After Charles Lindbergh “hopped” the Atlantic in 1927, his history-making solo flight set off a craze for all things “Lindy.” Of the countless songs, foods, products, and trends created or named in honor of the famous onetime U.S. Air Mail pilot, only one remains recognizable these more than 90 years later: the Lindy Hop. Developed on the streets and in the clubs of Harlem, the dance proved explosively popular, though it took Hollywood a few years to capitalize on it. In the late 1930s, the musical Hellzapoppin’ brought the Lindy Hop to Broadway, and in 1941, Universal Pictures turned that stage show into a major motion picture directed by H.C. Potter (now best known for Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House).
An often surreal, fourth-wall-breaking affair, Hellzapoppin’ is remembered mainly for the five-minute Lindy Hop musical number that comes about halfway through the film. It features a dance troupe called the Harlem Congaroos, played by the real-life Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers, a group of professional swing dancers founded at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, the origin point of the Lindy Hop as we know it today.
Its appearing members include Frankie Manning, whose name had become synonymous with the Lindy Hop in the 1930s, and Norma Miller, who as a twelve-year-old girl famously did the dance outside the Savoy for tips. Hellzapoppin’ preserves their athleticism and vitality for all time — with a hot jazz soundtrack to boot.
Like most Hollywood musicals of the early 1940s, Hellzapoppin’ was shot in black-and-white, and cinephiles will maintain that it’s best seen that way. But just as the technology powering long-haul flights has developed greatly since the days of Charles Lindbergh, so has the technology of film colorization. Take DeOldify, the “open-source, Deep Learning based project to colorize and restore old images and film footage” that “uses AI neural networks trained with thousands of reference pictures” – and that was used to produce the version of Hellzapoppin‘s Lindy Hop number seen at the top of the post. It all looks much more convincing than when Ted Turner attempted to colorize Citizen Kane, but in lovers of dance, whatever sense of realism DeOldify contributes will mainly inspire a deeper longing to experience the culture of Harlem as it really was in the 1920s.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.