Let’s play “Explain the joke!”

My review of Hellzapoppin’ – a riotous comedy directed by H.C. Potter, which stars Ole Olsen & Chic Johnson – was published over at 366 Weird Movies today. In honor of that fact, let’s play a little game. Given an image from this wacky, off-the-wall film, I’ll try to explain what’s happening. Let’s begin, shall we?

This one’s relatively easy. The film’s opening sequence is a cheery song-and-dance number set in hell, and these are demons tormenting damned souls. That’s Angelo Rossitto (he of Freaks, The Corpse Vanishes, and more) playing the giddy devil brandishing a pitchfork. You wouldn’t know from this picture, but the film’s representation of hell is partially a comment on the nation’s entry into World War II, with references to the draft (“CANNED GUY”) and munitions factories.

While still in hell, Chic accidentally blows up a taxi and – bear with me – the driver inside turns into a jockey on top of a horse. The horse has an incomplete tic-tac-toe game on its ass. Out of nowhere, a man rushes down and finishes the game. This is Olsen & Johnson’s twisted idea of causality: every weird joke deserves a weirder one on top of it.

OK, this one’s tricky: after yelling “Cut!” and dragging them out of hell, the director of Hellzapoppin’ (Richard Lane) tries to explain to Chic and Ole the real plot of their movie. He shows them a picture of the principal characters, which turns into its own film; Chic and Ole watch it and make snarky comments – it’s MST3K avant le lettre. Then, strangest of all, one of the characters in the picture-turned-film-within-a-film turns to them and talks back. Yeah.

This is… OK, so Betty (Martha Raye) was handed a block of ice left over from a sight gag, and Prince Pepi (Mischa Auer) was told that the girl “with all the ice” (as in diamonds) was a wealthy heiress. So naturally tries to seduce Betty, who’s very very willing. They retreat to a pool shed, where they have a makeout session that unfolds in fast motion and silhouette. The block of ice melts from the heat of their passion. That all makes sense, right?

So, the movie is being projected in the theater by Louie (Shemp Howard), who’s being romanced by his girlfriend, a horny usher (Jody Gilbert). He gets distracted by her, becomes careless with the projection, and all of a sudden the film is jumping around vertically. Chic bangs his head on the top of the frame, while Ole and Jeff (Robert Paige) struggle to pull the film back into alignment. While being split in half. That’s about as meta as it gets.

Detective/narrator/trickster god Quimby (Hugh Herbert) made Chic and Ole invisible (after they killed him and brought him back to life), but when the movie degenerates into a giant conga party, they decide they want to be visible again. Eventually, Quimby remembers the correct spell, and brings them back… but now they’re riding pigs, and are surrounded by birds and rabbits! Why? Well, to quote Chic, “It’s Hellzapoppin’!”

Yeah, these are the kinds of jokes that fly in Hellzapoppin’. No matter how hard you try, you can’t keep up with this movie; you’re more likely to be driven mad. It’s anti-plot, anti-logic, anti-sense. It’s also more fun than a barrel of invisible monkeys. Incidentally, I recently noticed that the film got quite a thorough write-up back in 2008 at Ferdy on Films, so you should go check out that piece too. The more love this movie gets, the better. (It hasn’t even received an official Region 1 DVD release – can you believe it?) To quote the talking dog that appears toward the end of Hellzapoppin’, “Can you imagine that, a talking bear!”

2 Comments

Filed under Cinema

2 responses to “Let’s play “Explain the joke!”

  1. policomic

    …and you didn’t even mention the woman who yells “Oscar,” or the walk-and-talk sequence where the costumes keep changing. There’s just such an overabundance of weirdness here. It’s a crime that it’s not available on R1 DVD.

    • Oh, absolutely, the scene in the studio is just crammed with gags (including the infamous Rosebud reference). I also forgot to add the man (Frank Darien) calling for “Mrs. Jones,” whose potted plant turns into a tree over the course of the movie. Just about every other second of Hellzapoppin’ has another ridiculous joke to offer, and I hope that at least it can win some new fans… even if a DVD release isn’t in the immediate future.

      Thanks a lot for reading & commenting!

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