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I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

Room Service
(1938)

(SPOILERS) The Marx Brothers step away from MGM for a solitary RKO outing, and a scarcely disguised adaption of a play to boot. Room Service lacks the requisite sense of anarchy and inventiveness of their better (earlier) pictures – even Groucho’s name, Gordon Miller, is disappointingly everyday – but it’s nevertheless an inoffensive time passer.

Miller: You do me a favour and kindly keep your wife’s name out of this. Do you realise, you’re talking about the woman you love?

Groucho is producing a play – or trying to – and running up a massive bill ($1,200 – nearly $22,000 in today’s money) into the bargain at the hotel managed by his brother-in-law (Cliff Dunstan as the better named Joseph Gribble). Chico (Harry Binelli) and Harpo (Faker Englund) are his hapless cohorts. Gribble is under pressure from the particularly uncompromising supervising director Gregory Wagner (Donald MacBride), keen to show he’s cutting costs.

Leo: Gee, I don’t know where I’m at. Mr Gribble says I owe 600 dollars, downstairs they think I’ve got a tapeworm, and this man thinks I’m a lunatic!

There are various larks involving absconding from Groucho’s room but making it look like he’s still staying there (so the trio don his entire wardrobe and leave the suitcases). There’s also the play’s hapless author, Leo Davis (Frank Albertson), who joins the tradition of unmemorable leading men in the brothers’ movies, excepting he’s slightly more memorable than most and is given his fair share of business (pretending to be dead having been requested to die slowly for two and a half hours; pretending to have measles after Harpo spits iodine all over him; at one point, Harpo must pretend he’s Leo, now suffering from a tapeworm – “His hair wasn’t red yesterday” exclaims Wagner).

Leo: My mother seemed very happy when I left.
Miller: Only a mother’s mask. At this moment, she may be sitting at the fireside, wringing her hands.
Leo: Oh, we have no fireside.
Miller: You have no fireside? How do you listen to the President’s speeches?

The result of Glenn Tyron and Philip Loeb adapting a play (by Allen Boretz and John Murray, originally debuting the year before) is that, even when Groucho gives delivers the laughs, they tend to be germane to the plot; when Davis protests the state of the production, Groucho replies “I am a great manager. A great manager never puts his own money into a play”. His decision, after Russian waiter and would-be stage star Sasha Smirnoff (Alexander Asro) provides them with a free meal on the promise of a part, to renege on his promise is also classic Groucho unscrupulousness (“No, when I made that offer, I was prepared to go through with it. But now I’ve eaten, I see things a little differently”). He and Chico also run through their history of bill avoidance:

Miller: Remember, I had kidney stones at the Apollo, and gallstones at the Plaza.
Binelli: Ah, those were the happy days.

As per a play, the vast majority of the action takes place in the one room (so it ought to have come cheap), with various characters called upon to show up and then suffer indignities or confusion at the brothers’ hands; a doctor locked in the bathroom, a debt collector calling about Leo’s typewriter. Most notable is the involvement of an agent (Philip Wood) for potential backer Zachary Fisk, hit on the head while Harpo is chasing a turkey round the room with a baseball bat; the turkey, in both live and stuffed, aeronautically-accomplished form, is the true star of the picture, and the only moments where there’s a real sight of the brothers’ lunacy at work.

Binelli: Hello? Room Service. Bring up enough ice to cool a warm body.

MacBride makes a suitably unlikeable villain, with a good line in oaths (well, one: “Jumping Butterballs!”). Made to believe that Leo has expired due to the stress he has caused him, Wagner insists “I never hurt anybody in my life!” Upon which, there’s a knock at the door and Harpo appears, dagger in his chest with a note attached reading “Wagner drove me to my death just as he drove Leo Davis”. The irreverence continues with regard to disposing of the body (“Maybe we could sell it to some medical students”).

Binelli: I still think it’s a terrible play, but it makes a wonderful rehearsal.

There’s also an almost Coens-esque play on the play title Hail and Farewell, repeated at intervals whenever someone leaves the room. And a possibly meta- commentary: following the turkey’s appearance, the agent is asked “How do you like it? It’s a scene from our second act”. Which is also Room Service’s second act. Later, Groucho and co are employing delaying tactics to prevent MacBride calling a halt to the performance (which has been put on by way of a bounced cheque): “Well, even with the fire, we’ve still fifteen more minutes. Any more bright ideas, Binelli?” Fifteen more minutes is also about the time Room Service has left. So if Room Service isn’t within a shout of top flight Marx Brothers, but it’s sufficiently lively not to deserve the brickbats it often receives.


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