Monday, January 29, 2007

Olsen & Johnson: Crazy House (1943)

Olsen and Johnson's followup to their zany, iconoclastic Hellzapoppin' was the more conventional Crazy House. The premise: Having nearly laid waste to Universal while filming Hellzapoppin', O & J are thrown out of the studio when they arrive with plans for a new picture.

Only momentarily daunted, our heroes decide to produce the film themselves, renting a studio and hiring carhop Margie (Martha O'Driscoll) as their leading lady. The success of this plan hinges upon an "angel", self-proclaimed millionaire Col. Merriweather (Percy Kilbride), who promises to advance the money for the new film.

Things get sticky when the Colonel turns out to be a balmy eccentric with nary a cent to his name. After a wild courtroom trial presided over by ever-scowling Edgar Kennedy, it is decided that Olsen and Johnson will be permitted to screen their new film before a gathering of Hollywood studio executives, with distribution rights going to the highest bidder. The finale devolves into frantic slapstick when the last reel of the film turns up missing (a plot device later utilized in Mel Brooks' Silent Movie).

Though Crazy House gets off to a suitably wacky start-when word arrives at Universal that Olsen and Johnson are coming, barricades are set up and armed guards posted, while every studio contractee from Leo Carrillo to "Sherlock Holmes" (Basil Rathbone) and "Dr. Watson" (Nigel Bruce) brace themselves for the comedians' invasion-the film quickly settles into a standard musical-comedy groove, complete with such guest stars as Allan Jones, Count Basie, the Delta Rhythm Boys and the Glenn Miller Singers.

Still, there are plenty of hilarious moments along the way, most of them handled by raucous comedienne Cass Daley, playing a dual role. And there's seldom been a more satisfying movie finale than the last gag of Crazy House, which literally disposes of tiresome romantic leads Martha O'Driscoll and Patric Knowles.

~ Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

Olsen and Johnson
The Zaniest of the Zanies
by Charles Stumpf

Although they are all but forgotten today, the zany comedy team of Olsen and Johnson were a big part of the entertainment scene for nearly half a century.

John Sigvard Olsen was born in Peru, Indiana on November 6, 1892. Of Swedish descent, he became known as "Ole." Olsen earned his way through Northwestern University by playing violin in a dance band. Later he sang with a quartet, appearing in rathskellers throughout the Chicago area.

Harold Ogden Johnson, also of Swedish descent, was born in Chicago on March 15, 1891. He, too, had attended Northwestern University but dropped out to enter show business as a ragtime pianist.

The pair met when they were hired as musicians in the same band. When the band broke up "Ole" Olsen and "Chic" Johnson formed a comedy team. They really did not have a set act but found themselves booked into a small Chicago nightclub as part of "Mike Fritzol’s Frolics." When it came time for their turn in the show, unannounced and not particularly welcome, the brave pair pushed a piano onstage. Johnson seated himself at the keyboard and began to plunk out a ragtime tune. Olsen joined in with his violin and started singing, making up comical lyrics, as he went along. The pair began to exchange "patter," mostly insults—and the soon-to-be-famous "Olsen and Johnson" team emerged.

By some miracle, audiences found them very amusing, and it wasn’t long before the pair was appearing on the Pantages vaudeville circuit. As their popularity gained, their salaries rose to $250 a week between them. "Not bad," they thought, and they continued to beat their fertile brains out—anything to please the audience!

Their efforts paid off, and they reached the apex of the vaudeville world when they were signed to the Keith-Orpheum circuit. Billed as "Two Likable Lads - Loaded with Laughs" their salary reached four figures. In a 25-year career as vaudeville headliners, Olsen and Johnson made appearances in nearly every town on the circuit.

In 1930 Warner Bros. signed them for their film debut. They appeared as a pair of American sailors on the lookout for the crook who had robbed a Navy storehouse—who happened to have a wooden leg. The pair’s zany method of detecting was to aim pea-shooters at the legs of anyone they suspected. The film featured the pair’s famous "Laughing Song." They also appeared in some comedy shorts for Vitaphone.

In 1931 they made a second feature for Warners, Gold Dust Gertie. For the first and only time in his long film career, Ole Olsen wore a moustache. This time around, the duo portrayed bathing suit salesmen. Both at one time had been married to the same woman, "Gold Dust Gertie," played by winsome Winnie Lightner. During their travels, they kept bumping into her, and each time gave her the slip to avoid alimony.

Also that year Warners starred the comedians in a lavish Technicolor production, Fifty Million Frenchmen. There wasn’t much of a plot but plenty of laughs. To add to the fun, Bela Lugosi was featured as a mysterious Fakir.

