It essentially begins with a fourth wall break. That’s all you need to know. Because that gives you exactly an idea of what you’re in for with Hellzapoppin’ or rather it gives you no idea whatsoever what you’re in for but really they’re one in the same. I’ve seen the movie and I still don’t quite know what it was.
If you wanted to put labels on it, I think it would be relatively safe to say that this is a comedy. In some small way, it transplants the feel if not the entire success of Ole Oleson and Chic Johnson’s Broadway hit of the same name. And Hellzapoppin’ was a big hit. It only makes sense that Hollywood would want to try and commoditize it.
But fearful of such a fearless anything goes endeavor the studio got cold feet and wanted some “substance” too. And not to be outdone the film’s two stars gave them a plot, ironically, about Ole and Chic finding a plot for the movie they’re in. So there you have it. Problem solved and everyone’s happy. The two nutcases go from an opening routine in hell with a steady barrage of gags to a mediocre plotline at a stately mansion still strung out with a line of gags and it wears its movie within a movie reality right on its sleeve, brazen enough to bring in its director and plucky screenwriter (none other than the always imposing Elisha Cook Jr.). So it’s as close to an “Anything Goes” musical as you can actually get. Yes, you heard that right. Cole Porter eat your heart out.
Anyhow, it’s a testament to the front half of the film, it’s so wonky and zany with wall to wall gags, non-sequiturs, and bits that by the film’s latter half it just cannot maintain that same frenetic pace. And how can you blame it? It does absolutely, insane, inane, and absurd things in the course of an hour or so.
To begin with, it’s barely functioning as a story or if it is a story only for the purposes of its fourth-wall breaks, sight gags, stupid puns, slapstick, and general stretching of all narrative conventions for the sake of some guffaws. But it also happens to be absolutely uproarious in nearly all the right ways — a sheer delight of pure nuttiness.
It’s a comedy disguised as a musical on top of a romance all wrapped up in a metanarrative that will make you scratch your head again and again. You’ll have no idea what you’re watching. You’ll question if the real-life director (not the one in the film) went through a midlife crisis, or if the scriptwriter (again, not the one in the film) was on something, or the projectionist (also not the one in the film played by Shemp Howard) accidentally spliced together multiple reels from different movies right before the film was sent for mass production.
As such, there are no comparisons to be made. Nothing comes close. Maybe Night at the Opera (1935) is the closest I can come– somehow matched with the fourth wall breaking of Rocky and Bullwinkle serials and the metaness of some of Community’s most self-aware episodes. Unfortunately, that’s the best I can do.
When you keep throwing mud up against a wall hoping it sticks comedically speaking, making funny faces, having random people walk in front of the camera, talking to people behind said camera, inserting a storyline to give the pretense of narrative, using every kind of prop imaginable, all while taking some allotted time for song and dance and random asides, this is what you get. Nothing more. Nothing less. That’s all I can say. Because there’s no possible way to even begin to describe what this is. It’s Hellzapoppin. That’s what. Just watch it. Unless you’re Stinky Miller. Then, go home. Your mother’s calling you (wink, wink)…