BOOTLEG FILES 244: “Hellazpoppin’” (1941 comedy starring Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson and Martha Raye).
LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Universal Pictures has never made the film available for U.S. home entertainment release.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Possible, but not immediately likely.
The comedy team of Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson are barely remembered today, and that is not surprising. Their film work was, for the most part, spotty and forgettable. And their one film that came closest to being a classic, “Hellzapoppin’,” has been out of circulation for so many years that it is virtually unknown to all but the most rabid fans of old-time comedy films.
“Hellzapoppin’” was made in 1941, but it was clearly three decades ahead of its time. The film is unlike anything that was created during Hollywood’s Golden Age: a surreal, vulgar, convention-breaking assault on the sense that took extraordinary risks and cashed in with wild comedy payoffs. Even the lunatic Marx Brothers could not match the sheer lunacy and absurdity that came into “Hellzapoppin.’”
The film was actually an adaptation of a long-running Broadway revue created by and starring Olsen and Johnson. That production was a wild hodgepodge of slapstick, outrageous sight gags, wacky sketches, and an occasional break for a song and dance number. Clearly this did not lend itself well for a film version – for starters, the show had no plot.
Also, Olsen and Johnson may have been proven theater stars, had already proven they were not viable film stars. The duo came to Hollywood in the early 1930s as part of the Broadway wave who attempted to find a cinematic foothold in the new sound film universe. Alas, their brand of offbeat humor, with its wild visual gags and frenetic pacing, didn’t translate well to the often static early talkies. Three A-list films at Warner Bros. and two B-list Republic Pictures offerings added up to zero box office.
Nonetheless, Universal Pictures recognized the stage success of “Hellzapoppin’” and gambled that its crazy, no-holds-barred style could be reconfigured into a film. For the most part, this gamble worked – “Hellzapoppin’” redefined screen comedy with a fury and energy that was never seen before.
The film opens in a theater projection booth. Shemp Howard is the harried projectionist who is trying to balance his duties while appeasing his unpleasant girlfriend. He puts on a reel that turns out to be “Hellzapoppin’,” and the film launches into a bizarre musical number that takes place in Hell. A group of devils are torturing poor souls in an inane comic manner when a taxi cab abruptly pulls up and deposits Olsen and Johnson onto the ground. Johnson looks around and mutters: “That’s the first taxi driver who went strictly where I told him to go.” Olsen and Johnson then yell up to Shemp Howard to rewind the film, and he obliges. The sequence suddenly runs backwards. But then it stops when it is revealed that Olsen and Johnson were on a movie set all along.
Olsen and Johnson then have a running conversation with their director (Richard Lane). Actually, it is a walking conversation – the three men walk through a variety of movie sets, changing clothing for each setting. The comics don’t want their beloved show changed for the movies, but the director is adamant. “This is Hollywood, we change everything here!” he insists. “We have to!” At one point they are in an Arctic setting wearing Eskimo furs. Johnson looks over, sees a sled marked “Rosebud” and comments: “I thought they burned that thing!” Eventually, the men meet the screenwriter assigned to make “Hellzapoppin’” into a film (Elisha Cook Jr.). He begins to explain his idea for the movie.
At this point, “Hellzapoppin’” switches it location to a swanky Long Island mansion. Olsen and Johnson are in support of Robert Paige, who plays a composer responsible for staging a revue at the estate while wooing heiress Jane Frazee. But most of the action involves the boisterous Martha Raye, who is either chasing phony Russian count Mischa Auer or belting out a series of raucous songs. Hugh Herbert, as a detective, pops in an out of the film in a variety of oddball disguises. There’s also an all-black dance company (Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, billed for this movie as the Harlem Congaroo Dancers) who abruptly show up about two-thirds into the movie and stop it cold with a stunning jitterbug number that appears to defy all known laws of gravity and motion. (You can find that clip on YouTube – just go over and see it.)
Throughout “Hellzapoppin’,” the film repeatedly demolishes the proverbial fourth wall. Olsen and Johnson have running feuds with Shemp Howard’s projectionist, whose incompetence results in the film being projected upside down and in a split image with the top half of the frame (featuring the actors’ heads) on the bottom of the screen while the bottom part (with the actors’ feet) are at the top. Olsen and Johnson are also cast against inappropriate rear images, including invading Indian warriors.
The film also has fun by interrupting a syrupy romantic ballad between Paige and Frazee by posting signs calling on one Stinky Miller to call his mother and go home. Hugh Herbert emerges from behind a curtain, looks at the camera, and urges Stinky Miller to leave the theater. Suddenly, in the lower corner of the screen, the silhouette of a theater patron is seen getting up and exiting – while Paige and Frazee follow him with impatience.
The big finale includes Martha Raye, dressed in the finest Scarlett O’Hara regalia, performing “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” on a stage that turns into a giant treadmill. There’s also a talking bear, two talking bloodhounds who are surprised to see a talking bear, and even the Frankenstein monster.
It is difficult to relate the full depth of “Hellzapoppin’” because the comedy is so fast and fresh that words aren’t clever enough to capture its speedy and originality. Also, I hesitate to give away too much – those who never saw the film will be caught off-guard by its boldness and brilliance, and spilling too much information here will only spoil the fun.
There is a curious bit of Oscar trivia relating to “Hellzapoppin’” – the film received a Best Song Academy Award nomination for “Pig Foot Pete.” However, that song did not appear in the film. It was performed by Martha Raye in another Universal release, the Abbott and Costello comedy “Keep ‘em Flying.” To this day, the Academy has never corrected that mistake and “Hellzapoppin’” remains the only film the have an Oscar nomination for a contribution that was never a part of the finished production.
“Hellzapoppin’” was enough of a commercial success for Universal to invite Olsen and Johnson to make more films at the studio. But the film “Crazy House,” “Ghost Cathchers” and “See My Lawyer” vainly tried to duplicate the anything goes style of “Hellzapoppin’,” and the duo were dropped from the studio. No other studio wanted them and Olsen and Johnson never worked in Hollywood again.
Today, “Hellzapoppin’” is stuck in a seemingly neverending legal limbo. From what I’ve been able to understand, the Olsen and Johnson estates have been feuding with each other and with Universal, thus tying up the rights to all of the team’s Universal comedies. “Hellzapoppin’” has been licensed for DVD sale in the U.K. and Australia, but it is still off the market in the U.S. However, bootleg copies of high quality can easily be located.
“Hellazapoppin’” could have been a classic had it been readily available. Maybe someday it will be out on commercial DVD and it can be fully appreciated by a new generation of comedy lovers. Until such time, look into your bootleg viewfinder and hunt out a copy – this is something you have to see to believe!
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 videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure