Monday, March 26, 2018
Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1938)
As I started to watch “Room Service,” I was surprised. Not because of the opening credits, which features likable animated versions of Groucho, Harpo, and Chico. No, it's the production logo that threw me. All the prior Marx Brothers I've watched this month begin with the vintage Paramount or MGM logos. “Room Service” begins with the RKO logo. There's a good reason for this. Though under contract with MGM at the time, Zeppo negotiated a deal that allowed his three brothers to star in an adaptation of the popular Broadway play for a rival studio. The film was not successful in 1938 and, due to either that or being produced outside the Brothers' usual studios, is widely overlooked.
Somewhat shifty stage producer Gordon Miller, along with his assistants Binelli and Faker, has been attempting to get a new play produced. The script, “Hail and Farewell!,” is supposedly good but Miller is completely broke. He's currently living out of a hotel room and has the manager breathing down his back, asking for the rent. Things get even more convluted as Leo Davis, the writer of the play, shows up at the hotel. The attempt to fund the play, pay the hotel, and not get kicked out drives the plot further.
a Broadway play from another author, it is the only time the Marxes would play roles that were not originated for them. Thus, “Room Service” is not really a Marx Brothers movie that, for some reason, stars the Marx Brothers. The script has a completely different comedic rhythm than the team's usual films. The film leans less on hyper-verbal sparing and wacky visual gags. The pacing is much slower, the film making more room for the non-Marx players. There are also no musical numbers, Harpo going without his harp and Chico without his piano. On one hand, it's interesting to the Marx Brothers play in a slightly different style. At the same time, it's not a mode especially suited to the three's style.
The Marx Brothers had starred in films based on plays before. Despite being several years older than “Room Service,” even “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers” were less obviously stage adaptations than this one. Almost all of “Room Service” takes place in one hotel room. Characters and events are frequently said to appear just off-screen, a device that made sense in a stagebound play but less so in a motion picture. Director William Seiter throws in a few cinematic moves, like an occasional close-up, but his direction is very stage-like as well. I have no idea why the film's producers took the stage-to-screen transition so literally.
Despite sharing the screen more than usual, the Brothers are still the stars of the show. Groucho still gets most of the laughs. He proclaims a man that doesn't wear shirts an “atheist,” asks how someone without a fireside can listen to the president's speeches, or proclaims frustration that he can't sue anyone. A conversation has him launching into a rendition of “I'll Be in Scotland Before You.” An attempt to convince someone that the playwright is in a mental institution takes an amusing detour towards a maternity hospital. Groucho even sneaks in some naughtier lines. After being taught he's been given the bridal suite, he asks for three brides. He gets to dance too, at the conclusion of a kind of lame skit that opens the film.
Chico has a couple of sharp lines too. He doesn't hit the circular arguments he brought to the earlier films but he's still funny here. He propels one of the films' better reoccurring gags, by insisting on carrying a stuffed moose head around with him. Supposedly, it was hard to get through a revolving door. He also gets good lines when confusing a would-be actor/waiter's acting ability with his aptitude for carrying dishes. Perhaps in a bit of a meta touch, considering the Brothers supposedly felt washed-up following their exit from Paramount, Chico actually makes a joke about being washed-up here.
“Room Service” takes a surprisingly morbid turn in its last act. When it becomes clear that they won't be able to pay the bill they owe, the Brothers decide that Davis should fake suicide. This leads to him writhing on a bed, pretending to have drank poison, until he ends up faking his death. When that isn't enough, Harpo fakes suicide too, dropping out of a closet with a knife in his back. All of this happens in the film's final ten minutes, feeling increasingly sweaty and a bit off-putting as “Room Service” runs towards its sudden ending.