BOOTLEG FILES 443: “Crazy House” (1943 comedy film starring Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson).
LAST SEEN: An unauthorized posting is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It has never been released for home entertainment viewing.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Possible.
In late 1941, the comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson were at the peak of their partnership. After years of failing to secure a beachhead in movies, the finally hit cinematic gold with the Universal Pictures adaptation of their Broadway hit “Hellzapoppin’.” And while that film was playing in cinemas, the duo was playing to packed houses with their Broadway revue “Sons O’ Fun.”
By early 1943, Universal decided that it wanted Olsen and Johnson back for a series of comedy films. Unfortunately for the comics, what could have been the start of a new career abruptly turned into a mess that signaled the beginning of their downfall.
“Crazy House” opens with an elaborate sequence where Olsen and Johnson stage a parade in Hollywood that signals their return to the film world. They plan to arrive at Universal, but the studio guards barricade the gates and fire rifles at the comics. Within the studio, everyone is in a panic: Johnny Mack Brown and Andy Devine ride about, Paul Revere-style, warning of the arrival of Olsen and Johnson. Leo Carillo and a band of extras seeks refuge in an air raid shelter, but are chased out by a skunk. However, Carillo and company decide it is better to keep company with a skunk than with Olsen and Johnson. Even Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes and Nigel Bruce’s Doctor Watson comment on the disruption around them.
Olsen and Johnson climb into cannons and are blasted into the studio. When they telephone the studio’s chief and announce that “Universal’s number one comedy team” has arrived, the executive responds, “Oh, Abbott and Costello – send them in!”
Alas, no one in the front office is happy to see Olsen and Johnson again. The studio bosses claim that the comics’ zany antics, complete with noisy props and violent slapstick, have aggravated everyone on the payroll and created expensive wreckage that the studio can no longer afford. Undeterred, Olsen and Johnson decide to make their own film, using their former assistant director (Patric Knowles) and a talented carhop waitress (Martha O’Driscoll). They also try to get comic actress/singer Cass Daley for their cast, but wind up signing her look-alike cousin Sadie Silverfish (played by Daley) instead.
To finance the film, the duo hooks up with a millionaire named Col. Merriwether (Percy Kilbride). However, the colonel is just a penniless kook who acts like he is rich. When their creditors try to seize the film, Olsen and Johnson take their case to court, where the ill-humored judge (Edgar Kennedy, doing his famous slow-burn) gives approval for them to sell the film to the highest bidder during an industry screening.
Universal clearly wanted this film to succeed. The studio’s best comedy director, Edward Cline, was tapped to helm the production, while a gaggle of funny men – including Shemp Howard, Hans Conried, Billy Gilbert, Fred Sanborn, Franklin Pangborn, plus the aforementioned Kilbride and Kennedy – were part of the fun. Universal also paid Paramount Pictures to borrow Cass Daley for this production. And to secure the deal, the studio also brought in a large number of popular musical acts, including Count Basie and His Orchestra, the Delta Rhythm Boys and the Glenn Miller Singers.
Incredibly, the film never clicked. Part of the problem involved Olsen and Johnson – unlike other comedy teams, this pair never had distinctive stage personalities. Instead, they barreled about like a pair of smart alecs, chuckling at their own cleverness and denigrating anyone who did not share their sense of self-worth. This clearly explains why they never managed to secure a film niche.
Furthermore, the film goes out of its way to replicate the surreal sight gags and raucous mayhem that made “Hellzapoppin’” so much fun. Very rarely, the silliness works – especially with Kennedy’s slow-burning judicial review and when Shemp Howard keeps turning up with bizarre sales pitches. (“Wanna buy a beehive? You won’t get stung!”) Mostly, however, it falls flat – everyone tries so hard to be incredibly funny that the opposite effect occurs. This is particularly painful in the closing gag, when Johnson machine guns embracing lovers and declares that the film will not have a happy ending.
“Crazy House” also tries to replicate the dynamic vibrancy of Martha Raye’s performance in “Hellzapoppin’” by bringing in Cass Daley, who did a second-rate imitation of Raye’s incomparable act. Daley, quite frankly, was not funny in this film, and her scenes with Olsen and Johnson are the cinematic equivalence of chalk on the blackboard.
Strangely, the only redeeming feature in “Crazy House” was its surplus of musical acts – when the song-and-dance folks are on the screen, the bad comedy is mercifully off-camera.
Bosley Crowther, the New York Times’ chief film critic, pretty much nailed the disaster in his review: “The whole show is such a studied labor to be madcap and riotous, without any wit to go on, that it dies of overwork.” Audiences seemed to agree, and “Crazy House” was mostly ignored when it landed in theaters.
Universal tolerated Olsen and Johnson for two more features – “Ghost Catchers” (1944) and “See My Lawyer” (1945) – before dropping them. No other studio wanted the comics, and their movie career was over. They attempted to pick up their Broadway careers, but the shows “Laffing Room Only” (1944) and “Pardon Our French” (1950) did not resonate with theatergoers. They made a highly publicized foray into television with the 1949 comedy show “Fireball Fun for All,” which turned out to be an ignoble flop. The duo would continue to make guest appearances on television and in Las Vegas revues during the 1950s, but their peak years were already behind them. Johnson died in 1962 and Olsen died the following year.
To date, none of the Olsen and Johnson films made at Universal have ever been released in any U.S. home entertainment format. “Crazy House” turned up some years ago on cable television’s Trio channel, with Quentin Tarantino introducing the film and claiming that it was among his favorites. An unauthorized posting of the film can be found on YouTube, in case you are wondering about Tarantino’s taste in comedy movies.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!