Thinking about films about filmmaking and/or Hollywood led me to Hellzappoppin. I don’t know why I avoided it for so long. I suppose I thought the humour would be dumb, cheap, low-down, coarse, which of course it is. But it is also very clever with it. It tries to get laughs from practically everything at all times and I often succumbed. It has great audio-visual gags, humour made possible only by the medium itself, something which contemporary comedy directors could learn from.
Some examples below:
As you can see above some of the humour, well done as it is, is cartoonish, talking dogs that comment on talking bears, the leaky suit etc.
But some of the gags are unthinkable without cinema, here above, following from The Invisible Man, making an entire sequence around disappearing tops and disappearing bottoms, and ending the gag with the double exposure. Hellzappoppin was based on a hit Broadway play but the mediu was definitely taken into account for the movie.
‘Ít´s a great picture see how much it weighs.’ Ít´s a movie, we change everything’. The dialogue is brilliant and the visual gags fantastic. See how the pictures talk back, the comment on the story, which is a comment on cinema. A friend said Olsen and Johnson don´t just break the fourth wall, they explode it.
‘There never has been a picture without a story and there never will be a picture without a story’ But there is space and here Olsen and Johnson move through a whole series of spaces in the studio.
There are songs throughout, good ones, and some terrific lindy hopping but then note how the whole Stinky Miller gag is developed here, through writing over the images, then we see the shadow of Stinky leaving the theatre, before the protagonists also draw their own vision of happyness on-screen. Brechtian evokes some of the techniques but none of the pleasures. The film takes pleasure, and makes humour from, every aspect of cinema, uses the form to make gags with, and even goes beyond it to the projection booth and the audience.
Hellzappoppin is not seamless, there will be elements that will jar. But it is brilliant and made me think of this great video essay by Tony Zhou. Everything that Zhou admires in Edgar Wright´s comedy (and finds lacking in much of the rest of contemporary comedy films) can be found in Hellzappoppin. In spades. Mischa Auer is terrific, and seeing Martha Ray on the rampage after him is a sight to behold.