreen or off – for me, something of a turn-off for what’s supposed to be a comedy team.) Hugh Herbert comes off well, as does Mischa Auer. (He’s got to be the only actor who was believable in low-budget horror movies of the ‘30s and slapstick comedies of the ‘40s.) I never cared for Martha Raye, but at least she fits, as does Shemp Howard. Even Elisha Cooke, Jr., fresh from playing the degenerate in The Maltese Falcon, looks at home.

Oddly – or perhaps not – the running gags from the original stage show don’t translate well to the screen. However, the only-in-a-movie bits are hilarious. Characters stepping out of the screen, a detective instantly changing disguise behind a tree, jammed movie frames -- no wonder a woman yelling “Oscar!” or a guy calling for “Mr. Jones” seem uninspired. That kind of humor works only onstage.

This was reinforced when I watched the episode of This is Your Life honoring Ole Olsen. In an effort to replicate the team’s zaniness, host Ralph Edwards and his posse replicated a bunch of gags from the original Hellzapoppin – and they all flat. A “spontaneous” bit with a stooge in the audience doesn't work when a camera is at the ready with a close-up. (It doesn’t help that Edwards has the timing of a broken stopwatch.) What I found most interesting was that even as late as 1961, people were still fully aware who Olsen & Johnson were and showed their appreciation. Chic gets a huge laugh when, rifle in hand, he turns to the blathering Edwards with a trenchant, “Oh, shut up!”

Universal would do well to release boxed set of the Olsen & Johnson movies. Next month, New York’s Film Forum revival house is running Crazy House on a double-bill with Wheeler & Woolsey’s Hips Hips Hooray! – the ultimate designation into hipster cool. And the alleged unavailability of Hellzapoppin makes it that much more desirable. You’d think Universal wanted the bootleggers to make all the money. Which might have tickled Olsen & Johnson to no end.

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