Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

15 11 2010

I watched this less than week ago. Upon my initial viewing, I was more than confident that it was one of the greatest things I had ever seen. Now that a couple of days have passed, I’m sort of seeing that’s not exactly true. It’s still an amazing piece of art, one whose influence is immeasurable to Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s the type of picture that is so unique and bizarre, that it’s often a wonder that it was able to be made in a time when Hollywood was focusing on making either pro-war pictures that justified the country’s involvement or films that intended to make audiences forget about the war.

Hellzapoppin’ arguably falls into the latter category. After all, it is a comedy and carries an extremely playful tone of self-awareness for its entire running time, but that’s the sort of thing that elevates it from being a piece of mere entertainment. This is the definitive “movie about movies” from Hollywood, if only because it is constantly cross cutting from the movie to the movie with the movie, and the characters from both seem to be able to communicate with their opposing story. It’s textbook self-reflexive film theory. It seems frivolous, but the film is immensely more intelligent that just simple entertainment.

The story itself was birthed from the original Broadway production of the same name. It was enormously successful, thanks in large part to the charisma of the emcees Chic Johnson and Ole Oleson, who act as the self-conscious narrators in the film version. Much like the stage production, the film incorporates a satirical tone of self-awareness. The most notable example in the film being the skewing of Citizen Kane, which had been released only earlier in the year. It’s a perfect embodiment of Potter (and more importantly Johnson and Oleson’s) motive, that is to relate the audience to the form they’re already experiencing and commentate on it at the same time.

Speaking of commentary, there’s an especially groundbreaking sequence in which Ole, Chick, and the film’s producer watch dailies while providing their own commentary, dialogue to mask the actual audio from the “film within the film.” Maybe I’m giving the film too much credit but the way in which it (perhaps) unintentionally references the practice of benshi narration in Japan and then forms it into comedy is something that bears a remarkable similarity to the entire premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s a less polished example, sure, but the foundation is certainly there.

Hellzapoppin’ is a movie that is impossible to describe if only because it is layered in so many levels of filmness that opening them up in words seems futile. Perhaps the best description I can use is Sherlock Jr. but on a broader level. It teases film and filmmaking as much as it teases the audience and film-watching. It’s a complicated process and even though the film might not have the longevity I would like it to, it is still a remarkable experiment, and an insanely entertaining one at that.

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