A screengrab from Hellzapoppin’ (1941, dir. H. C. Potter): Ole Olson and Chic Johnson realize that the filmstrip in which they’re contained has been knocked out of alignment by a bumbling projectionist. Many levels of meta-cinematic playfulness here, in a film so hyperactive and crammed with gags—some clever, some bizarre, some unapologetically dumb—that it almost makes the Marx Brothers seem sedate. I chose this film for my first entry on psychotronic film after reading about it last spring in J. Hoberman’s essay “Vulgar Modernism” (he writes that “in an alternate universe [it] might have been scripted by Victor Shklovsky under the influence of mescaline”). It’s very different from the sleazy exploitation films that I’ll be getting to very soon; rather, its psychotronic properties lie in its radical disregard for any of the conventional rules of classical Hollywood form.
For Hoberman, films like Hellzapoppin’—that is to say, the rare films from Hollywood’s classical period that escape the constraints of realism—embody the principle of “vulgar modernism,” “a popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with the specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making.” In other words, a film like Hellzapoppin’ is almost avant-garde in its relentless drawing attention to itself as a film. Its characters communicate with the projection booth, rewind and play back the filmstrip, wander in and out of different film sets on a studio lot (is this where Mel Brooks got the idea for the end of Blazing Saddles?), and Olsen and Johnson not only address audience members, the shadows of audience members answer back.
Seeing the film now, when these kinds of gags have become so commonplace in film and television that they themselves seem cliché, it helps to remember that films like William Wellman’s The Little Foxes—the cinematic equivalent of the 19th-century social novel, with round characters and triangular plots—were the order of the day. Next to the well-made studio films of the 1930s and 40s, Hellzapoppin’ looks like a blithe travesty. It not only makes sporting fun out of its material form, it also skewers the conventions of Hollywood musical comedies by treating its own set of romantic entanglements as a burden. Nothing is really sacred here—the characters, such as they are, are openly treated like cardboard cut-outs, and the musical numbers (including a pointedly silly water ballet) are almost parodies of themselves. It’s a film that really wants to escape the demands of a plot altogether, and so it’s most interesting when the gags simply roll, one after another, for their own sake. This anarchic quality is what epic comedies like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) aspired to but failed to achieve; if you put too much pressure on comedy, if you try too hard to inhabit a state of hysteria, it doesn’t work. In Hellzapoppin’, the hysteria comes naturally.