Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

Director: H.C. Potter

I’ve wanted to see this ever since I read about it in my old Illustrated History of Cinema (Robinson & Lloyd) about, what, 25 years ago, which promised an “extraordinarily zany” “anything for a laugh extravaganza”. But actually getting my hands on it has been another matter… there actually was a local DVD release here in the early 00’s, but it was an Avenue One job and I knew that apparently everything they touched turned to shit, so I let it go… But! with the technological miracle of unlimited ADSL and, er, an online source of doubtful legality, I now have Hellzapoppin’ in my virtual hands. And all I’ll say is fucking hell, what was in the water at Universal’s comedy department in 1941? Just a few months earlier they’d unleashed Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, and then this, which impressively out-loons even Mr Fields’ masterwork (to which this actually bears certain similarities).

Hellzapoppin’ the film is kind of about the adaptation of the then-legendary Broadway hit of the same name into a film; crucially, the credits only say that the play “suggested” the film, which, from what I can gather, doesn’t resemble the play that much (it may indeed have even been unfilmable as such). After the jaw-dropping opening in Hell, what ensues is surely one of the strangest “putting on a show” musicals ever made. Stars Olsen & Johnson are tasked with helping a young composer stage a musical revue he wants to launch on Broadway; in the midst of this they also have to help the course of young love run properly, which, after a series of misunderstandings, they eventually decide will actually require them to sabotage the thing instead. Along the way there is a remarkable amount of fourth-wall breaking, reflexivity and all that, and if one of the jokes was lifted from certain Warners cartoons of the late 30s, Chuck Jones would steal one from this film years later in Duck Amuck. It’s ludicrous, surreal, kind of berserk, and if anything the description in the Robinson & Lloyd book almost undersells the thing. Stunning.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Director: Mel Brooks

Mel Brooks himself has characterised this as not his funniest film (he considers that to be Blazing Saddles with The Producers not far behind) but the one that was best written and best made. On re-examination after a lot of years (hadn’t seen this since I was in high school, probably around 1988 or 89), that strikes me as an astute and accurate observation. Having had a megahit with Blazing Saddles, another classic Hollywood genre parody/homage must’ve seemed in order, and his star Gene Wilder came up with the very thing while they were still making that film: an update of Frankenstein where the good doctor’s descendant is appalled by his ancestor’s antics but finds himself drawn into carrying on the old boy’s work. This could, obviously, have been played straight, it’s a decent pulp horror plot, but this is Mel Brooks we’re talking about…

Of course, the most striking thing about the film was that he insisted on shooting in black and white, which was a sticking point for the Hollywood studios who didn’t do that any more by 1974 (it was kind of like Chaplin making Modern Times a silent film in 1936); but he was right to insist on it, cos Young Frankenstein is one of the most beautiful black and white films I’ve ever seen. Outstanding photography of incredible sets (enhanced marvellously by the original lab gear from the 1931 Frankenstein). And yet I think Brooks is right in calling it not his funniest film, cos as well-made as it is, it’s not as continuously laugh out loud as Blazing Saddles was. It’s hugely clever, but it turns more on the strength of Wilder’s performance in particular than anything else. And that’s fine, of course; if it’s not as funny (nor as generally good) as its immediate predecessor, it’s still greatly entertaining, there’s a lot of affection for the genre (and specific films) it’s satirising, and in an age when so few filmmakers manage even one film per year, it’s kind of amazing to look back and see one not only putting out two films in one year, with both of them also among his best work.

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Director: Sam Wood

So the second half of the Marxes’ film career began here with them moving to MGM and being looked after by Irving Thalberg. The jury still seems to be out as to whether or not this was a good thing; Groucho undeniably thought it was, and the box office returns were hard to argue with. I’m… still not convinced. Long before I first saw it, I was under the impression that this was generally considered their best film, and when I finally saw it I was… underwhelmed. (I liked the not quite so acclaimed A Day at the Races a lot better.) It was a colourised print which likely didn’t help, but even so… Anyway, tonight was my first viewing in a long time, and I’m not blown away yet.

