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.

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