Hellzapoppin' is a 1941 film adaptation of Hellzapoppin, the musical that ran on Broadway from 1938 to 1941. It was a production for Universal Pictures directed by H. C. Potter. Although the Broadway cast was initially slated to appear in the film, except for Olsen and Johnson and the Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, no one else from any of the stage productions appeared in the movie. The cast includes Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, both of whom produced and starred in the Broadway musical, as well as Martha Raye, Mischa Auer, Shemp Howard, Slim and Slam, and Whitey's Lindy Hoppers. The film is fourth wall breaking and full of surreal humour.
|Directed by||H. C. Potter|
Joseph A. McDonough (assistant)
Edward F. Cline (additional comedy scenes)
|Written by||Nat Perrin|
|Produced by||Alex Gottlieb|
Jules Levey (uncredited)
|Edited by||Milton Carruth|
Ted J. Kent
|Music by||Frank Skinner|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$1.7 million (US rentals)|
Shemp Howard begins the film as Louie, the projectionist of a cinema, exhibiting what appears to be the start of a song-and-dance number including classily dressed performers walking down a staircase. The staircase collapses and turns into a slide, conveying the dancers straight to hell, where they are tortured by demons. Ole Olson and Chic Johnson (playing themselves) arrive in the midst of the mayhem by taxi, and after a series of pranks and metatextual gags, step back to reveal that they are on a sound stage.
The two are contracted to Universal Pictures, the (real) company producing the film version of Olson and Johnson’s Broadway play Hellzapoppin'. They are hounded by the film's director, who doesn't understand their style of comedy. Mousy screenwriter Harry Selby outlines his adaptation of the play; the rest of the movie’s “plot” depicts Selby’s proposed script, a sappy romance typical of other contemporaneous films. In it, theater producer-composer Jeff Hunter wants to marry wealthy ingenue Kitty Rand, but he has to compete with her bland fiancée Woody Taylor.
Olson and Johnson are transported into the story. They arrive to the palatial estate of the film's setting as prop-men, laden with supplies for an elaborate revue musical Jeff is staging as a vehicle for Kitty. Immediately dissatisfied with the staid reconfiguration of their revue into conventional Hollywood norms, the two spend the remainder of the film disrupting the adaptation's narrative by any means possible.
They meet with Chic's urban and somewhat vulgar sister Betty Johnson (the lead dancer in the revue), and direct her into romantically pursuing Pepi, the revue's leading man and a former Russian nobleman who pretends to fake his noble status for the social notoriety it brings. Olson and Johnson interfere repeatedly with the central romance, convincing Jeff and Woody that each has let the other "have" Kitty while encouraging her to woo both men.
A large number of non-sequiturs, including elaborate musical numbers and dance sequences, fourth-wall breaks mocking the Jeff/Kitty/Woody story, arguments with Louie, repeated unfortunate run-ins with the magician and master-of-disguise Quimby (who maintains an awareness of his existence in a film that most of the other characters lack) and random anarchic chaos that threatens to overwhelm all else (at one point transporting the main characters into a western).
After a series of mishaps and adventures, Jeff's revue is finally performed for an audience that includes most of the central cast, as well as a skeptical Broadway financier who intends to ruin its chances of success by refusing to produce it. In a misguided attempt to keep Jeff from marrying Kitty, Olson and Johnson repeatedly sabotage and undermine the revue's kitschy and outdated musical numbers, hoping to drive Kitty to Woody by making Jeff a laughingstock.
The ramshackle performances are interpreted as farce by the audience and received with great praise. After discovering their subterfuge, Betty attempts to kill Olson and Johnson. Failing in this, she convinces them to "save" Jeff and Kitty's relationship. The two turn to Quimby for magical assistance, but the wizard botches his spell and leaves each of the two half-invisible, forcing them to shuffle alongside each other to mimic one full person. Eventually they reach the financier and convince him (without much effort) to fund a Broadway production, allowing Jeff and Kitty to live happily ever after.
As Selby finishes narrating his tale, Olson and Johnson have already fled the studio, confident that the spirit of their play will be maintained in its film adaptation, while the director has fallen asleep. When roused, the director expresses his disgust for the script and shoots Selby repeatedly. He is uninjured (and comments that he always wears a bulletproof vest around the studio lot), but when he goes to take a drink, water cartoonishly bursts from his chest.
- Ole Olsen as Himself
- Chic Johnson as Himself
- Martha Raye as Betty Johnson
- Hugh Herbert as Quimby
- Jane Frazee as Kitty Rand
- Robert Paige as Jeff Hunter
- Mischa Auer as Pepi
- Dick Lane as Director
- Lewis Howard as Woody Taylor
- Clarence Kolb as Andrew Rand
- Nella Walker as Mrs. Rand
- Shemp Howard as Louie, the Projectionist
- Elisha Cook Jr. as Harry Selby
- Frank Darien as Man calling for Mrs. Jones
- Catherine Johnson as Lena, lady looking for Oscar
- Gus Schilling as Orchestra Conductor
- Slim Gaillard as himself, part of Slim and Slam
- Slam Stewart as himself, part of Slim and Slam
- Whitey's Lindy Hoppers (including Norma Miller as a cook and Frankie Manning) as the Harlem Congaroos
- Gil Perkins as Butler in Pool (uncredited)
- Dale Van Sickel as Frankenstein's monster (uncredited)
The 1942 Academy Awards nomination for Best Song of "Pig Foot Pete," (which lost to "White Christmas"), was attributed to Hellzapoppin; however, the song never appeared in the film—it was actually performed in the Abbott and Costello film Keep 'Em Flying, another Universal Pictures production from 1941.
|Hellzapoppin' in full color. Colorized with DeOldify|
The film has a five-minute-long jazz and lindy hop dance sequence at approximately the 48th minute. The dance routines are very fast and athletic and include many aerials. They are performed by The Congaroo Dancers, played by Whitey's Lindy Hoppers, including Frankie Manning and Norma Miller. Slim and Slam are also part of the act. Manning choreographed the routine.
The film had its premiere at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City on Christmas Day, 1941. The first performance at 10 a.m. was for 2,000 orphans and a further showing was held at 2 p.m. for 2,000 soldiers and sailors with the official premiere in the evening.
- "101 Pix Gross in Millions" Variety 6 Jan 1943 p 58
- "Hellzapoppin' Company Party". The New York Times. June 22, 1941.
- "Mayfair Will Film Hit Broadway Revue". The Los Angeles Times. August 2, 1940.
- "Exploitation Shows Arranged for 'Hellza'". Daily Variety. December 8, 1941. p. 3.