While making films on the West Coast, they appeared in another zany revue, Monkey Business. The pair relied a great deal on "sight gags" and combined elements of slapstick comedy also used by The Keystone Kops, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, and the Ritz, as well as the Marx Brothers.

Ole and Chic also tried their hand at radio—making an early appearance on Rudy Vallee’s program. There was a studio audience on hand so the sight gags got plenty of laughs on the air. Other radio guest appearances followed.

For a time they settled in Chicago where they appeared in the stage revue Take a Chance (1933) in which they replaced Jack Haley and Sid Silvers. The pair’s rambunctious, nonsensical buffoonery had audiences falling out of their seats. When the revue closed, Olsen and Johnson returned to vaudeville. They toured England and Australia in the revues Tip Toes and Tell Me More.

Back home Republic Pictures signed them to a picture deal resulting in Country Gentlemen (1936) and All Over Town (1937).

The best was yet to come. The masters of "anything-goes-mayhem" created their most chaotic conglomeration of comedy routines for the stage smash Hellzapoppin, which opened at New York’s 46th Street Theater on September 22, 1938.

Broadway critic Brooks Atkinson wrote: "Folks, it’s going to be a little difficult to describe this one. Anything goes in Hellzapoppin -- noise, vulgarity, and practical joking. Olsen and Johnson make their entrance in a clownish automobile, and the uproar begins. There is no relief, even during the intermission, when a clown roams the aisles. You can hear some lymphatic fiddling by rotund Shirley Wayne who looks as though she has just finished frying a mess of doughnuts. It is mainly a helter-skelter assembly of low comedy gags to an ear-splitting sound accompaniment. If you can imagine a demented vaudeville brawl without the Marx brothers, Hellzapoppin is it ... and a good part of it is loud, low, and funny!"

The show consisted of two acts with 25 scenes, during which the audience was bombarded with eggs and bananas. Then when the lights went out, the audience was besieged with rubber snakes and spiders. A woman ran up and down the aisles shouting out in a loud tenement voice for "Oscar! Oscar!" Meanwhile, a ticket salesman began to hawk tickets for a rival show (I Married an Angel). The Broadway madness ran for a record breaking 1,404 performances.

In 1938 when Warner Bros. were casting the roles of two screenwriters for Boy Meets Girl, they wanted Olsen and Johnson, but the pair was tied up solidly in Hellzapoppin. The roles went to James Cagney and Pat O’Brien.

With the huge success of Hellzapoppin, Olsen and Johnson decided to produce another Broadway show. In association with the Messrs. Shubert, they produced the revue Streets of Paris. It featured comedian Bobby Clark and introduced some new names, as well. The biggest draw was "The Brazilian Bombshell," Carmen Miranda. Colorful Carmen wowed audiences at the end of the first act with her sensational rendition of "The South American Way." Miranda became a new sensation and was promptly signed by 20th Century-Fox for a series of Technicolor musicals. Also appearing in Streets of Paris was the comedy team of Abbott and Costello who kept the audiences in hysterics.

When Olsen and Johnson opened in their next starring show, Sons O’ Fun at the Winter Garden on December 1, 1941, Carmen Miranda was once again featured. This time she was given three show-stopping numbers beginning with "Thank you, North America," at the end of Act One. Later in the show she sang renditions of "Manuelo" and "Tete a Tete." The lady in the tutti-fruit hat also joined Olsen and Johnson for the finale. Also in the stellar cast was comedian Joe Besser and singing Scottish lass Ella Logan.

Olsen and Johnson returned to the Broadway stage in Laffing Room Only which opened at the Winter Garden on December 23, 1944. The show brought Betty Garrett to Broadway and ran through July 14, 1945.

The zany pair tried again to repeat the mammoth success of the record breaking hit Hellzapoppin but without success. In 1949 they gave it one last try with Funzapoppin which has long been forgotten.

In 1941 Universal Pictures presented Olsen and Johnson in a screen version of Hellzapoppin Although some of the finest comedy talent on the screen were added to the cast, the film was just a lot of weird happenings, a romantic triangle, and a mish-mash of musical numbers which resulted in a misfire. In 1943 the studio tried to resurrect Olsen and Johnson on screen in Crazy House which had an inept script about a comedy team making a Hollywood film. The studio once again added some sure-fire talent to the production, but the likes of Cass Daley, Edgar Kennedy, Percy Kilbride, and Franklin Pangborn, and at least a dozen top musical acts, couldn’t get a spark going. It was another dud.

