Monday, April 02, 2007


by Geoff Collins

By one of those strange firks of quate, Kevin's article on the virtues and vices of Olsen and Johnson's Hellzapoppin' has more or less coincided with this neglected classic's long-overdue release on DVD in the UK. Readers may recall that we at the Third Banana have been lamenting its unavailability for many a moon, but in a quiet, unassuming way: "WHEN WILL THE BASTARDS WHO OWN THE RIGHTS RELEASE IT ON DVD???" - that sort of thing. Presumably the legendary crazy-com has been frozen in the same type of legal tangle that kept Animal Crackers out of sight for forty years (a recent Daily Telegraph appraisal of Hellzapoppin' calls it "almost a lost film"). But now, thanks to Hollywood Classics Ltd., Second Sight Films Ltd., and the bastards we castigated earlier (thanks guys; I take it all back), Hellzapoppin' is back - in the UK at least - in a lovely clean print.

Yet as Kevin points out, Ole and Chic do hardly anything in their own film. There are quite a few good musical numbers - as you would expect from any early 40s Universal movie that doesn't include monsters - and a supremely cool jazz interlude from Slim Gaillard, Slam Stewart and the Duke's chubby cornettist Rex Stewart; but most of the original, ground-breaking comedy comes from the supporting cast. Actually, let's be honest: Chic and Ole are the supporting cast, so what we have is a movie about making a movie of Hellzapoppin'. As Kevin has also noted, 75 minutes of plotless gags from the stage show would get awfully tiresome on film, and wouldn't make for an effective 40s movie. You get the feeling that the argument on-screen between Chic, Ole and "director" Richard Lane was at some point played out for real in the Universal front office:
Chic: Listen, buddy, for three years we did Hellzapoppin' on Broadway, and that's the way we want it on the screen.

Lane: This is Hollywood. We change everything here - we got to!

Ole and Chic: Why???

Lane (exasperated): Listen to the story!!!

Chic's beautifully resigned, disgusted expression was probably glimpsed in the front office, too. The boys have to accept that in order to make Hellzapoppin' work as a movie, compromises have to be made; and we must be grateful, Kevin, that Olsen and Johnson did have Nat Perrin (Duck Soup, Roman Scandals) to adapt their Broadway gag-fest for the screen, and not, say, Irving Brecher (At the Circus, Go West). So the love story's there, but it's quirkily undermined and sent-up. It's certainly true that the many this-is-a-movie special-effects gags work much better than all that stuff transported from the stage version ("Oscar!" "Mrs. Jones!"); and I have no quibbles (or qualms, or cumquats) with the "official" supporting comedians. We all love Shemp; and unlike Kevin, I do have a lot of time for Martha Raye. This is probably her best effort, along with Keep 'Em Flying (for which I have an irrational fondness, probably because Bud and Lou both get the girl); but the real star, let's not make any mistake here, is Hugh Herbert.

By the time the cameras rolled on Hellzapoppin' in late '41, Hugh was fifty-four years old. He'd been around Hollywood for years with his fluttery hands and his high-pitched hoo-hoo-hoo giggling, brightening up the product of Warner Bros. such as Dames, Colleen, and an oddity called The Merry Wives of Reno in which he has a pet sheep that follows him about. Hugh was a supporting comic at Warners and, much later, a star of Columbia two-reelers, but Universal gave him some good opportunities, particularly his multi-role showcase in La Conga Nights and, of course, Hellzapoppin', where he keeps a-poppin' up all over the place in a succession of wild and surreal sight gags. The director H. C. Potter must have had a soft spot for Hughie; all his gags are beautifully crafted, specifically a special-effects masterpiece where he repeatedly appears from behind a tree, each time in a different costume, to substantiate his claim that he's a Master of Disguise ("Don't ask me how I do it, folks! Hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo!"). He's a detective and also a magician, which he also proves by swiftly and nonchalently pulling a small rabbit from his coat and dropping it into a nearby open drawer. ("I used to make guinea pigs disappear by the thousands - I often wonder what became of 'em!") He's within the film but has a pleasant tendency to ignore the fourth wall and address the viewers directly, sometimes peeping out from behind a curtain ("Terrible way to make a living!") or otherwise just wandering into it, as in this much-quoted example:
Robert Paige: Oh. Hello.

Jane Frazee: Can I help ?

Hugh: (interrupts them) Certainly you can, certainly you can. (to Jane) Make him fall in love with you. Make everybody happy - you, and you (turns and points at people in the audience) and y.... hoo hoo! and you! Hello mom! (waves at her) I'll be home for supper - have meat! Hoo hoo hoo!

All this is underplayed and somehow believable; he's not quite on the same planet as us - he's the Ralph Richardson of comedy.

Thanks to Hugh, and all the other inspired elements at work here, Hellzapoppin' qualifies as the seminal 'forties crazy comedy. In the opinion of some critics, including our revered Leonard Maltin, it could have gone a lot further; but who would have sat through it. As we've seen, one of the most glorious running in-jokes is Ole and Chic's appalled reaction to Universal's mauling of their beloved stage classic; it's all true - yet it plays well. There are some regrets: we'd just like to see more of what Olsen and Johnson could do. Their subsequent movies (which I'll admit I haven't seen) are merely retreads with occasional great moments, attempts to cash in on their one big success. (Nowadays they'd just knock out blatant sequels - Hellzapoppin' 2, 3 and 4) In all of these, Ole and Chic are pushed into the background again, as if Universal didn't have the confidence to feature them properly in their own movies. After See My Lawyer in 1945, they gave up. Pity.

As for Hugh Herbert, nobody had the confidence to star him in feature films either, but Hellzapoppin' brought out the very best in him and defined his persona forever. Another regret: that his Columbia shorts are just cheaper versions of the mini-farces Leon Errol was turning out at RKO. But he kept busy and was evidently much-loved.

Due to its internal compromises and its conflict of zaniness versus conservatism, Hellzapoppin' will always divide opinion. Me? I love it - because it catches its time period so well. This important movie - and possibly also the 1948 London stage version - led the way to the Goons, Monty Python and alternative comedy. And now it's available!!! See it soon, folks. Hoo hoo hoo!

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bravo, Geoff. I think that "Hellzapoppin'" is one of the most ahead of its time films in history, right up there with Citizen Kane. Like Kane, it isn't perfect, but the sheer joy of watching the cast castigate the process of "changing" a Broadway success to suit the standards of standard Hollywood filmmaking is a joy to behold. The cast is terrific, especially Mischa Auer, Martha Raye (arguably the funniest woman to ever trod the broads), Shemp Howard, and the beloved Hugh Herbert. As for Ole and Chic, it seems that Universal thought the same thing that Jerry Lewis has been quoted as thinking, "They were the Bert Parks of comedy.". Bert Parks was a semi-talented master of ceremonies. In a way, that is how Universal treats them. They seem to exist to step aside and introduce numerous acts who are infinitely less interesting than Ole and Chic. To see what Olsen and Johnson are really capable of one should witness their two Republic low budget epics, and their early Warners work. The irony is, though, that the Universal films are more memorable than any of the earlier films. So...what does that tell us? It simply means that Universal capitalized on their "Hellzapoppin'" format in each of their later films, while Republic, and Warners showed the boys to be just what they were...funny guys who told jokes....fully capable of carrying the plot. The odd thing is, I still prefer their Universals.

At any rate, here's to Olsen and Johnson, the worlds most dangerous comedians.

Go figure....
Nick Santa Maria

9:28 AM  
Blogger East Side said...

Geoff -- You're on the money regarding Hugh Herbert. He's easily the funniest of the supporting players. I picture Ole & Chic razzing him good-naturedly over stealing what was supposed to be their picture. (By the way, I meant to mention in my post that Ole & Chic were the snazziest-dressed comedians in movies. Oh, would I love to get a suit like Ole's!)My recollection of "Crazy House" and "Ghost Catchers" is that O & J were actually allowed to carry the plot without much interference.

As for Martha Raye... brilliant in "Monsieur Verdoux" (where she was directed by Chaplin). Terrfic pop/jazz singer. Other than that... for me, a little of her goes an awfully long way.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Aaron Neathery said...

Aside from ANOTHER brilliant opening, "Crazy House" is inferior to "Ghost Catchers" about nine ways from Sunday. A far-less groundbreaking "Hellzapoppin'" retread, "Crazy House" actually shuffles Chic and Ole even further to the sidelines to make room for the specialty acts. "Ghost Catchers", OTOH, is a gen-yoo-wine Chic and Ole starring vehicle that manages to work both the throwaway gags and the specialty acts into the storyline. I haven't seen "See My Lawyer", but Nick has. If I recall, it's reportedly very budget-minded and nearly plotless. TELL WE'UNS 'BOUT IT, UNCA NICK!

8:25 PM  
Blogger Rob Bates said...

Just saw "Crazy House" at the Film Forum. It's a fun movie, and worth seeing, although "Hellzapoppin" is probably better, if for no other reason than it has better musical numbers. The musical numbers in "Crazy House" are almost all deadly, and there are far too many of them. But most of the comedy scenes are good -- and I agree the opening is especially fantastic -- and I did like the scene at the theater at the end which seems to recreate what it would be like to see an Ole and Chic show. By the way, I don't think Ole and Chic are especially charismatic comedians (how many times can you hear Chic laugh?), but their spirit and sense of anarchy is what sets them apart. Anyway, kudos to the guys behind this site for keeping all this stuff alive.

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"See My Lawyer"? Ah me....

I saw it years ago at the long lamented Mini Cinema in Uniondale, Long Island. I thought it pretty terrible. It had too much plot, too many specialty acts, and too little Chic and Ole. That was about 34 years ago (Oh my!!!!). The good news is that I've seen it again recently and it wasn't as bad as I'd remembered. It's the weakest of their Universals, no doubt, but it does have its virtues. Franklin Pangborn is funny, as are Gus Schilling, Ed Brophy, and Mary Gordon, who has a very funny bit as Brophy's Mom. Unfortunately, the film is based on a Broadway play (which starred Milton Berle, by the way). I say "unfortunately" because Universal felt it necessary to force feed us a tad too much of the dull plot featuring young contract players Alan Curtis, Grace MacDonald, and Noah Beery, Jr (who actually gets the girl!).

Chic and Ole float in and out of the film and it's always better when they're in rather than out. It's too bad that Universal didn't agree.

Nick Santa Maria

2:20 AM  

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