Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

Director: H.C. Potter

Starring: Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, Hugh Hubert, Jane Frazee, Robert Paige

Written by: Nat Perrin, Warren Wilson and (uncredited additional material) Alex Gottlieb

Running Time: 84 mins

Original Cert: U

Original release (USA): 26th Decemeber 1941

For all purposes, Hellzapoppin’ is a film way before its time. A complete irrelevant, surreal and sometimes bonkers mix of comedy, revue and music, it took what the Marx Brothers started and pushed it too a whole new level of lunacy. Anarchic doesn’t even come close to describing the levels of humour this film has to offer.

The plot, for what it’s worth, is set around Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson making a film version of their hit Broadway revue, Hellzapoppin’. The director, not happy with it’s off-beat madness, calls in a young script writer to come up with something more conventional, a love triangle centred on a production that is being put on to raise money and hopefully become a Broadway show. When Olsen and Johnson discover that the leading lady is in love with someone other than their friend, they decide the only course of action is to disrupt the show.

Now I know what you are thinking, it doesn’t sound like much. Trust it, it’s more than that. Plot isn’t important. What is important is to have as much fun as possible and the level of energy that is emitted from this film is infectious. They break every possible rule going, from talking to the audience, playing around with the film itself, word-play, satire and one of the funniest running gags around (in which a man is looking for a woman at the beginning of the film, holding a small plant that grows throughout the picture).

It took cinematic humour to a whole new level. The Marx Brothers, famous for taking their shows and turning them into films, pushed the boundaries of comedy with freewheeling style. Olsen and Johnson just threw the rule book out the window. After a massively long run on Broadway, this film takes liberties constantly. During a romantic aria, they flash up notices for a young boy to go home, leading to the two singers, stopping mid song, to tell him to leave, followed by a silhouette getting up and walking out.

It is only the style of song that really ages this film, as musical numbers are staged to break the humour, although these are forgiven for the inventiveness and sheer attack they are given. One number includes a series of swimming pools in which the dancers are trampolining into the water and diving off boards a most unusual way. Ironically, the film was nominated for Best Song at the Oscars, for a song that doesn’t even appear in the film. Yes, it’s that anarchic.

One of the high-points is an incredibly impressive and fast-moving Lindy Hop dance routine, in which the performers are throwing each other around at such great speed, it literally takes your breath away.

Olsen and Johnson’s style of comedy may not be for everyone’s taste and if there was one part I would remove, it would be the pointless detective who is a master of disguise. His routines are sometimes testing and grating and you just want him to stop his annoying laugh. Yet the rest of the picture plays out like a dream and you can see how this has influenced so many other films and TV shows. Rowan and Martin cite the film as a huge influence for their 60s TV show Laugh-In but you can also see where Monty Python and Airplane! get their humour from too.

There are some films that date very badly. Hellzapoppin’s isn’t one of them. Ignore the musical interludes and enjoy a film packed with the craziest gags you will every see. It is a madcap blast.


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