Somehow over the years, the work of Olsen & Johnson somehow flew below the Wagstaff radar. I’d made a point of seeing the material from other comedy teams of yore whose works have not been elevated to the contemporary recognition that the Marxes or the Stooges regularly receive.
Usually that non-recognition is deserved – much of the material is dated, and while it worked well in its day, various aesthetics & sensibilities in comedy have passed it by. A lot of what I’ve seen by Wheeler & Woolsey fits this category – two guys thrown together for a Broadway hit who found their way onto the screen for a series of 1930s comedies, most of which qualify more as curiosities rather than film buff bucket-list items. Diplomaniacs is probably the best example since it fits in with the early-30s antiwar/anti-Europe vibe (also in Duck Soup, and even featuring the very same Louis Calhern as the antagonist), but much of the schtick & one-liners fall flat in comparison to Groucho, Harpo & Chico. Not as painful to watch as the Buster Keaton/Jimmy Durante material (since you’re basically watching Keaton’s slo-mo alcohol-fueled humiliation while his true talents are brushed aside by Hollywood)
So when I finally got around to Olsen & Johnson, I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, much of their routine is dated 1940s silliness, but enough of it still works to keep it interesting, and perhaps most importantly, the lightning-fast pace of one surrealist gag after another is fairly innovating for its day, and perfectly inline with later comedy. Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In certainly owes a ton to Hellzapoppin, with the rapid-succession of throw-away cartoon gags and quick edits. I suppose you could draw a line from O&J to The Monkees, Frank Tashlin, Russ Meyer, as well as Airplane! and its comic descendants if you really wanted to.
Hellzapoppin, based on their hit Broadway show, is mostly about their efforts to put on the ol’ big show at a resort & how they have to improvise various wackiness to snare the financial backer. The movie takes it a few steps further, with an opening reel of non-stop sight gags introducing the framing device of the entire movie being described by the scriptwriter, played by gangster-movie staple Elisha Cook. There’s plenty of 4th wall breaking with Shemp Howard as the movie’s projectionist, impossible costume changes, a totally nonsense plot, and a fun & catchy swing era Jazz score throughout, with the highlights of Martha Raye & a group of lindy hoppers. Mindless fun, perfect for its wartime audience, and most of it holds up very well.
It was certainly good enough for me to want to check out other efforts of theirs, so I also found Crazy House on youtube. This one is more of a musical revue interrupted by sketch comedy, loosely (very very loosely) centered around a plot of O&J trying to make their big followup movie to Hellzapoppin. The bits this time don’t work as well and the music is less memorable, except for a Count Basie appearance, but on the mindless fun scale, this one still ranks fairly high.