Helter Skelter (1949)

+++ Susan, a rich orphan girl, is celebrating her 19th birthday. The ideal opportunity for her two guardians to introduce her to their respective nephews – each hoping to get their hands on her money through marriage.
Susan is not impressed. She is not interested in getting married and would rather spend her birthday at an exciting venue. And then fate intervenes, in the form of lots of coincidences and a rather aged Cupid. +++

With this film the title is a promise. The plot is a stew of many very disparate ingredients – which somehow works out fine. From the very beginning of the film you are shown just how much suspension of disbelief is required (100%, more or less), as we witness a tiny old man – some sort of mix between Cupid and the Fairy Godmother – hovering into the scene from above and putting the name of a club into Susan’s head, thus setting all the events into motion.

This supernatural intervention has a great benefit for the writers (and for audiences who are tired of formulaic developments): the two main characters of the romantic plot do not have to fall in love through interaction, character development, and so forth. They are simply hit by Cupid’s arrows. Done.
The writers (and viewers) can now concentrate on the fun, the mayhem, and the question of how these two lovebirds can overcome external obstacles.

Running through all this is a medical mystery, as Susan begins to suffer from hiccups that last for days and will not go away. This is the excuse for the writers to write at least two long sequences in which Susan is seeking a solution at different locations.

The hotchpotch nature of the narrative cannot be stressed enough. There are several supernatural elements aside from Cupid’s existence; and there’s breaking the fourth wall. But there are also other outlandish elements: for example, at one point, Susan’s hiccups lead to the celluloid itself being derailed and the film becoming wobbly (making other characters seasick as a result).

A psychiatrist recommends laughter as a medicine, and proceeds to show Susan a short film; which is its own thing and thematically entirely unconnected to the plot. This short film is in fact an excerpt of the 1929 silent comedy Would You Believe It!, and the rights must have been cheap if it was used here to pad out the running time.
And as Susan visits the aforementioned fictional club on two occasions, there is also running-time filled by showing us performances that are being offered as entertainment at that club, including a stand-up routine by ventriloquist Robert Lamouret (infringing on Donald Duck’s trademark).
Another budget-saving measure seems to have been the use of pre-existing sets left over from other recent productions. This explains the long sequence in which our characters spend the night at a haunted mansion. The sets look absolutely gorgeous, so it is a win-win, but it also means that the script was written to fit the sets, not the sets built to fit the script.

Situated around Susan’s lively main plot are a few short episodes with supporting characters getting into their own kind of drama. Terry-Thomas, for example, excels in his solo scene and absolutely steals the show.

Very interesting are the many scenes set inside a large radio station (meant to be the BBC). Seeing those recording devices and all the goings-on is always enjoyable. Since David Tomlinson’s character plays a radio detective, we can see how the live performance is created. Something that reminded me of Red Skelton’s Whistling in the Dark.

Helter Skelter is as silly as they come, but it is also very enjoyable, and you have to admire the “just go for it” attitude that seems to have been underlying the project.

Rating: 6.5 out of 10


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