Decades before Ernie Kovacs or Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In or Mystery Science Theatre 3000, there was Hellzapoppin—a comedy that turned Hollywood convention upside down. The film showcases the inventive style of Olsen & Johnson. “Anything for a laugh,” was their motto, and Hellzapoppin lived up to it. Anything can happen and it probably will. It throws in everything including the kitchen sink. It became one of the zaniest comedies to ever come out of the studio system. With a talking bear, the Frankenstein Monster, and devils with pitchforks, how could it not be?
Hellzapoppin was based on Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson’s hit Broadway revue of the same name. Beginning in 1938, the show would go on to have an unbelievable run of 1400 performances. It had a theatrical spontaneity that no other show captured. Leonard Maltin explains, “It is difficult to describe Hellzapoppin’, because the show was different every night. One evening a musical number might appear before intermission; the next evening it could be the finale; and another performance it might not be used at all. The show was completely freewheeling, madcap comedy with no holds barred. Near the beginning of the show, a page would walk up and down the aisles carrying a small flower-pot, calling ‘Mr. Jones! Mr. Jones!’ He reappeared every so often during the show, and with each trip the plant would be bigger and bigger. When the audience left the theatre at the end of the show, the man would be perched on a branch in a huge tree planted in the lobby, still yelling ‘Mr. Jones!’ Likewise, a woman (usually Mrs. Chic Johnson) would continually stalk through the theatre searching for her husband Oscar. Every night a man would come in late to a special orchestra seat and take off his overcoat. A hanger would suddenly sail down from the ceiling, the man would nonchalantly hang up his coat, and the hanger would zip back into the heavens.”
The film version tried to approximate the insanity, but it was a controlled chaos. The studio erred on the side of caution and added a plot and love interest. As the fictional director in the movie tells Olsen & Johnson, “This is Hollywood. We change everything here.” The first reel of the film, which takes place in Hell, is brilliant. Then it becomes a more conventional story—precisely the kind of film Olsen and Johnson are satirizing. Despite the added characters not found in the original show, Hellzapoppin is a thoroughly original film that maintains its frenetic pace to the end.
The idea was to translate a Broadway revue to the screen. In the early days of talkies, Hollywood filmed these types of films in a very straightforward manner and the results were often static and talky. But a lot had changed in ten years. The premise of Hellzapoppin involves Olsen & Johnson’s attempt to bring their show to the screen with the help of a meek scriptwriter played by Elisha Cook, Jr. Within this free form narrative, they are shown scenes of the movie they will soon be appearing in. Meanwhile, all of this is being projected by Shemp Howard in his projection booth. Hellzapoppin becomes a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie. It’s a film that plays creatively with the medium itself, often breaking the “fourth wall” between the characters depicted in the film and us, the audience watching it. In this respect, it creates the sort of audience involvement experienced in the stage show.
Though Hellzapoppin brought them great fame, Olsen & Johnson had been entertaining audiences for decades prior to this. Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson both came from the Midwest. It was in Middle America where they cultivated their popularity. John Olsen, the son of Norwegian immigrants, was born in Indiana. His first love was music, specifically, the fiddle. He was part of a quartet when he attended Northwestern University. Harold Johnson, better known as Chic, attended the Chicago Musical College where he played ragtime piano. In 1914, Olsen needed a new pianist for his College Four quartet and enlisted Johnson. The two would leave the quartet behind in favor of a musical act in vaudeville. Seeing that it was the comedy acts that made the big money in vaudeville, they added laughs to their routine.
As with the comedy team of Clark & McCullough, Olsen and Johnson made it into the movies early only to return to the stage. Their first attempt in Hollywood did not result in any two-reel comedies, but rather a handful of feature films, first with Warner Brothers and then with Republic Studios. In the late 1930s they were back on stage where they organized a musical revue called Everything Goes. It would be renamed Hellzapoppin’. A Broadway producer liked the show and had the boys expand the material for a Broadway debut. The show became an instant sensation.
Though the film version is not a recreation of the stage show, the same crazy spirit is evident. Ultimately, Olsen and Johnson were a little too crazy for Universal, which had to rein them in. Director H. C. Potter, who would direct such films as The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, said of his experience on the film, “A lot of things that I worked very hard on—innovations—were, after I left Universal, gone completely. I screamed and yelled bloody hell, but there was nothing I could do about it.” Leonard Maltin elaborated, “For one thing, Potter never intended to show the projectionist, in order to maintain the illusion that O & J were really talking to someone in the projector booth of each theatre. It was Universal’s decision to film additional footage with Shemp Howard.”
Besides Shemp, Hellzapoppin features the bombastic Martha Raye, Misha Auer playing yet another foreign aristocrat, and Hugh Herbert as the master of disguise. The romantic leads were played by Robert Paige and Jane Frazee. Paige, who went on to become a TV newscaster for ABC News, is perhaps best-known for starring in Son of Dracula. He also worked with Abbott & Costello at Universal in Abbott & Costello Go to Mars. Jane Frazee had worked with Abbott & Costello in Buck Privates.
Also in the cast are the Harlem Congeroo Dancers who perform the explosive Lindy Hop number in the film. Hellzapoppin is a time capsule of 1940s musical tastes. The film offers a variety of musical forms, from pop tunes and swing to Busby Berkeley-style ballads.
Mixed with the music are the laughs, and Hellzapoppin is loaded with them. There are the self-reflexive jokes—the type one would find in a Hope & Crosby “Road” picture in which its characters make asides to the audience. There is also a lot of topical humor, including perhaps the first reference to Citizen Kane, which was still playing in theatres at the time. Olsen & Johnson were not slapstick comedians, but rather visual comedians. As a result, there are many sight gags involving props. Like the Marx Brothers, they worked with material they knew all too well from their days performing it on the stage. And like the brothers, their lunacy was often restrained by musical interludes and romantic subplots.
Olsen & Johnson would go on to appear in other enjoyable films including Crazy House and Ghost Catchers, but Hellzapoppin is the best showcase of what made this team unique. They worked together for 47 years, into the early 1960s. Though their names are all but forgotten today by the younger set, they left us at least one movie that is light years ahead of anything done by other comedy acts of the time. As a bit of trivia, in 1985, Daily Variety reported that Hellzapoppin was more popular in Berlin, Germany, as a “midnight movie” than the 1975 cult film The Rocky Horror Picture Show. If I presented a midnight movie, it would be Hellzapoppin!
Postscript: We had 77 in attendance on Thursday night. The film received a nice reception with the biggest applause for the swing number performed by the Harlem Congeroo Dancers. Most of the scenes with special effects that involved the “projection” of the film itself got the biggest laughs. After the show, one of our regulars commented on seeing Olsen & Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’ when she was a small child with her father. This was when O & J had taken their show back on the road in the early 1950s. It had played in downtown Chicago and she remembered what a true extravaganza the show was.