Monday, October 13, 2003
One of my favourite movie moments is from an obscure, surreal comedy flick from 1941 called Hellzapoppin' which starred the, now long-forgotten, comedy duo Olsen & Johnson.
Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson starred in a legendary 1930's Broadway show of the same name which preceded the movie version. The long-running stage show was, according to contemporary reviews, generally considered far superior to the later celluloid incarnation.
It must have been some show because, amongst other inspired delights Hellzapoppin' (the movie) contains probably the most exhilirating dance sequence ever committed to film (and that includes Jean-Luc Godard's fantastic Bande à Part in which Anna Karina dances The Madison so intoxicatingly with Sami Frey & Claude Brasseur - the cinematic dance which later inspired Quentin Tarantino to name his production company after the movie and which provided the template for John Travolta & Uma Thurman's Jackrabbit Slim sequence in Pulp Fiction).
The lindyhop dance routine in Hellzapoppin', performed by The Harlem Congaroo Dancers (choreographed by the legendary Frankie Manning), to the accompaniment of an impromptu jam session by swing pioneers Slim Gaillard & Slam Stewart and their band, has to be seen to be believed and is, probably, my favourite movie sequence of all time.
It's hard to believe it dates from 1941: it makes all subsequent movie dance routines look anaemic by comparison. The routine is so wild and abandoned it's hard to believe it's happening in real time and hasn't been speeded-up. The ferocity with which the dancers are propelled like projectiles by the leads in a series of ever-more improbable ariel moves seems, to the modern sensibility, to be not only politically incorrect but borderline illegal. One thing's for sure: never has a dance routine seemed so vital.
This is a moment of bona fide cinematic genius, the likes of which, I'll venture to say, has never been and will never be eclipsed in the history of Hollywood. The audacious power of this sequence is only reinforced by it's utter incongruity within the context of the movie. Like many of Hellzapoppin's best scenes there is no reason for this sequence to be included, it has no relevance to the "plot" but what delights here is the wonderfully organic development of this scene.
A couple of household workers (Slim and Slam) are tidying up a music room and when curiosity gets the better of them they can't resist trying out the piano and stand-up bass for themselves. At first hesitant, they quickly discover they have an improbable knack for knockin' out a swingin' tune. The sweet musical commotion attracts the interest of the cook who, needless to say, starts blowing a mean trumpet. More inspirational savant horn players, recruited from the ranks of curious passers-by, join in and a fantastic percussionist materialises from somewhere within the talented ranks of domestic servitude. The chambermaids start dancing wildly with the mechanics, the cooks with the female kitchen staff and before we know it we have a scene of intoxicating musical hedonism and astonishing dancing.
The scene disappears as inexplicably as it appeared: the players and dancers melting back into their subordinate roles as domestic servants and minor players within the movie and the "plot" resumes as if nothing has happened. I'm sure this scene could be interpreted, politically and sociologically, as both a libertarian subversion of stereotypical class/ race/ gender roles and a reactionary confirmation of them but I'll leave that to the academics. One thing I do know is this scene is pure cinematic genius.
Only a handful of current directors have the inspiration, the artistic integrity and the audacity to surprise, confuse and amaze (David Lynch is one of the very few who springs to mind) but it's hard to imagine a movie which so comprehensively subverts prevailing cinematic conventions as HC Potter's utterly unique Hellzapoppin'.
There are also many inspired comic moments from surreal comedians Olsen & Johnson which, subsequently, clearly influenced everyone from Tex Avery to Monty Python. Hellzapoppin' is rather patchy: many of the jokes fall flat and it suffers from having a bogus romantic plot grafted on by nervous studio execs (plus çá change..) but at it's best is inspired, inventive and iconoclastic.
What I'd give to be able to travel back in time to witness the Broadway show first hand! There was next to no script: the entire show was completely spontaneous and improvised each night and no two shows were ever the same. I'd love to have seen it but I guess I'll just have to settle for this contemporary review of Olsen and Johnson's "rambunctious, nonsensical buffoonery.":
The masters of "anything-goes-mayhem" created their most chaotic conglomeration of comedy routines for the stage smash Hellzapoppin', which opened at New York's 46th Street Theater on September 22, 1938.
Broadway critic Brooks Atkinson wrote:
Folks, it's going to be a little difficult to describe this one. Anything goes in Hellzapoppin' -- noise, vulgarity, and practical joking. Olsen and Johnson make their entrance in a clownish automobile, and the uproar begins. There is no relief, even during the intermission, when a clown roams the aisles. You can hear some lymphatic fiddling by rotund Shirley Wayne who looks as though she has just finished frying a mess of doughnuts. It is mainly a helter-skelter assembly of low comedy gags to an ear-splitting sound accompaniment. If you can imagine a demented vaudeville brawl without the Marx brothers, Hellzapoppin is it ... and a good part of it is loud, low, and funny!"
Opening with a mock newsreel in which Hitler spoke with a Yiddish accent, Hellzapoppin' had slapstick hilarity and so many wild audience participation gags that the score by composer Sammy Fain and lyricist Charles Tobias was almost an afterthought; as if anyone cared about songs with titles like "Fuddle Dee Duddle"? Midgets, clowns and trained pigeons added a circus touch, and performers kept plowing through the audience with all sorts of interactive gags. New skits were constantly being added, and audiences kept coming back for fresh doses of the insanity.
The show consisted of two acts with 25 scenes, during which the audience was bombarded with eggs and bananas. Then when the lights went out, the audience was besieged with rubber snakes and spiders. A woman ran up and down the aisles shouting out in a loud tenement voice for "Oscar! Oscar!" Meanwhile, a ticket salesman began to hawk tickets for a rival show (I Married an Angel). The Broadway madness ran for a record breaking 1,404 performances.
Hellzapoppin' Swing Dance Routine