The studio reshuffled plans and tired again with Ghost Catchers (1944), adding the gimmick of a spooky old mansion, creaking doors, fog, as well as the musical talents of Gloria Jean, Morton Downey, and Mel Torme. They also threw in a lot of comedy favorites such as Andy Devine, Leo Carillo, Walter Catlett, and the lovable "drunk," Jack Norton. For some creepy chills Lon Chaney, Jr. was also added to the cast. None of these extra elements helped much. Olsen and Johnson’s stage successes had relied largely on the fact that their comedy material was unrehearsed and spontaneous—for the screen, this wasn’t possible.

Practically desperate, Universal was brave enough to attempt to milk the formula for one last time. See My Lawyer (1945) had a plodding plot that might have been lifted out of the comic team’s own lives. It dealt with the trials and tribulations of an over-worked pair of comedians and their frenzied attempts to get themselves released from an unwanted nightclub commitment. Despite the presence of about three dozen "screen names," all of whom added drawing power, it wasn’t enough to satisfy demanding audiences, and See My Lawyer marked Olsen and Johnson’s final film.

Olsen and Johnson had enjoyed much success of varying degree in most phases of show business—small nightclubs, vaudeville, radio, Broadway, and motion pictures. There weren’t many other fields to conquer.

After a few guest spots on variety and comedy telecasts, Olsen and Johnson’s big break came from NBC-TV in 1949. When Milton Berle took a summer break for the Texaco Star Theater, the network offered Olsen and Johnson a full hour in which they could reacquaint audiences with their "anything goes" comedy style. Fireball Fun For All premiered on Tuesday, June 28, 1949. The zesty comics loaded their tv show with sight gags, gimmick props, clowns running through the audience, leggy show girls, seltzer water and pies in the face. At first many of the gags took place in the audience. The show broke for a brief summer vacation, and when it returned there were a number of changes. Airdate was moved to Thursday at a later time, 9 to 10 PM. Regulars included singer Bill Hayes and comedian Marty May, as well as two newcomers to show business, June Johnson, daughter of Chic Johnson, and J. C. Olsen, son of Ole Olsen.

The telecasts originated in New York’s large Center Theater before an enthusiastic studio audience, some of whom were old enough to remember Hellzapoppin. What they saw in the tv’s studio didn’t quite measure up. Many of the jokes were old and no longer funny. After faltering for nearly four months, Fireball Fun For All fizzled out on October 27, 1949.

The zaniest of the zany comedy acts had passed their peak. There were some bookings in small night clubs and some minor stage appearances. Then a new phase of show business presented opportunities --- the glitzy gambling casinos of Las Vegas where the antiquated antics of Olsen and Johnson were still welcome. But both men were tired, growing old, and suffering serious health problems.

"Chic" Johnson died of kidney ailment at the age of 71 on February 28, 1962. His comedy partner, "Ole" Olsen followed on January 26, 1963. Their lives had shared many similarities. Both were born less than a year apart, both were of Swedish ancestry, both attended Northwestern University, both entered show business as musicians. They both suffered from kidney problems and died at the age of 71, less than a year apart. And there was still one more ironic similarity—both are buried in the same cemetery in Las Vegas.

In their prime, their comedy was greeted with thunderous applause. Though forgotten by most people now, Olsen and Johnson are still remembered by film buffs as the zaniest of the zanies.


justlarry said...

Great stuff.
Ps. I am soooo steling those Shemp howard lines....It's a good deal!

Anonymous said...

In 2005 we hosted the WCA Convention here in Peoria,IL. Because we knew Peoria was a great vaudeville town-that was our theme - Duh! and we invited the clowns to come Play in Peoria.
I did a lot of research about who actually "Played in Peoria" and I was amazed. We were part of the Orpheum Circuit. One of the ones I had heard about but knew nothing about was Olsen and Johnson. I learn so much from you. Thanks
We had 4 large theaters back then but I particularly liked the Palace Theater for their diverse offerings--Spike Jones AND Lawrence Welk :O). The pay scale is interesting to. Here is what I found.
Among the big names who played the Palace were Duke Ellington, Lawrence Welk, Spike Jones, Gene Krupa, Paul Whiteman, Sally Rand, Burns and Allen, Ozzie and Harriet, Dick Powell, Joe E. Brown, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Blackstone the Magician, and Fibber McGee and Molly (who grew up here as Marian Dricoll and Jim Jordan), Amos and Andy, and the Dead End Kids.

The Theatre’s billing ledger shows Edgar Bergan and Company performing on September 24, 1928 for $192.85 and the comedy team of Olsen and Johnson on December 18, 1928 for $1,071.40.

Thanks for all your hard work.