Lost in the Movies: "Halliwell's Hundred" and Hellzapoppin

"Halliwell's Hundred" and Hellzapoppin

Leslie Halliwell was an inveterate curmudgeon, but he certainly had a sense of humor. A great many - perhaps a majority - of the entries in his 1981 collection "Halliwell's Hundred" are comedies. The British programmer and film critic, who was quite pointed in his dismissal of virtually everything that followed the 1950s, cherished memories of afternoons spent in the local cinemas or at student theaters or even in a cozy den at home (or, for that matter, a barely-sheltering hotel room, surrounded by a hostile American city just out his window). In these spots he would reel in the dreamlike atmosphere and lighter-than-air concoctions of Hollywood or British classics.

Classic comedies were, in a sense, perfect for his purposes: escapist without succumbing to sentimentality, subtly subversive yet essentially safe, entertainment with intelligence which was neither glum nor superficially glamorous. Halliwell had a soft spot for ramshackle constructions barely held together by the slick mechanics and studio system of the Golden Age film industry: he's at pains to emphasize that his book is not canonical, but rather a warm favorites list (if that; some go beyond even guilty pleasures and are classified as fascinating failures). They are cherished memories of a movie past. The enthusiasm shows in the writer's loving language - this volume is stuffed with plot summaries (spoilers everywhere), a potentially hit-and-miss methodology but Halliwell is skilled at evoking a film through quotations and descriptions.

It was through this approach that I was turned onto Hellzapoppin, a rollicking burlesque sampled heavily by Halliwell's celebratory prose. Perhaps too heavily; when I finally found the film on You Tube I hardly laughed at all - in this case, Halliwell hadn't just spoiled the plot (which he astutely notes is impossible to describe, and besides what would be the point in trying?), but the gags! The only moment that made me laugh as hard onscreen as on page occurred when Hugh Hubert wears a frightening mask which fails to scare fellow audience members. Shrugging, the defeated would-be prankster sits back in his chair and removes the mask. The lady sitting next to him turns, stares at his real-life bulbous mug...and screams hysterically. Dumb, but hilariously timed.

Tell me what you think - the film is on You Tube (the wretched quality of the print, especially since so many gags are visual as well as verbal, probably helped decrease the ticklishness of my funny bone). Since I've mostly refrained from giving away the jokes or the film's general approach, does the film make you laugh? Who's to blame for my lack of mirth: Halliwell or Hellzapoppin or You Tube or me?


Mike said...

Not gonna watch it, since I can already tell you I wont laugh. I recently saw Duck Soup (1933) and chuckled a few times but none of the gags or one liners are even memroable. Also I find screwball comidies like Bringing Up Baby to be highly annoying. Thats just me.

Joel Bocko said...

My own response to older comedies has been mixed. Duck Soup I generally find very funny but at times it's slight was bothered me (I'm not really sure why in retrospect). The screwballs generally make me smile and chuckle, but not necessarily guffaw. On the other hand, one of my great discoveries as a teenage cinephile was that the silent clowns were still viscerally funny: Chaplin especially made me laugh out loud.

Humor is so determinedly subjective and instinctive, more so than any other aspect of art or entertainment I think). That's one reason I was not eager to vote in the comedy poll of my friends over at Wonders in the Dark. An honest ballot would focus more on Superbad than Ninotchka, which is fine as far as it goes but leads to confusion over whether we are voting for "funniest comedy" or "greatest film that happens to be a comedy" - different categories to my mind, and different viewing experiences. I will be writing (or rather doing a video piece) for the resulting countdown, however, for Modern Times. That, incidentally, is a film that really illustrates the above dilemma for me. I admire many of its set pieces, I find its themes fascinating, and I'm enchanted by Paulette Goddard (she's probably my favorite thing about the movie, actually) but it is probably the Chaplin feature which makes me laugh the least (even something as obscure as A King in New York tickles my funny bone more).

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