Adapted from a freewheeling 1938 Broadway musical revue and brought to the screen while its source was still running on stage, 1941’s Hellzapoppin’ stands as one of the earliest (and best) exponents of anarchic long-form film comedy. While the Marx Brothers — at this point 20-year veterans of Hollywood — excelled in a very specific kind of scripted lunacy rooted in ad libs, improv, and Vaudeville, Hellzapoppin‘ went even further, grafting physical comedy, trick photography, and various flavours of inspired nonsense to their work. The result is a gleeful mess of comic/musical movie making, a film so filled with punchlines and blackout gags that you can trace a pretty straight line between it and the more contemporary absurdist comedies of Monty Python and prime-era Zucker-Abrahms-Zucker.
The first fifteen minutes of the movie reach a level of madcap energy that it sadly can’t maintain throughout (although in its defense, it’d be impossible to do so without devolving into a shapeless mess). Hellzapoppin’ starts off proper with a chorus of demons singing over the credits, and proceeds to stroll though a comic version of Hell that feels like a cross between The Garden of Earthy Delights and the album cover to the Louvin Brothers’ Satan Is Real. People tied to rotating spits, clanging machinery sealing people into oil drums that read “canned man” and “canned woman,” acrobatics and stunts of all stripes. And at the centre of it are Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, a double act without a set straight man, two guys who trade gags and goofy looks with remarkable efficiency. They demolish the fourth wall, and then they demolish the fourth wall’s fourth wall, as they interact with the film’s projectionist played by Shemp Howard. The film runs backwards, a taxi turns into a horse, reels get mixed up. Pure cinematic chaos.
The film is set up as a possible adaptation of Hellzapoppin’ as written by shy screenwriter Elisha Cook, Jr. Clearly Universal Pictures got cold feet about making a movie that was just an hour and a half of jokes without plotting, so they higher-ups insisted that there be a standard movie trappings, like a comedy-of-errors love triangle and some musical numbers. Fortunately, Olsen, Johnson, and screenwriters Nat Perrin, Warren Wilson, and Alex Gottlieb make their imposed framework into an asset. The film turns self-sabotage into an art form: songs get interrupted with jokes, and the romantic subplot is barely fleshed out. Tellingly, the only musical numbers that catch fire are the livelier, jokier ones led by Martha Ray. Hellzapoppin’ also features an incredible five-minute Lindy Hop sequence that rivals any dance sequence I’ve ever seen in terms of intensity and physicality. There’s a pattern that emerges fairly quickly: the best parts of the film are all the ones that get in the way of the story.
The movie concludes by borrowing a page from A Night at the Opera‘s playbook: a haughty show gets bulldozed by antics. What’s interesting about the finale is that it feels like an analogue to what a presentation of the parent stage show must have felt like, complete with turn-on-a-dime pace changes, audience plants, and a casual disregard for order. The film, ultimately, is probably the best possible version of Hellzapoppin’ filmable; too much anarchy would been overkill, and not enough would have been a compromised version. This version of it, studio-mandated additions and all, gives it another opportunity to blow raspberries at traditional form and development, another metatextual layer to work with. It’s thick with comic riches that are still being mined today, whether consciously or not.
Hellzapoppin’ is currently unavailable on home video, but you can probably find a used VHS or DVD copy on Amazon.
Directed by H.C. Potter; written by Nat Perrin, Warren Wilson, and Alex Gottlieb; starring Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Ray, Mischa Auer, Jane Frazee, and Robert Page; 84 minutes.