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"It's a picture about a picture about Hellzapoppin'"
1941. Universal. Directed by H.C. Potter. Screenplay by Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson. With Ole Olsen, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, Mischa Auer.
"Hellzapoppin'" was a popular Broadway revue of the late 30s, presided over by the burlesque comedians Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson. Apparently it "broke all the rules of formal presentation," as Rudy Behlmer and Tony Thomas write in their book "Hollywood's Hollywood." Olsen and Johnson addressed the audience, stooges threw stuff onto the stage from the box seats, actors carried on in the lobby during intermission, the orchestra conductor stormed out of the theater, etc. Many of its sight gags and running jokes were retained for the movie version, and somebody was smart enough to translate its break-the-4th-wall gags into cinematic terms.
Thus, the movie opens on Louie the projectionist, as he threads up Hellzapoppin'. He doesn't like being onscreen: "15 years I been running these pictures, and now I've gotta be an actor!" Louie remains a key presence in the movie, or outside of the movie, or something. At one point, when a scene hasn't gone right, Olsen and Johnson get him to rewind the film and run it again ("He won't do it," Chic tells Ole. "He's working for the theater." "He'll do it for me," Ole says. "I got him the job.") Every once in a while the shot lingers on a pretty girl instead of following Chic and Ole, and they have to yell up at Louie to keep his mind on his work. And there's the great scene where Louie's projection-booth flirtation with an ill-tempered usherette causes the film to flutter and eventually go out of register, splitting the characters in half horizontally. When Louie doesn't respond to their calls, they have to push on the frame lines from inside the frame in order to reunite themselves.
At one point, the screenwriter who has been engaged to provide Hellzapoppin' with a love story explains to Chic, Ole, and the director (this is an onscreen director, not H. C. Potter, the real director) the plot he has come up with. It involves a rich girl trying to decide between two suitors as the three of them put on a show at her parents' estate ("Oh, puh-leeze!" groan Olsen and Johnson). The screenwriter sets the scene by tacking to the wall a large painting of the Long Island estate where the action will take place, and as he tells the story the photo "comes to life" and becomes a little silent movie of the proposed screenplay. But soon Chic and Ole take over the narration, ad lib absurd comments about the story, and start supplying funny falsetto voices for the characters on the screen within the screen. All this time we can see Chic, Ole, and the director in silhouette in front of the screen. It's "Mystery Science Theater 2000" fifty years ahead of time. It's got that same sense of witty but impotent spectators trying to impose themselves on a film that, despite all their jeering, runs implacably on. At the end of this sequence, Olsen and Johnson the viewers walk into the film and meet up with Olsen and Johnson the characters (they're playing the estate show's prop men) and have a brief argument with themselves.
There is much more of the same. I describe these sequences in some detail hoping to give you a flavor of the film's penchant for breaking the frame, but I know that it's not possible to convey how funny and how discombobulating it is to actually see this all happening. The people I watched it withusually somewhat impatient with old movieswere genuinely amazed.
Hellzapoppin' eventually capitulates to the (onscreen) director and screenwriter and grudgingly follows the romantic entanglements the rich girl, her two suitors, a nymphomaniac played by Martha Raye, and a phony Russian count played by Mischa Auer. There are not-too-bad musical numbers and stretches of earnest, predictable plot. Which makes it all the piquant when, without warning, bolts of subversion and surrealism disrupt the proceedings.
Hellzapoppin' has no coherent movie-within-movie structure. It's totally scattershot. For example, the long opening number (which includes Chic and Ole getting the projectionist to rerun the film at high speed) ends with the director yelling "Stop the cameras! Cut!" and striding on to the set to tell Chic and Ole that the Hellzapoppin' movie isn't working out. Obviously, what we've just seen can't have taken place on a movie set. It's just a piling-on of funny slippery tricks you can play with movies. In its anarchic way, Hellzapoppin' presents a kind of kaleidoscope of viewpoints on the movie-making enterprise, with the projectionist, the characters, the actors, the audience (us), the on-screen filmmakers, the off-screen filmmakers, all jostling to show they're more wised-up than anybody else. Whatever trick you can come up with, each party in the enterprise seems to be saying, I can see through it.
I'm getting increasingly interested in the early 1940s as a breakthrough moment for movie self-referentiality. Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, The Road to Utopia, and Hellzapoppin' seem to form a sort of unholy trio. Wartime impatience and irreverence (we could mention the imported influence of Dada, with Ben Hecht as one of its emisaries) led to a new kind of humor where little was sacred, up to and including the conventions of the medium itself.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein