So I went to Dave’s. So did Rick. We watched some movies.
Now this is what you call your basic bucket list movie. It actually got mentioned in Famous Monsters, once upon a time, and I’ve wanted to see it ever since. The fact that it’s known as a milestone in anarchic filmmaking is also a definite plus. So when Dave managed to conjure up a copy, I was, as they say, there.
The movie opens with an incredible production number in Hell (the reason the movie ever cropped up in Famous Monsters), but the director charged with making the movie version of Olsen & Johnson’s successful New York stage show (in 1941, the longest-running show on Broadway!) wants to make an entirely different sort of movie altogether. Aided by a pre-Gunsel Elisha Cook, Jr. reading and re-working the script, Olsen & Johnson watch the dailies of this new movie, supplying voices for the characters, until one of them asks, “Doesn’t this movie have any sound?” “Sure, listen!” the other replies, and BAM, we are into that movie.
These bits leading up to our more normal picture are fast-paced and brilliant, and there was no way Olsen & Johnson could have kept that up – not without their stock-in-trade, interacting with a live audience. Still, you give out a heavy sigh when we slip into the usual screwball romantic comedy that forms the core of Hellzapoppin‘ the Movie. The romantic lead is staging a charity show at the mansion of his lady love, but he doesn’t want to butt in on his pal, who is at least as wealthy as the girl; he doesn’t want to look like he’s a gold digger. The boys are running tech for the show, and brought along their kid sister to help lug props: an incredibly young Martha Raye (only 25 at the time), playing a man-hungry wench who sets her sights on a fake European Count. There are mistaken identities, crosses and double-crosses, and thank God Olsen & Johnson not only tear down the fourth wall repeatedly, they dance on the rubble of the wall and then sell it for scrap.
We had some conversation about what the original stage show must have been like, because Olsen & Johnson use the medium of film for all its worth, having shouted conversations with the projectionist (Shemp Howard, no less), and doing any number of things that would be impossible on stage. One thing that could be done on stage, and is so amazing that we played it twice (and if I’m not mistaken, was excerpted in one of the That’s Entertainments): during a check of the instruments, every black servant on the estate wanders onto the stage conveniently built in the backyard, and they have an impromptu, amazing Lindy Hop number that is physically exhausting just to watch:
“Man, I wish they were in the show!” says one of the boys afterwards. You ain’t the only one, Jackson. The dancers, known as The Harlem Congaroos, are the only personnel from the Broadway show to make the leap to the movie version.
The effort to superimpose a plotline over what was apparently a vaudeville show writ large should have damaged it, but instead Olsen & Johnson grabbed the opportunity and made a movie so profoundly postmodern that every hipster should carry a copy of it in their pocket; yet, for some reason, home video currently eludes it, or vice versa. The best known of Olsen & Johnson’s movies, that’s a shame: it should stand as an example of how studio meddling can’t quite bring the creative spirit down.
Yeah, it was me who wanted to glory in the Old Stuff that night, and that desire was sparked by this movie. The comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey have, much like Olsen & Johnson, descended into obscurity, but thanks to Warner Archive, have had a bit of a renaissance. Diplomaniacs was an impulse buy – I needed one more disc for one of their “5 for $50″ sales – but oboy, what a stroke of luck.
Wheeler and Woolsey have opened a barber shop on an Indian reservation, figuring there would be no competition – but there’s no custom, either. But hearing Woolsey making barbershop talk about international debts, the oil-rich tribe decides the barbers are their best bet for signing a peace treaty with the rest of the world. So our doofuses – the musically named Willy Nilly and Hercules Glub – are given a million dollars each and sent to Geneva.
This opening bit is little more than your typical Three Stooges opening gambit, though the Stooges didn’t have production numbers with scantily-clad pre-Code Indian maidens. But once they get on the ocean liner to Geneva, the movie really takes off, and what I mean by that is writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ opium shipment arrived. The remainder of the movie is so fast-paced and anarchic, so downright silly, that it is hard to imagine some manner of narcotic not being involved. Hugh Herbert (who was in Hellzapoppin’ as the detective with a bewildering array of bad disguises) is the villainous Chinaman Chow Chow, who begins every line with “It is written…” He’s the henchman of Louis Calhern, whom Dave immediately recognized as Trentino in Duck Soup. Calhern is, himself. working for a war munitions manufacturing combine run by Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen and Puppenpuppen.
As I said, it’s a very silly movie, and I loved it. Sure, the casual racism of Chow Chow can be off-putting, but then Wheeler and Woolsey double down on the racism – hell, triple, quadruple down – with a final production number at the Peace Talks. Tex Avery cartoons had a long tradition of what Dave terms “blackface dynamite”, where characters getting a faceful of TNT were instantly transformed into minstrel show performers. Here is the precursor to that, a surprisingly effective bomb labeled “BOMB – For medicinal purposes only” (I kind of hate that the image is so soft here you can’t read that):
Is this offensive? Well, duh. But I also think that extending the bomb’s effect to the observation gallery, and reversing Woolsey’s black glasses frames to white, points to a certain amount of piss-taking going on. It is a silly part of a very silly movie, and I look forward to seeing more of these madmen at work. Pity Mankiewicz isn’t credited as writer on any other Wheeler and Woolsey movies. Hopefully there was more opium floating around Hollywood.
Arabian Adventure (1979)
I had brought the 1937 Sh! The Octopus, which would have provided us with a Hugh Herbert Film Festival, but this was deemed too Mantlerian so we watched Arabian Adventure, which I had never seen. It was a fairly obvious attempt to produce a Star Wars rip-off without being obvious about it, and its success pretty much depends on how you feel about Kevin Connor movies. Connor had previously directed fare like At the Earth’s Core, The Land That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis. Genre adventures made with special effects that were dated, even for their time, also known to me as The Movies You Take A Nap During At B-Fest.
Arabian Adventure isn’t too bad, especially if you approach it as a children’s movie. It has all the standard Arabian Nights claptrap: an evil, wizardly Caliph (Christopher Lee!), a sniveling toadie (Milo O’Shea), a prince in disguise (Oliver Tobias) and a princess to rescue (Emma Samms). Also a plucky young orphan and his trained monkey, and an imprisoned good Vizier (Peter Cushing, who graces the movie far too little).
The big scene here for the Star Wars crowd is a climactic dogfight on magical flying carpets, which manages to squeeze out a bit of excitement, but overall could have been much more impressive. Our big moments of groaning horror had to do with the appearance of Mickey Rooney as a clumsy, trollish blacksmith in charge of the giant fire-belching Kevin Connor puppets, and John Ratzenberger as the head of a group of thieves. Many were the Cliff Clavin imitations that punctuated our Arabian Adventure.
Like I said, entertaining enough, but curiously of a piece with how we began our evening: an episode of Space: 1999 that Rick credits with totally destroying his cherished memories of childhood. I’m in no rush to revisit either.