Thalberg’s view was that the Marxes were fundamentally unsympathetic and too obnoxious, so what they needed was softening up by making them be, you know, useful to the younger romantic leads and making the films more story-driven. This was the first result, and it was a palpable hit, but at what cost to the Marxes themselves? Therein lies the still unanswered question. Watching this again immediately after Duck Soup was instructive, cos it made me realise just HOW extensive the changes under Thalberg were… I mean, it’s absolutely not a bad film, it’s a perfectly good one, it has a lot more going for it than otherwise. Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle are fine as the romantic couple. The stateroom scene and the hotel scene where they’re escaping are outstanding, and there’s lot of individual bits of brilliant business. Just… I don’t know. Something about the whole work that doesn’t really do it for me for some reason. Maybe I just prefer the Marxes when they’re not good guys…

Duck Soup (1933)

Director: Leo McCarey

It’s been far too many years since I last saw this (David Stratton’s Continuing Education Course back in 2000, evidently), and I’m happy to report it hasn’t lost anything over that time; it is still one of the most screamingly funny films ever made. And yet McCarey wanted nothing to do with it, even though the Marx Brothers specifically requested he direct it; they got their way eventually but McCarey evidently found them as impossible to manage as their previous directors had. Audiences of the time seem to have been kind of freaked out by them, too—undeniably popular (previous Marx comedy Horse Feathers was apparently Paramount’s highest-grossing film of 1932) but maybe a bit too weird and extreme for most tastes—and while it wasn’t the box office bomb it’s been called, it still didn’t do the expected business, and I gather neither Paramount nor the Marxes were overly sorry to see the back of each other afterwards. Now, of course, it’s much more highly regarded, and with good reason, cos it is fucking brilliant; I’d actually forgotten just how aggressively comic it is, too, it really doesn’t let up much over 68 minutes… basically, Groucho gets appointed the leader of Freedonia and manages to declare war on the neighbouring country for whom Chico and Harpo are spying, but the story is not what you watch this for; you’re here for the barrage of puns and the outstanding slapstick, the hapless Margaret Dumont and the sorely beset Edgar Kennedy, “All God’s Chillun Got Guns”, Groucho’s famously inconsistent uniform… And whatever McCarey’s ill will about having to make this bloody thing, he kept it off-screen, this is not one of those films where the production difficulties are visible in the finished work (apart from a few continuity errors big enough for me to notice them). Stunning.

Hitler’s Folly (2016)

Director: Bill Plympton

Oh look, an ACTUAL NEW FILM! Not only am I back watching films, I’m even watching films that have only been out for a couple of months rather than a couple of decades… I don’t know an awful lot about Bill Plympton other than that he’s an animator, Oscar-nominated and all that, and apparently prone to attracting controversy; reportedly he made one of his recent films because he was stung by criticism that he couldn’t do anything but excessive sex and violence. Well, on the basis of this, he can, evidently, do… other things. This one was clearly designed to provoke, and it’s done that; three of Plympton’s own staff quit rather than work on it, and it inspired this enraged review, which was what made me want to check it out after I discovered its existence somewhat randomly this afternoon.

So, basically, Hitler’s Folly posits an alternative interpretation of Nazi Germany as a kind of film society with Hitler as an aspiring animator with a particular thing for a character called Downy Duck, and WW2 as an attempt to make an animated feature version of Die Nibelungen starring the duck and various other European cartoon characters. It’s not actually animated itself, which means it probably wasn’t my best choice of first Plympton film, actually being mostly a collage of stock film and Photoshoppery presented like one of those Youtube conspiracy videos made up of the same sort of thing. And I kind of understand the reactions from Plympton’s crew now that I’ve seen it, though I liked it a bit more than him; I would probably also have reservations about being involved with something like this. But I do agree with Mike D’Angelo too, though I probably liked it a bit more than him; I think the concept is great (and the scenes of Hitler in his Downy Duck costume inserted into the period footage is actually kind if inspired), but an hour of it is way too much of it, and it doesn’t go far enough over the edge. Couldn’t help but think how much more effective it might’ve been as a “real” documentary rather than this “conspiracy” thing (which features our “researchers” being pursued by Nazis for no reason that I could discern), one that had more courage with its tastelessness. And it’s hard to entirely disagree with D’Angelo’s claim that Plympton has posted it online for free viewing because no one would actually pay for it… It’s nowhere near as fundamentally wrong as All This and World War 2, but it still feels like a missed opportunity somehow. For what I’m not sure, but an opportunity for something…

Sons of the Desert (1933)

Director: William A. Seiter

It’s… been a while, to say the least, since I left off with the Laurel & Hardy features, which I started watching around the start of the time when I couldn’t be bothered much with films any more, and I wasn’t crash hot on the first two films so I thought I might be better leaving the rest for a time when I was more in the mood for them. Didn’t expect that to be two and a half years later, though…

