I often like to joke that Room Service (1938) is the Marx Brothers film on which Zeppo made his greatest artistic mark. (The youngest brother had left the team four years before, but he engineered the deal to make this film at RKO as an agent).
I vacillate on which Marx Brothers film is their worst, but this one has been my candidate more than once (usually every time I watch it). Room Service is the one vehicle the Marx Brothers appeared in as a team that wasn’t crafted especially for their unique talents, and the one film in which they play characters semi-resembling real humans (except of course for the mysterious mute clown walking around with a lit candle on his head).
Room Service was originally a successful Broadway stage play by John Murray and Allen Boretz. The screenplay was tweaked by Morrie Ryskind to be more suitable for the team, but the task was clearly impossible. By itself it’s a mildly funny farce. An impecunious Broadway producer must scheme to keep his entire cast and crew in their hotel lodgings until opening night, so he can finally pay the bill. The play is a couple of hours of expedient lies, disguises and dodges. It’s kind of a mix between that extremely overdone plot about a Broadway producer dodging creditors until opening night with something rather like the stateroom scene in A Night at the Opera. Perhaps that was the attraction.
Groucho plays the producer, of course. And you know what? I NEVER want to see Groucho this vulnerable, with these quotidian problems. He makes a few weak wisecracks but they’re toothless. The Groucho we want in the movies OWNS the hotel, and anyone who irritates him winds up in a dumpster out back wearing a sign that says “kick me”. So the entire movie is painful from start to finish. Harpo fares much better. In a way the film belongs to him because the rest of it is so awful we watch him — almost desperately — for relief, and he does offer some. Most people like the “eating scene” best (where the hungry Harpo relentlessly eats everything in sight like a locust). It is reminiscent of a similar scene in A Night at the Opera, but you know what? It’s all we got. Chico has very little indeed to do. One of the minor roles in the play was just altered to have an Italian accent — a far cry from “sanity clause”. The faux Zeppo role is played by the Grady Sutton-esque Frank Albertson as a rube playwright from upstate Oswego. A very young Lucille Ball is a funny secretary and an even younger (teenaged!) Ann Miller is the love interest (that will get you arrested nowadays). Most annoying of all (to me) is the foil, a hotel manager played by Donald MacBride, who runs around with his eyes popping out yelling “Jumping Butterballs!” The last thing our compromised Marx Brothers need in this picture is competition for laughs. And how very lame that this is what is supposed to achieve them.
After the success of A Day at the Races, this has to have been a major come down, actually losing money at the box office. How pathetic that fact is will be most apparent when you consider how little was evidently spent on the film, in terms of production values. It all takes place almost entirely in one room. Ironically it is more stagebound than any of their previous movies including The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, both of which had an actual excuse. It is still a play. It doesn’t feel like a movie. But this is 1938. Surely we should be seeing this “cast of 19” everybody keeps talking about, and the rehearsals they are supposed to be having. Even in Love Happy we get to see the beleaguered cast’s rehearsals!
My theory is that this film lowered the bar considerably for what was expected of the Marx Brothers, and for what resources would be extended to them going forward. Film producers saw this film and said, ” Oh! they’ll do this! I guess we dont have to go the whole nine yards with them anymore.” And they didn’t.
For more on comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etcTo find out about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.