Anything Can Happen And It Probably Will…

Having just returned from a successful screening of this film to an appreciative audience, the time seems right to expound a little upon one of my favourite film comedies, Hellzapoppin’. This obscure title certainly deserves to be better known and here is my own attempt to make this happen.

Hellzapoppin’ tells the story – well, sort of tells the story – of a Hollywood producer trying to film a movie about Hellzapoppin‘. Does that make sense? Good. Despite his best efforts at describing a potential storyline the film is constantly hijacked by Olsen and Johnson, a master of disguise private detective and even the projectionist at the back of the very cinema in which you sit watching the film. Basically, a thin romantic subplot is used an excuse for eighty minutes on non stop puns, innovative visual gags and metatextual anarchy. No matter how many ways I think up to describe the film nothing seems to do it justice. It’s that weird. The best I can come up with is the description, “Wathching Hellzapoppin’ is like watching the Marx Brothers on speed.”

Based on a hit Broadway play, Hellzapoppin’ is the type of film to throw a lot of elements into a bucket, stir them with a big stick, and then pour the mixture into your eyeballs. Verbal gags, slapstick comedy, romance, musical numbers, fourth wall breaking, dance sequences and special effects are all incorporated and the result is one of the weirdest films ever to be produced during the ‘golden age’ of the Hollywood studio system.

Thanks to the rights to the Broadway play complicating any plans to re-release the film in America, Hellzapoppin’ has been quite difficult to see until fairly recently when it was released on Region 2 DVD. Yet, despite being so difficult to see for so long, it isn’t hard to see the influence it has exerted over certain strains of  American film comedy that were to follow. In particular, parallels can be drawn between this and the work of Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles, Spaceballs) or early efforts from the Zucker Brothers (Airplane!, Kentucky Fried Movie). Joe Dante, the director of Hollywood Boulevard, Gremlins, Gremlins 2, Matinée and Small Soldiers amongst other films, freely admits that he steals from Hellzapoppin’ in order to lace his own films with gags; his perfectly justified reasoning being if nobody has seen it, why let a good gag go to waste!

Olsen and Johnson, however, are an odd team. Their role in Hellzapoppin’ is to literally draw the viewer in to this crazy world, the humour of which relies very little upon the interaction between the two. They’re likeable, not loveable, and have no particularly distinguishing characteristics that stick in the mind. In my experience the team’s other films, while on the whole enjoyable, really strongly on strong writers to gain laughs. In fact only one of their movies, Crazy House, is generally thought of as coming anywhere near the standard set by Hellzapoppin’. Still, they must have had something, and I in know way intend to knock their performances, which are first rate. Clearly too they were capable of writing great material for themselves, as they are credited as having written the original broadway book for the Hellzapoppin’. Perhaps studios insisted on outside writers.

But I digress, simply put, more people should see this film. And now that it’s out on DVD there is no excuse. Watch it. Love it. Spread the word! I’m working on my own secret project to help raise the profile of the film in some small way.

Further Reading

Shooting Down Pictures

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One Response to “Anything Can Happen And It Probably Will…”

  1. Just to give you an idea of the promotional side of Universal’s HELLZAPOPPIN, take a look at the pressbook cover:

    Anyone out there have a 78 of “Conga Beso”??

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