Hellzapoppin’ is a film which made me feel really stupid, and yet I love it to pieces, and the reason it led to me thinking I was an idiot is that I thought I knew my history of comedy rather well and that The Goons, Monty Python, Mel Brooks and various others were responsible for creating many comedic ideas and devices – and yet decades earlier Hellzapoppin’ did them first, and did them in amazing style too. While Citizen Kane may be 1941’s most famous film despite loving Orson Welles and that highly acclaimed movie I’d say this is better, and more impressively inventive too.
Starring music hall duo Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, Hellzapoppin’ had been performed on stage for a good few years before being turned in to a film but it’s a very different work, as the duo mention themselves fairly early on, due to studio intervention as the stage version was a revue without a narrative and the producers didn’t think it would transfer well to the screen. We’ll never know of course but it’s still amazing stuff so I’m not going to complain, and it starts off with a gorgeously crazy opening song set in hell with a huge amount going on as devils leap all over the place, a taxi arrives out of nowhere and an enormous amount of animals come out of it, before Olsen and Johnson emerge from it too. It’s packed with great gags from the get go, including one where Johnson quips “That’s the first taxi driver who went straight where I told him to” and in the first ten minutes there’s gag after gag at an amazing rate as well as plenty of fourth wall breaking, including a marvellous bit where they ask Cousin Louie the cinema projectionist to rewind the film so they can see what just happened, only to find that Louie is flirting with a woman and ignoring them. Louie pops up a few more times in the film too, with each moment a gorgeous bit of meta madness.
The director then stops the film being shot, claiming that they have to have a proper story in the movie (echoing the aforementioned studio intervention), and a love story at that. As they chat they walk through various locations, from a prison to an aristocratic house and then the North Pole, all the while magically wearing different / suitable costumes for each scene, with the latter containing a beautiful Citizen Kane reference which is impressive considering both films were released in the same year, these days there’s normally a good two or so year’s gap before movies joke about each other. Shortly afterwards there’s another killer gag, quite literally, when a cameraman shoots himself after learning he’ll have to work on the picture until it’s finished, because Hellzpoppin’ is nothing if not self-deprecating, and after this they eventually decide that the film will be a farcical comedy about a guy called Jeff who’s producing a stage play and falls in love with a woman named Kitty, but Pepi, one of the actors, is in lust with her and the lead female in the production, Betty, wants to seduce him after he pretends to be a rich Russian in the hope that Kitty will find such a thing attractive.
Not that the plotline is particularly important to proceedings, at least until towards the end, it contains many an extremely funny moment but it’s mainly a framing device for Olsen and Johnson to include as many types of jokes as possible. There’s a delightful amount of meta comedy and fourth wall breaking – the best being a moment when a couple of captions tell audience member “Stinky Miller” to go home – though the scenes where they’re working on the script of the film while it takes place around them are also hilarious. They also rewind or stop the film at several points, a screw up leads to a mirth inducing split screen moment, and they even end up accidentally wandering on to a set of another movie, a western which shortly afterwards is the reason why an Native American Indian ends up on the set of Hellzapoppin’ somewhat lost.
This only begins to describe the madness however, at various points there’s a woman running around shouting for “Oscar!” (whatever could that be a reference to!) and a man crying out for Mrs Jones, in one part the duo pretend to be racing commentators and in another dub the dialogue taking place in the film. There’s also some very funny censored dialogue, it has some beautifully constructed slapstick, a number of songs that I could write pages about and which are never less than an absolute joy and stunningly choreographed too, while the famous Lindy Hop dance sequence has understandably gone down as one of the most memorable ever cinematic scenes. Add to all of this a detective called Quimby (Hugh Herbert) who does little other than pop up from time to time to make ridiculously daft jokes (and a little bit of real magic too) and various other bits of insanity and you’ve got a film I genuinely believe to be one of the best ever made.
The whole thing really is quite frankly glorious, and it was rare I wasn’t either laughing or grinning like the maddest of mad men while watching it. And I haven’t even discussed the ending as I don’t wish to spoiler it for anyone, but it’s a tour de force from Olsen and Johnson and the cast, and has some of the best idiotic tomfoolery I’ve ever witnessed in my life. At a tight eighty minutes it doesn’t even come close to outstaying it’s welcome, and unlike too many a comedy is a lean, mean, incredibly efficient creation. Kudos should go to all of the cast and though Olsen and Johnson are the highlights, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert and Mischa Auer are also fantastic, and even those tasked with straighter characters like the central romantic duo are bloody good too.
Now I’m not saying that Olsen and Johnson (and the film’s writers Nat Perrin, Warren Wilson and Alex Gottlieb, and director H.C. Potter) invented or were responsible for creating all of the gags and comedic concepts mentioned above but that they came up with even a good few makes it an outstanding work, and the ones which they riff upon are done so in stunning way. Citizen Kane of course didn’t end up winning the Oscar for 1941’s best picture with it being awarded to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, but in a sane and fair world Hellzapoppin’ would have won it along with a sod load of others awards. It’s one of the funniest comedies of all time, joyful and full of mischief, and if you have even the slightest interest in comedy it’s an absolute must watch.