Anyway, once more unto the L&H. The set I have actually doesn’t have all their films, for reasons I don’t understand though I presume it’s rights-related, so we actually skip over one (Fra Diavolo) to land on this, their fourth feature. I’d actually seen this before, on the big screen no less, back in the days of the old Cinematheque at the Chauvel, part of a double bill with one of the Robert Youngson compilations, and I recalled enjoying it so I was looking forward to finally revisiting it… and now that I have done, I’m not sure how much I did like it. While watching it, I kept thinking “this could really have been a two or three reel short”… and then I discovered it kind of had been; it’s basically a rework of their earlier short Be Big made in 1930, and damn me if it didn’t feel like a 1930 talkie as well… Stan & Ollie were never the speediest comedians—a lot of their humour revolved around Stan not getting something before eventually getting it wrong and Ollie’s reaction face—and the lack of incidental music (kind of surprising in a film from late ’33) kind of does nothing to make the film feel any livelier. Still, as I said of their last feature that I watched (Pack Up Your Troubles), the good bits really do shine, particularly the business of Ollie faking his illness and having to contend with a footbath full of too-hot water… I just didn’t like it on the whole as much as I remember doing about a decade ago or whenever it was. Maybe when they were still flourishing in short films they still weren’t sure what to do with features? Maybe.

The Naked Gun (1988)

Director: David Zucker

I’ve written before about “comfort food” films, and for me the TV equivalent of those is the outstanding Police Squad! series from which the Naked Gun films sprang. Only six episodes long, not all of which even got aired when the series was first broadcast, so it doesn’t even take long to watch. I’ve always called it the show that was too smart for American TV cos it demands you pay attention to it or else you’ll miss some of the best jokes (and yes, that was the actual reason given for its premature cancellation); I was still discovering things I’d missed on previous viewings twenty years after I first discovered it. I commend it wholeheartedly, it’s a show that keeps on giving. With hindsight, of course, given that it was a notorious flop, it seems at least a bit amazing that it got turned into a film series some years later, although let us be glad that it did, obviously…

Rewatching The Naked Gun this afternoon for the first time in a lot of years after having watched Police Squad! many times in that same period, however, I suddenly realised how unlike its parent it kind of is. It’s very much stuck in the late 80s in a way the show wasn’t, though equally the film doesn’t have the show’s mission to satirise a particular period TV style either (the film is dated more than the show by its own period references; cf. the gallery of villains in the pre-credits sequence), and the big screen gives the opportunity for material that they couldn’t have done on TV at the time (“sexual assault with a concrete dildo!!!”). But there’s also a general difference of approach, the film is more slapstick and plot-driven than the show was, maybe not quite as smart all round as the show. Still, that’s not necessarily a bad thing per se—a 22-minute TV episode and an 85-minute film are not the same thing after all—and though they recast a few characters from the show, ZAZ were wise to retain Leslie Nielsen as Frank Drebin; he fully inhabits Frank here just like he does on TV, and I really hope the mooted reboot never happens cos I can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off. Even if it does run out of puff somewhat in the climactic baseball scene, Naked Gun is still terrific. Delightful to watch again. And, just like the series, I noticed jokes in it I’d never picked up on before too…

Happy End (1967)

Director: Oldrich Lipsky

Way back in the 1890s, the Lumiere brothers had already discovered the entertainment potential of reverse motion when they exhibited their Demolition of a Wall backwards so that it showed the titular wall rebuilding itself. I know nothing about Czech director Oldrich Lipsky beyond the fact that another of his films is called Four Murders are Enough, Darling (which I clearly have to see now, based purely on that title) and he evidently felt during the mid-60s that the Lumieres’ discovery needed to be applied to a feature-length film. The end result was… wow. Amazing what some filmmakers in at least some Communist countries could get away with, cos this is exactly the sort of thing that probably would’ve been denounced as formalism if it had been made under Stalin. Basically, Lipsky takes the idea of reverse motion and pushes it towards what may or may not be its logical conclusion, but is one of its funniest; the entire thing happens in reverse, the bits of action on the screen, the narrative in general, even individual lines of dialogue are given in reverse order. In other words, we begin with our hero, Bedrich, being executed for murdering his wife Julia and her lover Mr Birdie, and with, well, his head being reattached to his body after (before?) being guillotined, and it all goes backwards from there… The net result is, as I said, extremely funny (especially in the dialogue department, where it leads to some howling line juxtapositions), but also remarkably grotesque at times, as witness the kind of astounding un-murder scene where Mr Birdie not only flies into their third-floor apartment from the street but Bedrich puts the bits of Julia’s corpse back together in the bath. (Plus there’s an abattoir scene which I imagine many would find distressing enough if it were run forwards, but backwards it seems remarkably more ecch somehow.) It’s a bizarre film that your perhaps need a particular sense of dark humour for, but I thought it was a lot of fun (and I really do need to see more Czech New Wave stuff)…

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Director: Rob Reiner

There’s a lovely story on this film’s IMDB trivia page observing that “After the film opened, several people told Rob Reiner that they loved the film, but he should’ve chosen a more well-known band for a documentary”. It’s that sort of film which somehow inspires people to completely ignore the end credits which kind of give away that it’s nothing of the sort… and it apparently struck terror into the hearts of more than a few musicians back in the day, who saw too much reality in it; indeed, there would be a few bizarre parallels, like Black Sabbath’s “Stonehenge” mishap (which apparently happened before the film’s release but after the scene had already been written for the original demo reel of the film). Even now there’s something proverbial about it; while it may have been satirising the music and musicians of a particular period, I’m sure there are still plenty of artists out there who should treat it as a cautionary tale.

