Tuesday, August 8, 2017



The 1930s stage production HELLZAPOPPIN' was reputed to change from performance to performance, working in new, more topical jokes whenever possible, and always seeking to keep a sense of anarchic comedy. Thus there was no "final text" for the revue. In contrast, the film adaptation presents a version of the play that is frozen in time, representing exactly what the filmmakers thought might prove funny in 1941.

The film is almost inevitably a mixed bag, but it boasts a bravura sequence at the beginning, in which "society swells" get dropped into the maw of Hell, where they're roasted on spits or jammed into drums marked "canned guy" or "canned gal." After an intense of nonsensical comedy, it's revealed that it's taking place on a movie set, and that two of the people condemned to Hell are comedians Olsen and Johnson (who also appeared in the Broadway production). However, in contrast to most movies about movies, the moviemakers' reality is also nonsensical. Ridiculous things keep happening on the side while Olsen and Johnson strive to convince their director that they can make a film without a standard script. Soon Olsen and Johnson magically step back into their movie, whose story proper starts with a standard "girl loves boy who doesn't notice her" schtick. Yet even when they rejoin the movie, they're still capable of talking to people back in "reality," including a daffy movie projectionist (Shemp Howard). They even interact with their "real-world" counterparts. When the duo aren't busy trying to arrange the obligatory romance, they spoof conventions of the film world, like causing themselves to become invisible by doing a "zipping" routine, or having the Frankenstein Monster appear in a stage audience.

The musical numbers are sometimes interrupted by comic bits of business, but not always, which may speak to the producers' desire not to get too far from the standard presentation of a light comic musical. Since most of the action takes place in a mansion filled with rich people, there's a modest amount of mockery of the upper classes, which lines up well with the opening sequence of "swells going to Hell." A lot of jokes don't work, especially those involving Shemp Howard and Hugh Herbert. On the plus side, Mischa Auer is amusing as a social climber trying to court a rich girl, but who is constantly pursued by an aggressive Martha Raye. I've never been a Raye fan, but she shows the most energy here, outdoing even the main stars of the show.

Everything in the film is a "fallacious figment," so of other films I've reviewed so far, HELLZAPOPPIN' has a great deal in common with 1968's HEAD.

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