Toronto Film Society presented Hellzapoppin (1941) on Sunday, November 22, 1987 in a double bill with The Palm Beach Story as part of the Season 40 Sunday Afternoon Film Buffs Series “A”, Programme 4.
Production Company: Presented by Universal-International; A Mayfair Production. Producer: Jules Levey. Associate Producers: Glenn Tryon, Alex Gottlieb. Director: H.C. Potter. Screenplay: Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson, from an original story by Nat Perrin suggested by Olsen and Johnson’s stage play. Photography: Woody Brodele. Editor: Milton Carruth. Music Score: Frank Skinner. Songs: Gene dePaul and Don Raye. Music Director: Charles Previn. Special Effects: John Fulton.
Cast: Ole Olsen (Ole), Chic Johnson (Chic), Martha Raye (Baby Betty), Jane Frazee (Kitty), Hugh Herbert (Quimby), Mischa Auer (Prince Pepi) and Robert Paige, Shemp Howard, Clarence Kolb, Nella Walker, Katharine Johnson, Lewis Howard.
One of the most famous practitioners of what might be called the Cinema of the Absurd was Mack Sennett. He specialized in the creation of a violently mad world whose mode of living was speed and lots of it. With an almost endless succession of celluloid holocausts Mack quickly established himself as one of the twentieth century’s more individual artisans. His contribution to our culture was primarily a new definition of the term “slapstick”. He also managed to demonstrate a monumental lack of concern with camera angles, cover shots, retakes, stories and other paraphernalia of movie-making in his single-minded pursuit of laughter and perhaps money.
Using similar artistic principles, Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson during the ‘twenties and ‘thirties made a parallel contribution to the Theatre of the Absurd. Long before this term was officially coined, Olsen and Johnson were producing the material that it designates. Their pandemonium ruled the vaudeville stages of North America for several decades, but it was only in the early ‘forties that they turned their talents to the cinema. Although these two vaudevillians did not become prolific movie-makers, they did manage to turn out a holocaust or two. They made the Sennett brand of madness seem quite tame when they produced a film called Hellzapoppin. In this film, following the example of Sennett, Olsen and Johnson doggedly set about creating their own cinematic rules. Playing insanely with space and time, they created what some people have called an amusing experience. Structured somewhat like a dream, somewhat like city life, and somewhat like the Second World War, Hellzapoppin might be likened to a bag of groceries the size of Chicago with the bottom continually falling out and no hope of repair in sight.
Unique in its peculiar madness, Hellzapoppin is a member of a very exclusive cinematic family. Its brothers and sisters–the Mack Sennett comedies, Pearl White serials, the Judex and Fantomas serials, the films of Jean Vigo, the Marx Brothers and Luis Bunuel, What’s New Pussycat and Zazie Dans le Metro–all have a clear-eyed view of our world that one might not, at first, suspect. Although perhaps unaware of its anarchism, Hellzapoppin, by both dissecting and minutely detailing society, manages to come to many of the surrealist conclusions such as: appearances are deceptive, opposites are equals, and impossibility is a sheer impossibility.
Hellzapoppin, one suspects, is hardly an example of a director’s film. It is difficult to imagine Mr. H.C. Potter having much of a hand in things. Perhaps he stood around with a carton of tranquilizers, handing them out to the technical crew who must have been either dead from exhaustion or nearly mystified into a coma state by the happenings around them.
The film’s timelessness is due to the fact that it contains the unrestrained expression of two great artists. It is not typical of Hollywood production. It is a personal experience, entirely free from the well-made impersonal appearance that ruined most attempts at film-making in good old Los Angeles. Its very imperfections are its strengths.
Notes by Robert McMillan
October 2022 – April 2023