By one of those strange firks
, 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 quit
e 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 hav
e to be made; and we must be grateful, Kevin, that Olsen and Johnson did
have Nat Perrin
, 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
giggling, brightening up the product of Warner Bros. such as Dames
, 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
!"). 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
) 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