Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

The London Film Festival has just finished, which means it’s straight into the BFI’s recent tradition, an in-depth focus on a particular theme that will run until the end of the year. They’ve done sci-fi and Black stars recently, amongst others, and this year it’s musicals, with a big UK cinematic re-release of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) planned for the end of this week. As such, I’m going to be doing a week focusing on that genre too, although as a fan of the genre, reviews have shown up in my other theme weeks (like the Australian 2009 musical Bran Nue Dae for that week, or Been So Long for my British women directors week). Unlike many of my theme weeks, this one may end up featuring more white male directors than usual, but the form has  a long heritage, with women taking key roles more often in front of the camera, or in writing and editing, not to mention (of course) the glamorous costumes and make-up. My first film I want to feature is one I recently saw, which also has a notable  sequence focusing on the lindy hop, a dance with roots in African-American culture.


This film is undeniably a lot. It is very extra. It revels in cramming gag after gag, absurdity upon idiocy every few seconds, such that even when we get a fairly ‘straight’ sequence — the young man singing a sweet love song towards his enamorata — the filmmakers superimpose cards over the screen asking a member of the audience to go home, that culminates in everyone on-screen turning towards the camera and admonishing this young man for watching. Because, indeed, another of the film’s formal features is the frequent breaking of the fourth wall, whether actors on screen are addressing us or the projectionist (who for some reason controls where the camera is pointed, though it hardly seems fair to quibble). There are throughout moments of inspiration, even as everything else is piling on in an overwhelmingly zany way. For example, there’s the sequence where a male photographer is snapping attractive young women at a pool party and asks blousy Betty (Martha Raye) to step out of the frame, before she seizes the camera and starts objectifying the men diving into the pool instead, pushing the middle-aged guys in suits out of the frame instead. And of course there’s the entire lindy hop sequence, which is almost entirely self-contained, but also just a beautiful bit of pure cinema, capped by the (white) stars and director character scaring them off and then saying they’ll definitely find space for the troupe in their next movie. It’s all so meta that it feels like something conceived in the 90s, like something that must have inspired a generation of absurdist comedians, but yet it’s very much there in the 1940s and it’s a wonder.

Hellzapoppin' film posterCREDITS
Director H. C. Potter; Writers Nat Perrin and Warren Wilson (based on the musical by Harold Johnson, John Olsen, Sammy Fain and Charles Tobias); Cinematographer Elwood Bredell; Starring Ole Olson, Chic Johnson, Martha Raye; Length 84 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Friday 14 December 2018.

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