Watching it again tonight, though, I’m kind of intrigued by how, you know, non-documentary it actually is. I dimly recall my first viewing of the film (no idea when that was, except that it was in the VHS age, so probably mid/late 90s?) and noting just how “acted” the later scenes (particularly Nigel’s return to the band) felt. I can’t think of a better way to describe it, other than there’s probably some semiotic terminology that does describe the behaviour of the usual documentary film but Spinal Tap doesn’t really behave that way. It plays better at being a “documentary” than, say, A Mighty Wind did, but I still can’t believe people actually thought it was one. Though I suppose that’s testament to how well it is played; although even more of it than I previously thought is clearly “acted”, the deadpan is still kind of perfect throughout, no one acts like they’re in on a joke or anything. Anyway, whether or not it succeeds at convincing you it could be a real doco, Spinal Tap is frequently screamingly hilarious, and isn’t that what matters more? Of course it is. Enjoyed this rather more than I did whenever I first saw it, which is even better…

MASH (1970)

Director: Robert Altman

Oh HI, fancy seeing me here… So I haven’t watched a film since early March, haven’t even been watching a lot of TV or anything, it’s all been other stuff… but I’ve been busy ripping my DVDs so that I have them handy on a hard drive (only about 400 to go) during much of that time, and that’s got me thinking I really should actually start watching some of the fucking things again, I mean I’ve only got 1100+ titles catalogued and probably a few hundred more not catalogued, so I’m not really stuck for something to watch… just the inclination to do so.

Anyway, tonight I finally broke the drought, albeit with something on TV rather than my own film library; the ICM forum is doing a comedy challenge this month, which I thought might help ease me back into the habit, and when I saw this in the TV guide I thought that would do to get me underway. I last saw this, oh, 21 years ago, third year film studies at UNSW, I forget the class but I haven’t seen it since then. Wasn’t overly impressed back then, can’t say that I was tonight either (and I was hoping to be). The production seems to have been fraught, with Altman struggling to overcome the failures of his previous two features and the somewhat flaky reputation he’d garnered in his TV years, and to overcome the ill will of his cast, two of whom (Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland) tried to have him fired. Plus Altman had no faith in his source material and the studio had not much more faith in the film; reportedly studio heads fobbed off Gould & Sutherland by saying it’d likely only show in a few drive-ins. Once the film came out, it was an unexpected hit (second-highest grossing comedy ever at the time, apparently), but I don’t think it’s worn terribly well.

Plus, let’s face it, it has competition in hindsight from the TV series. I don’t suppose MASH was anything like the first film to generate a TV spinoff, but I doubt that any such series spinoff has cast such a shadow of its own across its source. I’d had years of watching the TV series, and therefore years to get used to Messrs Alda, Linville, Stevenson etc as the characters played… you know, all these other people, who don’t seem right somehow. I know I should try and take the film on its merits (and I will concede it generally avoids the smugness and preachiness the show would be prone to, especially in its later years when it forgot it was supposed to be a comedy), but I can’t look past the casting. No one in the film—least of all Sutherland, whose Hawkeye Pierce is just massively irritating—really matched up to the TV cast (Gary Burghoff is the obvious exception), though Rene Auberjonois (as Father Mulcahy) may have done if he were given more to do.

Ultimately there’s just far too many characters and far too many things going on. Turning the film into a TV series was, really, the only way to accommodate all of them and do theem all justice (even if, obviously, it couldn’t have accommodated some of the antics in the film, particularly the casually historic “fuck”). It’s well enough made, it probably seemed quite advanced in its day (especially Altman’s thing for overlapping dialogue), and its dark streak is impressively black at times, even if sometimes to the point where it’s not actually that funny. It’s just… of its time, not always in a good way, and I do find it impossible to keep the TV version out of consideration (though I suspect I might still not like the film much even had I never seen the series). Still, it finally established Altman, and the theme song made his teenage son (who wrote the lyrics) a millionaire, so at least he wouldn’t have complained much…

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