Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, March 26, 2018

Series Report Card: The Marx Brothers (1938)

8. Room Service

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.

“Room Service” is something of a departure for the Marx Brothers. Being based on 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.

Owing to its origins as an unrelated play, “Room Service” features a much larger cast and more developed characters than the brothers' other films. Most notably, a young Lucille Ball appears as Christine, the actress who is helping Miller fund his play. Though it's neat to see her in the part, Ball sadly isn't given very much to do. Frank Albertson plays Davis, the playwright. This is the part that would've once been played by Zeppo. Yet Davis gets more screen time and personality than the Brothers' straight men usually get, even getting a laugh or two of his own. Donald MacBride, who borders on obnoxious as the hotel manager, has nearly as much screentime as the Brothers.

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.

Considering the play wasn't written with the Marxes in mind, one can assume that Harpo's part had to be extensively rewritten. In one scene, what I suspect was the character's dialogue is replaced with a whistle being played. Harpo's trademark ingenuity is present here. He uses a strainer and some iodine to make it look like Davis has measles. He sneaks a live turkey into the hotel under his jacket. When asked if he's ever been in love, he pulls out a squeaking kewpie doll. One of his better gags has him entering the room while wearing a cape and a flaming hat, for no apparent reason. He even gets to hit someone over the head. Not all these skits work, as the turkey bit goes on way too long, but he still gets several laughs.

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” is actually full of running gags. Some of them are better than others. On two occasions, the Brothers start putting on multiple copies of the same clothes, a mildly surreal gag. More than once, someone runs into a room stacked full of stuff. Yet frequently the repeated jokes here do not successfully hit their target. MacBride's manager is given the annoying catchphrase of “Jumping butterballs,” which the movie repeats over and over again. There's also a running joke about characters bidding someone else goodbye. It says a lot that one of the funniest moments in the movie is simply a knowing glance between the three Brothers as they try to pull off a scheme.

“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.

According to the sages over at Wikipeida, “Room Services” recorded a loss of 330,00 dollars, which couldn't have been good for RKO in 1938. Needless to say, the Brothers wouldn't make another movie with that studio. Though the more subdued style of the MGM films supposedly were a hit with audiences at the times, perhaps “Room Service” was too subdued, even for 1938. It's the rarest of characters, a Marx Brothers movie that doesn't really feel like a Marx Brothers movie. While I admire the trio for attempting something new, the result clearly did not play to their strength as well as their usual style. [Grade: C+]

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