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Room Service

Gasser

Room Service (1938)

     From what I have found in my encounters with the Marx Brothers so far is that the films using some material of their stage shows and/or focused more on their antics than the actual story line are the ones that most tickle my fancy. Room Service, unfortunately, does neither. Based on a stage show and adapted for the Marx Brothers, it relies heavily on the actual story to generate laughs and not enough on the random actions or dialogue of the boys.

     The story would also become a Sinatra musical, Step Lively, although the two films differ greatly as one relies on musical numbers and the other on the personalities of its stars. Leading the pack as always is Groucho Marx as play director Gordon Miller who has occupied for some time without paying his bill a room in a hotel managed by his brother-in-law Joseph Gribble (Cliff Dunstan). He also has 22 cast members staying at the residence while he prays for a financial backer to appear to support his show. Also on his team are “treasurer” Binelli, played by Chico Marx, and silent as ever friend Faker, embodied by Harpo Marx.

     The trouble the crew faces is that the hotel director Wagner (Donald MacBride) is quite angry about the unpaid $1,200 bill. As Groucho, Chico, and Harpo start layering on Groucho’s wardrobe so as to more profitably abscond from the property, they hear from cast member Christine (Lucille Ball) who has landed a backer for the show. The trouble is, the man is coming to the hotel to discuss the matter. Heturns out to be the go-between for a wealthier and anonymous gent, looking to minimize publicity because he wants his girlfriend included in the show. He agrees to fund the play but will come back at 10 a.m. the next day to deliver the check and sign the papers. Now the boys are stuck trying to stay in their room without being jettisoned to the curb. The solution: someone must play sick.

     By this point, the play’s writer Davis (Frank Albertson), an airheaded guy from a small town who burned all his figurative bridges on the way out, has come to collect on an advance for his script in order to pay his lodging. With money obviously not available, he is invited to room with the three Marx brothers’ characters. He is also selected as the one to play sick –first with measles then a tape worm– so that the hotel cannot throw him out. This works in the boys’ favor but they are unable to leave the room or order room service as they wait around for 10 a.m. and the lot begin to whine of starvation. They eventually finagle a stolen meal from one of the hotel workers and a scene of physical comedy ensues as all four stuff their faces.

     The crew does secure their check the next morning but in the process Wagner and Gribble argue enough with the men to freak out the money lender, and although he leaves the money, has payment stopped on the document later. Nevertheless, Wagner thinks the money is legit and holds the check, extending credit to the theater crew. Groucho et al seize the opportunity to rush their show into production during the five days it will take the check to clear before Wagner finds out they’ve duped him out of $15,000. All starts to fall apart at the last minute before the actors hit the stage, so some false acts of suicide are used to distract Wagner from destroying the effort.

     This was the first movie for which the fourth Marx Brother, Zeppo, acted as agent for his siblings, securing for them a $250,000 fee. The film allegedly lost $340,000 at the box office, which perhaps solidifies my previous remarks about it not being my favorite. It was the first film the brothers did that was not written for them, which truly emphasizes how unique of performers they were. You could not simply cast Chico, Harpo or Groucho into any generically written part; the roles had to be crafted with them in mind from the outset.

Source: Robert Osborne, TCM.com

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