I'm hardly describing Meet the Spartans as something to celebrate, at least on the grounds of the trailers -- leave Brittany alone, indeed. However, this week's unpreviewed satire represents the latest version of a film that's a gag, followed by a subsequent gag, followed by yet another gag, without any connective tissue. Now that they're so codified by sequels, it's hard to remember this kind of comedy as something that once seemed berserk and new. What did something like the Olsen and Johnson comedy Hellzapoppin' look like on its first go-round in 1941? Though it was a flop, It was influential, and for years it was synonymous for a certain kind of entertainment. As a kid I always heard my favorite show, TV's Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In described as a new Hellzapoppin'. Watching R and M's shtick today proves it as mirthless as any of these Stupid Movie-style franchisees of today, though I sure hope to do an After Images column on The Maltese Bippy some time. For that matter, which came first, W. C. Field's 70 minute long dazzler Never Give A Sucker an Even Break or Hellzapoppin'? It's the same thing either way: performers in vain search of a plot decide to make the movie anyway.
Hellzapoppin' zooms in on the Universal Theater, where a pissed-off projectionist (Shemp Howard) is watching his millionth musical through the window in the booth. As if by wish-fulfillment, the chorus girls descending a staircase suddenly slide straight into hell. Explosions and alarums lead into a brilliantly choreographed inferno scene that needs to be sampled and sampled again by today's film and videomakers. Chorus girls spin on the rotisserie; devils sharpen their pitchforks on glitter-covered grindstones, and use them to prod tuxedoed playboys in the rump.
In come Olsen and Johnson ("This is the first time a taxi driver ever went exactly where I told 'im"), a pair of remarkably identical middle-aged vaudevillians. Ideally you want your comedy team to be a short fat guy with a tall slender guy--it probably goes back to Aristophanes, and I wouldn't begin to speculate why it works. But the two are almost hard to tell apart; both, middle aged plump guys in squashed hats. Anyhow, they're quickly sucked back up into the purgatory of a movie studio, The fact that they've had a huge Broadway hit means nothing: "This is Hollywood, we change everything here! We have to!" A producer hires an anemic writer (Elisha Cook Jr.) and--in-between constant interruptions by sight gags--they start to cobble together a musical comedy plot. "It's a great script. Feel how heavy it is!"
A snobby East Coast manor house is going to have a Red Cross benefit show. Kitty the heiress (Jane Frazee) has theatrical ambitions. She's in a love triangle. Robert Paige is Jeff the good rich guy who won't get married until he makes a hit as a playwright. His best pal Woody (Lewis Hayward) seems to be in love with Kitty also. Prop-men Olsen and Johnson arrive with a truckload of "borrowed" props. So does a private detective (Hugh Herbert) tracking them.
As in all well-thought out comedy plots, from Shakespeare on down, there's also a pair of ridiculous lovers to mock the main romance. Mischa Auer--one of the world's great dialect comedians, the Borat of his day--plays Prince Pepe of Braskovnia, a fortune hunter looking for "girls with beautiful figures. In the bank." He misidentifies Olsen's pesky sister Betty (Martha Raye) as a wealthy guest.
Fans of the Sid and Marty Kroft 'verse saw Raye in her senior years assaying Benita Bizarre on The Bugaloos having little idea what what a force Raye was when she was young. She held up her own with Bob Hope--here's Bertold Blecht's column rehabbing Hope for today's hipsters, from the late lamented Suck.com. And just as there's a thin line between the cute and the uncanny, there's a real thin line between the sensual and the embarrassing. Who does Raye's kind of woman today? Maybe Kristen Johnston, late of Third Rock from the Sun, and Christopher Guest regular Jennifer Coolidge.
Raye's firehose-force girl power, her oversized turned-down mouth, and her alarming curves, kept her working all through the1940s. She excelled as female terrors who did the pursuing instead of the fleeing. The slapstick background of Hellzapoppin' gave this comedienne more room to move. She chases Auer through a field full of hazards singing a number called "What Kind of Love Is This?" Nice to see the old Sideshow Bob rake gag performed by humans instead of cartoons...
Despite interference from the angry Shemp, who keeps throwing the film out of frame, Olsen and Johnson decide to play matchmaker on Kitty and Jeff. They decide that the only way to get the couple together is to sabotage the big benefit show. Low comedy practical jokes, from flypaper to sneeze powder to carpet tacks, rearrange a fancy-dress ballet. Frankenstein, a guy in a bear suit, and a kennel full of trick dogs help bring the curtain down around Raye's crinoline-clad performance of "Waitin' for the Robert E. Lee."
The truly dynamite musical number, though, spins off of an impromptu performance by the servants. Slim Galliard and Slam Stewart start up a piano and bass duet. This leads to a miraculous couple of minutes, one of cinema's most athletic dance numbers, by the African-American troop known as "Whitey's Lindy Hoppers" but billed here as the Harlem Congaroo Dancers. "Too bad they're not in the show," comments Olsen; once again, as in watching Cabin in the Sky or Stormy Weather, you see how much the movies lost through segregation. There's more lindying later: Raye gets in a dance also with Dean Collins, here described by a British fan as "The Fred Astaire of the Lindy Hop".
Raye needs to be remembered, not just as a great slapstick actress, but also as a patriot. Despite her fear of flying, she worked as a nurse and a USO entertainer. She was made an honorary Green Beret and is one of the few civilians buried in Fort Bragg. As for Olsen and Johnson, they're planted near each other in Vegas, Some little theater actors who burn the candle for old vaudevillians operate the Ole Olsen Memorial Theater in Peru, Indiana. This group is also trying to preserve Cole Porter's boyhood home in Peru, which was recently tenanted by persons operating an illegal drug lab. That's show-business: from champagne to crack in 80 years. Hellzapoppin' s a memorial, too, to the surprising density that even tossed-off movies had back in the studio era. It really does make today's satires look like small changes by comparison. Maybe the scripts today don't weigh enough.