Friday, December 27, 2013

Marx Bros deliver 'Room Service'

Room Service (1938)
Starring: The Marx Bros, Frank Albertson, Donald McBride, Lucille Ball, Cliff Dunstan, Philip Wood, Alexander Asro, and Ann Miller
Director:  William Seiter
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars

A broke theatrical producer (Groucho Marx) engages in an increasingly desperate series of ruses to prevent eviction of himself and the cast of the play he is trying to secure financial backing for.

"Room Service" is the only Marx Bros. film that was not specifically written for them. It's an adaptation of a play that was hugely successful at the time, and many of the supporting actors (such as Donald McBride as the long-suffering hotel inspector) play the same roles the originated on stage. I assume it's a faithful adaptation, as the stage roots are so visible that the vast majority of the film takes place in a single room, with characters coming and going through its three different doors and one can even sense where the lights would dim and come up between acts.

The fact that the film is "stagey" doesn't hurt it, however, as running in and out of doors and verbal patter is the Marx Bros. stock and trade. I felt that the only weakness here over material tailor-made for the trio was that Harpo feels under-utulized, even if he gets to be at the center of the film's culmination and the conclusion of one of its funniest sequences--a prolonged fake suicide and impromptu memorial

While Groucho and Chico expertly deliver some superb lines, the aforementioned suicide scene and the aftermath with Harpo are the only parts that compare to the many great bits in "Duck Soup" or "A Day at the Races." The pacing of the film is solid and the comedy is top-notch, but in general only that the suicide sequence really felt like it could only have been done by the Marx Bros.

In some ways, this might be a film that even those who don't usually like Marx Bros. movies can enjoy. The story serves a greater function here than just moving us from comedic set piece to comedic set piece, and there isn't the sense that there's a single character that's the target of Grouch's abuse is also lacking. As stories go, the only weak point I felt was the romantic subplot between the playwright (Frank Albertson) and one of the hotel staff (Ann Miller); it added nothing whatsoever to the film.

Trivia: Ann Miller  was only 15 when she appeared in as the love interest in "Room Service", having lied about her age to be hired at RKO as a contract player.

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