Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson are having a spot of bother with their new film. First they arrive in a taxi cab in Hell, complete with cackling demons and tortured souls, and do nothing but confuse the issue until the director of the film (Richard Lane) protests loudly. Chic and Ole walk off the set and end up behind the scenes arguing with him about the story, wandering through various scenery until they ask the scriptwriter (Elisha Cook Jr) what's to be done. He begins to talk them through his plans, but the director still isn't happy, and the constant interruptions are not helping, so eventually a compromise is reached and Ole, Chic and the director settle down in front of a moving picture to see what's what. And so the plot begins. Such as it is.
Hellzapoppin, the stage show, was an anarchic revue hosted by Olsen and Johnson that ran for almost one and a half thousand performances from 1938 to 1941, notable for the way the cast would break the fourth wall and mingle with the audience. Obviously they couldn't pull off that trick for the cinema version, but they came pretty close, still breaking the fourth wall and interacting with the projectionist (Shemp Howard) and imaginary people in the theatre instead. Scripted by, no, not Elisha Cook Jr but original writer of the play (and future Addams Family TV sitcom producer) Nat Perrin with Warren Wilson, over the years the film became an influential byword for screen craziness.
And the high spirits are infectious, with many hilarious moments to appreciate. Although they resist it as far as possible, there is a plotline there, one about a love triangle between a theatre entrepreneur, his rich, would-be girlfriend who he doesn't want to marry until he has money to support her, and the man she is supposed to be marrying soon. Like a multitude of films of the time, this was really a basic musical comedy, a "putting on a show" one at that, yet one in which the customary zaniness has apparently run away with everyone concerned.
What this means is that any conventional romantic sequences are sabotaged by the all-pervading irreverence, so when Jeff (Robert Paige) and Kitty (Jane Frazee) get their big romantic musical number, they have to interrupt it to tell audience member Stinky Miller that he has to go home because his mother is calling. The nice thing is that every character is in on the jokes, even when the laugh is on them, no one more so than the reliable Martha Raye as Chic's cousin (?) Betty who gets to do a lot of physical comedy as she is insulted and rejected, most often by the man she pursues: Mischa Auer on fine form as a Russian prince who is a phoney but isn't really.
Starting with the incredible opening in Hell, the energy levels are raised high and seemingly effortlessly sustained throughout, with the gags arriving thick and fast. Not every one is a winner, and there a more than a few corny groaners, but there are many more inspired, surreal flights of fancy making for laugh out loud business. An old man with an ever-growing pot plant wanders in shouting "Mrs Jones!", private detective Hugh Herbert proves himself to be a master of disguise if not a master of magic tricks, Ole and Chic are rendered invisible at one point, and the whole thing ends with the duo trying to sabotage Jeff's play with rollicking effect - watch for the Frankenstein Monster helping Betty back onto the stage by flinging her through the air. Like a live action Tex Avery cartoon, the music is catchy, the dancing can be spectacular and most importantly the jokes are funny. "Oscar!"