Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The shabby Dumb And Dumber To has us thinking about better films starring famous comedy duos.
“…any similarity between Hellzapoppin and a motion picture is purely coincidental.”
Chic Johnson and Ole Olsen are largely forgotten now, but, for decades, they were a successful duo whose zippy, zany brand of comedy spawned a string of Broadway hits, a dozen movies, and the strangest show of television’s early years, Fireball Fun-For-All. Olsen & Johnson, as they were billed, started as musicians in the 1910s, with Olsen on violin and Johnson on piano; they became notorious for their nonstop stage patter, and eventually dropped the music angle altogether, reinventing themselves as vaudeville comedians. Like a lot of the era’s big acts, they tried their hand at radio—on a show called Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour, of all things—but their comedy, which relied heavily on blackouts and absurd visual gags, was meant for stage and screen.
Out of all the movies Olsen & Johnson made, Hellzapoppin’ is usually considered to be the truest representation of their stage act; it is also, for lack of a better term, batshit crazy. The opening reel may be the most manic stretch of go-for-broke gonzo comedy to come out of studio-era Hollywood, with the zoot-suited duo introduced tumbling out of a New York taxi into the bowels of hell (“That’s the first taxi driver that ever went straight where I told him to!”) in the midst of a musical number about how “Anything can happen / And it probably will.” Dozens of throwaway gags—including the first Citizen Kane reference in film history—and an argument with the projectionist (once and future Stooge Shemp Howard) follow, before the movie snaps into something vaguely resembling sanity.
From there, Hellzapoppin’ finds Olsen and Johnson wandering in and out of a musical comedy that’s seems to be on the verge of falling apart and tussling with such comedy ringers as Martha Raye and Mischa Auer, the latter cast as a real Russian nobleman who’s trying to pass as a fake Russian nobleman. It’s like a Marx Brothers movie playing at triple speed; it eludes easy summary—it’s a real “you have to see it to believe it” kind of movie—and often stretches the limits of the Production Code. True to its absurdist sensibility, Hellzapoppin’ ended up getting nominated for an Oscar by mistake, for a song that doesn’t appear in the movie.
Availability: The out-of-print DVD of Hellzapoppin’ can be found at libraries and video stores. The film can also be seen through a variety of grayer channels, including YouTube.