In this weekly series, The Lonely Film Critic highlights an older release of interest, whether it be an oft-overlooked gem or a classic worth revisiting. This week, it’s back to the 1940s with our zaniest selection yet: a vaudeville revue that takes audience participation to a whole new level.
Hellzapoppin’ is the random film to top all random films. Based on a popular musical from its day, it is really a vanity project for its pair of vaudeville performers Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson to do whatever they please, their primary goal being to mess around with the audience as much as possible. Clowning around, slapstick, farce, literal humour, absurdism, breaking the fourth wall—they throw it all in the pot in every which way. The concoction is an aggressive string of punchlines (some coming within seconds of the other) that smothers you in a thick lathering of shtick. I… kind of loved it? Even if some jokes fizzle (I’m thinking of the ones that have an explicitly misogynistic bent to them, like the one that involves literally tearing a dress off a woman offscreen), it has such an amusing patter of wit and nonsensicality to it that almost puts the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges to shame. Just take the opening, which involves a literal descent into hell filled with buff men in devil costumes. Olsen and Johnson arrive in a cab teeming (for no logical reason) with wild farm animals; when they get out the first line we here is Olsen intoning: “That’s the first taxi driver that ever went straight where I told him to!” As you can see, the material almost writes itself. There are even metafictional elements intertwined within all the commotion: Shemp Howard plays the projectionist of the cinema where the film is screening in real time, with whom Olsen and Johnson argue and repeatedly ask to keep the film moving, while the main plot is really a film within the film, drawn from the script of a fictional screenwriter (Elisha Cook Jr.). I have seen several films concerned about the actual making of cinema, but this one comes in with all guns blazing.
If you want to call this parody, then it’s a loving one. Its spin on the romantic musical still features a variety of catchy numbers (and fancy costuming), but the tone is fleet and knowingly frivolous in the most heightened of senses. What Olsen and Johnson really want to do is to push the limits of the cinematic form so that its innovations can be used while still maintaining the feel of a vaudevillian stage—perhaps believing that cinema in general was robbing the world of a once-durable comedic form. There’s a whole bit near the end, for instance, involving Olsen and Johnson making their upper and lower halves invisible—something they certainly couldn’t do theatrically. It’s plugged in seamlessly, adding an extra layer of absurdity that both capitalize on to make the audience roar with laughter. And so the bonhomie between spectator and spectacle is never sacrificed. All the trickery and self-reflexivity of the filmic mode is used to mask the screen’s illusory power, so that cinema can transform into a mobile stage show of sorts that retains the magic of vaudeville: its wild unpredictability and off-the-wall antics.
Knowingly or not, Olsen and Johnson were innovators of cinema. They took a musical that revolved solely on being amorphous and unique to every audience it was shown to and made a film that could retain that captivating sense of spontaneity without sacrificing any of its joy. Almost eighty years on, and it’s still a hoot to behold.
Hellzapoppin’ is available on DVD from Reel Vault.