Review: H.C. Potter’s “Hellzapoppin’,” Starring Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson

One of the many madcap scenes from
One of the many madcap scenes from "Hellzapoppin'"

How does one even begin to describe a movie like Hellzapoppin’? It’s a play within a proposed movie within a movie, based on a Broadway hit—and packed from start to finish with fourth-wall breaks, inventive visual effects, and sight gags that would put Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker to shame. Oh, and it’s a musical. Or at least the play within the movie within the movie, and the movie within the movie, are musicals.

Comedy duo John “Ole” Olsen and Harold “Chic” Johnson debuted Hellzapoppin’ onstage in 1938, and it was such a hit that just over three years later, it was the longest running Broadway musical of the 1930s. The pair sold the film rights for $200,000 to Mayfair Productions, which distributed the film through Universal. The show closed in April 1941, and director H.C. Potter shot the film that summer, with additional sequences filmed by Edward Cline in late October of the same year. Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson adapted the show into a screenplay, which was not an easy task considering that the show was less of a narrative and more a variety program, constantly rewritten to remain topical. The two writers made the absolutely right choice in choosing not to adapt particular sketches or acts, but rather to apply the madcap nature of the show to an entirely new narrative.

The film opens with a nutty musical sequence set in hell, in which Olsen and Johnson appear to promptly begin shouting at the projectionist to replay scenes of the movie they’re in. Then, a director (Richard Lane) yells “cut!” and the conceit is revealed to be a film being shot within the movie. The two vaudevillians start arguing with the director and a screenwriter (Elisha Cook Jr.) about how best to adapt their Broadway hit. The screenwriter pitches them on a more traditional movie depicting a wedding and a love triangle, the one we see for the remainder of the film. This is all within the first fifteen minutes; though the madness dies down a bit afterward, there’s still plenty to come, operating in the kind of nonsensical joke-a-minute style of Airplane! or David Wain’s films.

What sets Hellzapoppin’ apart from comedies starring Bob Hope or Abbot and Costello is that it packs in jokes that actually play with the film’s visual nature. Most are so wacky that it’s best not to describe them here, but from many of these moments alone it’s clear that this isn’t simply a filmed stage show—it’s a real movie. Perhaps the key visual gag is when the projectionist begins destroying the film, so the frame shifts, and suddenly our characters are split between two frames, yelling to each other across the strip.

“Any similarity between Hellzapoppin’ and a motion picture is purely
coincidental,” reads the film’s first title card. This irreverent statement is bothscreen-shot-2016-10-17-at-10-22-20-pm true in the sense that it’s truly unlike anything made at the time, and yet also completely wrong, because Hellzapoppin’ executes cinematic slapstick better than just about any other film. It’s not just the funniest movie of 1941, but overall one of the year’s very best.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on Hellzapoppin’

Read the review in The New York Times

Read the review in Variety