In 1941, Universal Pictures hired vaudeville comedians Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson to bring their mega-successful stage revue Hellzapoppin’ to the silver screen. Hellzapoppin’, for those not familiar with the production, was a wacky “anything goes” hodgepodge featuring comedy props, wacky sight gags, one-liners (often on the ribald side) and audience participation—much of it improvised nightly by the two comics, who saw their Broadway concoction run for a then-record 1,404 performances. The film adaptation couldn’t quite measure up to the anarchic spirit of the stage original, however, though it does have some hilarious moments (and a cast of first-rate second bananas including Hugh Herbert and Shemp Howard).
Two years later—and after another Broadway success in Sons O’Fun—Ole and Chic made another picture for Universal in Crazy House (1943)…which was even more conventional than the previous Hellzapoppin’, if such a thing could be possible. The film gets off to a hilarious start with the news that Olsen and Johnson are returning to Universal to make another picture, and every employee on the lot running for the hills in terror. (The culmination of this panic reaches a funny climax when Nigel Bruce, in his role as Dr. Watson, attempts to inform Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes of the two comics’ arrival…but Holmes beats him to the punch. “How do you know?” Watson asks his friend, prompting the Holmesian reply: “I am Sherlock Holmes…I know everything.”) Arriving in the office of studio producer N.G. Wagstaff (Thomas Gomez), Olsen and Johnson announce their presence with “Universal’s most sensational comedy team outside!”
“Oh…Abbott and Costello! Send them right in,” Wagstaff replies enthusiastically over the intercom. (Robert Lees and Frederic I. Rinaldo, who scripted many of Bud & Lou’s films, also wrote Crazy House—so this bit always makes me laugh.)
Wagstaff informs Ole and Chic that after all the difficulties with Hellzapoppin’ they are persona au gratin at Universal…so the two funny men decide to make their own film independent of the studio, hiring their friend “Mac” MacLean (Patric Knowles) to helm the picture. Ole and Chic go poaching on the Universal lots in search of big celebrity stars, and think they’ve scored a coup in hiring singer-comedienne Cass Daley for their production. It’s not Daley, though—it’s her double, Sadie Silverfish (also portrayed by Daley), who intends to hold Ole and Chic to the contract they signed with her. Meanwhile, MacLean has some luck in finding a “fresh new face” in Marjorie Nelson (Martha O’Driscoll), a talented carhop who is made over by Mac and the boys and renamed “Marjorie Wyndingham.”
Ole and Chic have rented facilities to shoot their picture from a group of sharpies that include Richard Lane (who appeared with the boys in Hellzapoppin’) and Billy Gilbert, and plan to pay for the studio space with the help of an “angel”—a wealthy eccentric named Colonel Cornelius Merriweather (Percy Kilbride). The problem is, the Colonel is more eccentric than wealthy—he’s a crackpot who hasn’t a cent to his name, and the film gets confiscated by the creditors when Ole and Chic can’t pay. A judge (Edgar Kennedy) hearing the case decrees that if Olsen and Johnson can sell their movie to an interested studio, they can avoid prosecution…so the two men invite all the big studio moguls to premiere night but Lane and his goons only supply the first reel of the film, substituting blank film for the rest. They’re able to stall for time (“We’ve been stalling for years,” jokes Ole) with slapstick shenanigans and a number of musical acts (including Allan Jones, who sings “The Donkey Serenade”) before retrieving the movie, and the premiere turns to be a success. Just as lovers Mac and Marjorie go in for a clinch as Crazy House comes to a close, Chic shoots the two lovers dead, declaring “This is going to be one movie without a happy ending!”
Since I’m a big fan of Olsen and Johnson’s antics I was willing to put up with a lot of the lulls in Crazy House because let’s be honest—the movie is essentially one of Universal’s B-musicals with the novelty of Ole and Chic thrown in. But there’s a lot of funny bits in the film, culminating with a running gag involving Shemp (he’s in this one, too) as a character constantly trying to sell Chic various items (“Wanna buy a stove? It’s hot!”). Crazy House is also an influential film—it’s a little hard to ignore that Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, released in 1976, swiped a lot from it (the business with trying to sign celebrities and the missing reels of film gambit, for starters).
But Crazy House is also a great movie for those who revel in spotting character actors—among those who appear in the film (that I haven’t already named) are Hans Conried, Andrew Tombes, Billy Gilbert, Chester Clute, Franklin Pangborn, Billy Bletcher, John Hamilton, Charles Middleton, Jack Norton, Jack Rice and Pierre Watkin. If you’re quick enough, you’ll see some of the Universal contractees, too—Louise Albritton, Evelyn Ankers, Turhan Bey, Lon Chaney, Jr., Gale Sondergaard…the list goes on and on. Johnny Mack Brown rides through the Universal lot warning that “Olsen and Johnson are coming!” and so does Andy Devine…who meets up with Leo Carrillo evacuating an air-raid shelter that’s been invaded by a skunk. (When Leo learns that Ole and Chic are on the lot, he decides he’d stand better odds with the skunk.)
Crazy House was directed by Eddie Cline, a journeyman who also rode herd on many of W.C. Fields’ vehicles (The Great Man himself once said he liked working with Eddie because he was the only man in Hollywood who knew less about making movies than he did) and enjoyed working with Ole and Chic so much that he also helmed their two final Universal vehicles, Ghost Catchers (1944) and See My Lawyer (1945)—not to mention their brief foray into live television, 1949’s Fireball Fun-for-All. Most of the musical numbers in the film aren’t particularly memorable but there’s no surfeit of fine performers that include the Delta Rhythm Boys and Count Basie and His Orchestra. Universal’s policy at the time was that they didn’t think a movie audience would sit still for continuous comedy and that it was necessary to break it up with the musical acts. (Abbott and Costello proved this wrong with their 1942 vehicle Who Done It?—but I guess the folks at Universal just needed to give their people the work.)
I classified Crazy House as a “grey market cinema” item because the film isn’t available on DVD but can probably be obtained by Mom-and-Pop outfits if you do a little looking around. I own two copies of the movie myself—one of them was taped when it was shown on Trio in 2004 (introduced by Quentin Tarantino), and the other when it made the rounds briefly many, many moons back on American Movie Classics (the funny thing about this was that I taped the film myself off of AMC and lent it to a friend…but never saw it again—so it was like it came back to me years later). I had to use the Trio copy for the screen caps, which is why there’s a logo—but I think the Trio copy is actually a better print. Maybe there’ll come a day when Universal will issue House on DVD (they did release Ghost Catchers to VHS at one time) but if the film has any of the thorny copyright issues like Hellzapoppin’ (which has only seen overseas releases, included a nice Region 2 put out by Second Sight in 2007) we’re in for a long wait.