Saturday, 21 March 2015

Classics Revisited: "Room Service" (1938)

"Hello, Room Service? Bring up enough ice to cool a warm body".

I originally saw this mostly forgotten contribution to The Marx Brothers' filmography on a 22-hour plane trip from London to Melbourne in 2012. I was jet-lagged, exhausted and, subsequently, have always wondered whether my glowing review of this film was due to actual enjoyment or delirium brought on by sleep deprivation.

Based on the Broadway play of the same name and directed by William A. SeiterRoom Service follows Producer Gordon Miller (Groucho Marx) as he tries to get his upcoming stage play, Hail and Farewell, financed. After being told he must pay the outstanding hotel bills of his entire cast and crew (totaling in excess of $1200), Miller and his staff, Harry Binelli (Chico) and Faker Englund (Harpo), attempt to outwit the hotel staff until their meeting with a mysterious financial baker (which is scheduled to take place in their hotel room within the next 24 hours).

Unlike the rest of their films, Room Service was not written specifically for The Marx Brothers and, as a result, is not considered a 'true' Marx Brothers film. For those wondering how much of a difference that makes- the answer is a lot. The film desperately tries to cater to the brothers' individual talents (without detracting from the narrative) but it just doesn't quite come off. Groucho doesn't sing nor does he romance the ladies, Harpo's signature harp is nowhere to be seen and Chico never once tickles the ivories. The style of comedy in this film is similar to their own- but it's not the same. It's much more reserved and a lot less nonsensical.

“I’ll give you the best performance you ever saw in a hotel bedroom”.

To RKO's credit, they really did try to make this film work, most notably by hiring respected screenwriter Morrie Ryskind (who wrote the screenplays for two of The Marx Brothers' greatest films, Animal Crackers (1930) and A Night at the Opera (1935), as well as the iconic 1936 screwball comedy My Man Godfrey) to adapt Room Service for the screen. If this film was going to work for Groucho, Harpo and Chico, it would've worked in Ryskind's hands. Unfortunately, the stage play's narrative just doesn't suit their style of comedy (or their penchant for improvisation) and there's nothing Ryskind could do about that.

Chico Marx and Frank Albertson in Room Service.

It should be noted that RKO also hired several actors from the original Broadway production (reprising their stage roles) to support the Marx Brothers in the big screen adaptation of Room Service. Unfortunately, despite putting in decent performances, the entire supporting cast (with one exception) adds next to nothing to the overall film and only serves to steal valuable screen-time away from Groucho, Harpo and Chico. The aforementioned exception is Frank Albertson as Leo Davis. Though he contributes very little to the comedy of the film, Leo Davis is the sole (and constant) voice of reason amidst The Marx Brothers' antics. Had Room Service been shot at Paramount between 1929 and 1933, the role of Leo Davis would have (unquestionably) been filled by Zeppo Marx.

Not mentioned above is The Marx Brothers' leading lady (though that term is rather complimentary given her insignificant and inconsequential standing in the film); a young- and brunette!- Lucille Ball. As was typical in her days at RKO, Lucy is saddled with a rather bland supporting role that doesn't cater to her considerable comedic talents. Though, in the wake of her monumental success as a television star, modern advertising for Room Service (in the form of DVDs and movie posters) pits The Marx Brothers up against the comedy legend, her character is 'the straight man' to their zany antics (much like Margaret Dumont was- except without the hilarious sexual innuendo that laced her scenes with Groucho. That and Lucy's scenes in this film aren't funny, nor are they intended to be). As I mentioned before, with the exception of Frank Albertson, the supporting cast in this film are entirely insignificant- unfortunately, that includes the incomparable Lucille Ball.

Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx in a promotional still for Room Service.

While the plot doesn't exactly suit their comedic style, what really lets this film down is the mundane, realistic- albeit slightly zany- characters that Groucho and Chico Marx are saddled with. There's something terribly unnerving about seeing Groucho Marx portray a character that practically anyone could portray. Captain Spaulding (from Animal Crackers), for instance, could only be Groucho Marx. Same with Rufus T. Firefly (Duck Soup). Gordon Miller is comparatively run of the mill for Groucho- a sensible (albeit slightly dodgy) businessman trying to get his play financed. In the stage play, Gordon Miller was portrayed by Sam Levene, a character actor not altogether known for his comedic exploits (but rather for his work in film noirs such as Crossfire (1947) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950)). When RKO first outbid Warner Brothers for the rights to Room Service in 1937, it was rumored that Jack Oakie, Burgess Meredith and Joe Penner were slated to star. Miller didn't need to be Groucho Marx and his performance suffers as a result.

As for Harpo's character, it's interesting to note that, in the original stage play, Faker England is a character not unlike Chico's Harry Binelli- and, naturally, he talks! It was suggested by RKO studio executives that Harpo should take on his character's dialogue, making Room Service his first 'talking picture'. This idea (though controversial) was backed by both Groucho and Chico- but not by Harpo himself. Groucho confirmed this was their original intention in an interview with the Salt Lake Telegram in 1938, stating "We were going to change our usual characters for the film. Harpo was going to talk for the first time - but it was too risky. Besides, if Harpo talks, there'll be less for me". According to Matthew Coniam, it was Morrie Ryskind who backed Harpo up in his insistence that he perform in his usual "pantomime" style, with both refusing to bow to studio pressure where his character, Faker Englund, was concerned. In the finished film, all of the important lines that were to be Harpo's are given to Chico's Harry Binelli (significantly bolstering his role in comparison to the stage version).

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

Rightly remembered as one of their weakest films, Room Service does deliver several laughs...but not enough to satisfy a true Marx Brothers fan. I actually did enjoy the film my second time around- but unfortunately it is guilty of spending too much time advancing the plot (I didn't think I'd ever say that in a review!) and not enough time showcasing the brothers to their best advantage. 

I think Chico summed it up best in an interview with the New York Sun in 1939;

"It was the first time we tried doing a play we hadn't created ourselves. And we were no good. We can't do that. We've got to originate characters and the situations ourselves. Then we do them. Then they're us. If we get a gag that suits our characters we can work it out and make it ours. But we can't do gags or play characters that aren't ours. We tried it, and we'll never do it again". 

My Rating

Looking at this film objectively, I think my previous viewing was only slightly influenced by sleep deprivation. While I'm not as enthusiastic about it as I was the first time, I did enjoy this somewhat reviled contribution to the brothers' filmography. There was considerable room for improvement but I enjoyed seeing them in a different light (even if it wasn't entirely flattering). 

You can view my original review of this film on Tumblr here.

Resources: Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo by Joe Adamson (1973), The Annotated Marx Brothers: A Filmgoer's Guide to In-Jokes, Obscure References and Sly Details by Matthew Coniam (2015), The Marx Brothers Encyclopedia by Glen Mitchell (2012).


  1. Hello there! This is, I think, the first piece of writing to make use of some of the new material from my book. Thanks for buying it, and good to know ya!
    All best, Matthew

    1. Well, I must say that I am honored to be the first! I had so much fun reading your book. It is a wealth of information about the Brothers and a must for any fans of their films! I especially loved your annotated deconstruction of their films- it was methodical and explained so many of the tiny jokes that went over my head on the first, second, third and even fourth viewings lol. Especially with Groucho, his jokes are presented at such a frenetic pace, it's incredibly easy to miss things (even on repeated viewings). I think what I liked most of all was your voice- it comes through so clear and you can tell how much of a fan you are of The Marx Brothers. Plus, your constant insertion of humor never allows this to be a dull read.

      I hope other fans of The Marx Brothers discover your book, as I have!