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Hellzapoppin' (1941) - H. C. Potter

PostPosted: Fri Jan 04, 2008 7:55 pm
by wpqx
Oh Hollywood, why did you have to be so fickle? Finding words to describe this film is simultaneously easy and difficult. This doesn't fit into any reasonable description however as the line in the title song says "Anything can happen and it probably will". The film begins in utter chaos and the first act is positively astonishing. Reprising their roles from the stage play of the same name are Ole Olson and Chic Johnson, who play themselves, sort of. Never before in a film has the fourth wall been so repeatedly done away with. Tactics of this kind were used in some Merrie Melodies, but I can't recall any feature film so aware of itself being a film.

The story was Universal wanted to bring the stage play to the screen without any alterations. The only difference would be that some of the "blue" humor of the play would be done away with because as Shemp Howard's Louis says "We still have a Hayes office". However Universal practically echoed the sentiments of the film's disgruntled on screen director by demanding a love story. "Every film has to have a story" is the words echoed in the film from the front office, and the script seems to be begrudgingly brought up as a way of mocking the ultra-conservative studio system. That plot that we are transposed to isn't all that bad though. A basic "puttin' on a show" musical with mistaken identities and getting two young love birds together. However they don't resort to telling the story in a completely conventional matter, there is a Greek chorus of a would be private investigator/butler/magician/anything else you can think of, and the action is interrupted several times to tell Stinky Miller to go home.

The musical production at the film's conclusion is basically an on screen re-enactment of the play, where the idea of ruining a conventional show turns out to be great entertainment. Watching the regular musical numbers though it almost hurts to watch them play it straight, in the same manner that MGM's Marx Brothers movies suffer drastically when the brothers aren't involved. They keep it interesting, and it draws attention to just how boring some of these old productions were. It is well crafted however, and the pace of the film can make some straight scenes seem terribly long and out of place. Its a slapstick problem where we are constantly expecting a pie in the face of some kind. For the most part though the film doesn't disappoint.

I'd like to say that Universal has gotten wise to itself in the year's since. Realizing that this film was special, and could have been even better had Potter's original ending been kept and the whole love story was axed. However they still seem scared of the project, which didn't do well at the box office and have kept it out of print in this country pretty much indefinitely. A few cult screenings have emerged, and thankfully a DVD was released on the other side of the ocean, which doesn't so much point out the failure of American audiences, but what studios think American audiences would be interested in. There was never a film like this, and I'd venture to say there never would be another one like it. Potter's film certainly stands alone amidst studio productions of its era, and is so fast and quick that it almost seems to get away with murder at every stop. Chic and Ole are unfortunately turned into supporting players in their own film, but they excel when on the screen.

*I watched this film via an AVI file I downloaded. Although the film was complete, there was a slight problem with the audio synchronization during the compression so the action had a slight delay from what we heard (only a matter of a second) but it wasn't enough to really miss anything.