Batdance: The Fourth Wall Obliteration of “Hellzapoppin'”

Sean McTiernan went to hell for snuffing Martha Raye. When asked about where you’re going to find one of the best combinations of music and dance in movie history, your mind may not initially...
By    May 13, 2011

Sean McTiernan went to hell for snuffing Martha Raye.

When asked about where you’re going to find one of the best combinations of music and dance in movie history, your mind may not initially wander to a proto-Monty Python/Michelle Gondry piece of slapstick-surrealism from the early 1940s. Which, in fairness, is a pretty reasonable thing for your mind not to do. It’s a shame though, as it means you’re missing out on Hellzapoppin’, one of the strangest and, occasionally, most brilliant comedies ever made.

Hellzapoppin’ throws itself further down the meta-wormhole than you’d expect from a movie released in 1941. It’s the kind of thing I’d say Charlie Kaufman would be proud of, if this was a college newspaper and Charlie Kaufman had developed the capacity for human emotion. The pitch for Hellzapoppin‘ is as follows: “hey, the anarchic Broadway show Hellzapoppin is pretty rad, let’s jam a story around it and make it a movie…hold on, what if we make the movie about jamming a story around Hellzapoppin’?”.

Similar to all films based on Broadway shows, the Hellzapoppin begins in Hell. Shortly thereafter, the director dismisses the zaniness he sees before him, showing the footage he’s been filming for the story to its stars, comedy duo Ole Olson and Chic Johnson. And so begins one the most aggressive attacks on the fourth wall in cinema history.

Throughout Hellzapoppin’ the characters fight with the projectionist, who is more occupied with trying to rope an incredibly butch usherette into doing the nasty than running the movie. They have to adjust their own film roll, occasionally having bizarre semantic arguments with themselves from 45 seconds in the past. All while a cookie-cutter story happens around them, its supposed key events being treated with apathy and indifference.

I stress again that this movie came out in 1941, years before the Spike Milligan would perfect casually surreal comedy that Monty Python would extract most of the racism from and successfully sell to Americans. Hellzapoppin filled itself characters show up for one joke only to never be seen again, running-jokes than made no attempt to jibe with the rest of the movie and consistent and surprising camera footage. It surrounded all these elements about 4 nonchalant layers of metafictional fuckery, just to make sure everyone was paying attention. It’s both unapproachably dumb and breathtakingly prescient without ever seeming fully aware of the distance it’s going in either direction.

What makes Hellzapoppin most striking from a current day perspective is how well a lot of this dicking around actually holds up. Not all of it does, of course but it must be said the worthwhile stuff in Hellzapoppin is still shockingly sharp and far ahead of its time.

There’s an extremely casual Citizen Kane spoiler, delivered with no small degree of contempt. A scene where a grown man gets embarrassed and runs through a room of folding chairs, knocking them around while bellowing, is the kind of thing people still pay Will Ferrel to do for some reason. There are several arguments with stock footage that unexpectedly morph into an angry defense of the Native American people. Basically there’s all sorts of strange and hilarious shit going on.

Though writing much more about it would spoil it, you should trust Hellzapoppin is worth a watch. This caveat is sadly necessary because, as you know, nothing dates worse than light entertainment and, revolutionary though it may be, Hellzapoppin’ is no exception.

The worst of Hellzapoppin’ can be summed up by comedienne Martha Raye’s performance. She doesn’t do anything wrong, rather she too enthusiastically fills out the role she’s expected to play. If someone in a kid’s TV show today acted like Martha Raye does in Hellzapoppin there’d be thinkpieces for days on how stupid people seem to think children are, and how its imperative to get her off the air. Her comic performance throughout the movie is a combination of weird noises, falling over and the apparently laughable notion that any dude would be attracted to her. It can get palpably uncomfortable. Her religiously chirpy and anodyne performance is the kind of thing you’d expect in a ham-fisted skit at the start of a 90s pop-punk video, not from actual acting by an actual person. It seems unfair to pick on what Raye does, but it’s less jarring for how dated it feels and more for how much of it seems to still apply in many romantic comedies today.

Hellzapoppin feels like a true experiment — one left to its own devices because no one really knew what to do with it. It’s not always successful and watching it now, it’s severely hampered by the musical numbers its Broadway roots demanded. Like, seriously fucking hampered. Although you have to make concessions for the time if was made, the beginning of a surprise song and dance bit is often the warning klaxon for when the movie is about to lose all of its manic charm and slip, shamefully, into the over-earnest aw-shucksness Martha Raye’s character is all about. No accident she leads most of these now regrettable sing alongs.

Sadly, especially as this is supposed to be a celebration of film music, the numbers in Hellzapoppin commit the two worst sins for a movie like this: they break up the comic flow and they’re just forgettable. Even some impressive camera trickery in Raye’s song “Watch The Birdie” can’t stop it sounding exactly what you’d expect a Martha Raye song called “Watch The Birdie” to sound like. All of Hellzapoppin’s music does zero justice to the manic energy and creative spirit the rest of the movie overflows with.

Well, all except one. Because one of the musical numbers in Hellzapoppin doesn’t row in with the policy of twee, folksy derailment the rest of the soundtrack seems to have sworn a pact to uphold. Far from it. In fact, amongst all the quality absurdism and daring visual humor, one musical number manages to stand out as the high point by dint of sheer bad-assery and perfect expression of human joy.

Late in the film, unrelated to anything that happens before or after, the cleaning and maintenance staff casually launch into one of the more pure and awesome music/dance moments cinema has ever offered:

The scene begins with a “spontaneous” musical interlude provided by Slim Galliard, Slam Stewart, Rex Stuart and C.C. Johnson on the bongos but it really kicks off when the dancers arrive. This is considered one of the best recorded examples of lindy-hop dancing but, frankly, it’s probably one of the best recorded examples of anything. Nothing can touch the ecstasy on the dancer’s faces when they pull off some particularly insane thing, their willingness to beat the ever-loving shit out of each other for the dancing and the things you don’t see till your fourth viewing (they’re not small things either, they’re people jumping over the dancers and generally getting as hyphy as possible). And no, you’re not alone in thinking the back-it-up bit is the best.

A particular surprise for fans of the movie is that the music you hear isn’t what they were dancing to at the time. Here’s a reconstruction of what the scene would have originally sounded like:

No matter, what appears on the screen is close to perfect, timed even closer to the movements of the dancers. It’s an oddly human, honest-feeling performance compared with the madcap knowingness that’s springing up all around it. But it’s only because of the disjointed nature of Hellzapoppin’ that a scene like this could even appear it in.

It’s also what elevates Hellzapoppin from a thing you might consider seeing for curiosity’s sake to a Must Watch. Any amount of hamming it up should be forgiven for a capturing the magic that bursts out of that lindyhop scene.

MP3: Slim Gaillard & Slam Stewart-“The Harlem Congeroos”
MP3 Martha Raye & The Six Hits-“Watch the Birdie”

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