This weekend falls between the big ape and SF hopeful Life, so we’ve got another flashback Weekend Review. This time, we’re traveling all the way to 1941, and a film not seen much anymore (it has been plagued by legal disputes). Never mind. Hellzapoppin influenced (and in many cases was referenced by) Mad magazine, the Monty Pythons and every fourth-wall breaking comedians in TV history, Animaniacs, and the Zucker Brothers, among others. It includes a comic vision of hell, a non-Stooge role for Shemp, and a cameo by Universal’s Frankenstein Monster.
It also spoilers the end of Citizen Kane.
Director: H.C. Potter
Writers: Nat Perrin, Warren Wilson, and Alex Gottlieb
Based on the play/revue
Ole Olsen as himself
Chic Johnson as himself
Martha Raye as Betty Johnson
Hugh Herbert as Quimby
Jane Frazee as Kitty Rand
Robert Paige as Jeff Hunter
Mischa Auer as Pepi
Shemp Howard as Louie the Projectionist
Richard Lane as Director
Lewis Howard as Woody Taylor
Clarence Kolb as Andrew Rand
Nella Walker as Mrs. Rand
Elisha Cook Jr. as Harry Selby
Slim Gaillard as Slim
Slam Stewart as Slam
Eddie Acuff as draftee devil
The Six Hits as themselves
Harlem Congaroos as themselves
Frank Darien as Man calling for Mrs. Jones
Catherine Johnson as Woman looking for Oscar
Billy Curtis as bodyguard
Dale Van Sickel as the Frankenstein Monster1
A saccharine musical number goes, literally, to Hell, the lead comedians arrive by cab (“It’s the first time a cabbie took me exactly where I told him to go”), an ongoing argument starts with the projectionist, and our heroes go about trying to make the script for the musical more “Hollywood” and popular, with star-crossed lovers, wealthy parents, a lovelorn Martha Raye, and an aristocrat all gathered at an estate. The movie regularly breaks into whatever someone felt like putting on screen at the time.
We have a movie in which people aware they are in a movie write and perform a play where…. Stare into an abyss, and the abyss stares back– and tells very silly jokes.
High and Low Points:
The film works best when it careens out of control; the further we get into it, the more it settles into a near-conventional musical comedy, though one regularly interrupted by craziness. The filmmakers and performers toss up everything they can think of (including, of course, the kitchen sink). Despite portions that have dated badly and a few gags that likely fell flat in ’41, there’s so much happening that some of it has to stick.
If you’re watching because of the Frankenstein Monster’s appearance, he’s largely wasted on a quick throwaway gag.
Originality: 4/6 Anarchistic humor was hardly new in 1941; literary and theatrical destroying of genre and conventions has a long history. This film stands as one of the first movies to approach this sort of thing as a movie. The Marx Brothers, superior anarchic comedians, rarely showed such complete awareness of being onscreen,2 while Bugs Bunny was only a year old. This film constantly refers to the fact that it;s a movie, references the conventions of films, and demolishes multiple fourth walls. Aspects of the film that may seem familiar now were groundbreaking for Studio Hollywood.
Effects: 3/6 The effects are deliberately stagey and silly. They suit the film, but they’re hardly state-of-the-art. The optical effects are amusing, and likely would have wowed a few people in ’41.
Acting: 4/6 Olsen and Johnson seem like competent Vaudevillians; they don’t rise above that, particularly, nor does most of the cast. Martha Raye stands out, while jazz musicians making cameos as the help demonstrate presence as performers.
Story: 3/6 The film has enough story to hold the whole together, however loosely. The Six Hits make cameos; their name sounds, frankly, like what the writers took.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Overall: 4/6 Hellzapoppin plays like a cross between 20s-40s Vaudeville and a 60s Head Film, with aspects that presage many later comedic franchises. If that sounds appealing, you’ll want to give the film a look.
In total, Hellzapoppin receives 27/42
1. Often incorrectly identified as Glenn Strange, who would first play the Monster three years later.
2. Groucho and his brothers broke the fourth wall, but in the manner of comedians making asides to the audience.