Room Service

(1938) *** Unrated
78 min. RKO Radio Pictures. Director: William A Seiter. Cast: The Marx Brothers, Donald MacBride, Philip Loeb, Philip Wood, Alexander Asro, Groucho Marx, Chico Marx (II), Harpo Marx (II).

In 1937, John Murray & Allen Boretz's enduring American farce Room Service premiered on Broadway. By the next year, the play was a film starring the Marx Brothers, if not exactly a Marx Brothers film. This oft-dismissed exception in the Marx Brothers canon includes no musical numbers and only a few bits specifically tailored to the brothers (the screenplay by Marx favorite Morrie Ryskind judiciously punches up the dialogue). The underrated result transfers a strong comedic play to the screen with some of the best comic actors working at the time.

Groucho takes the role of Gordon Miller, a slippery producer milking his hotel manager brother-in-law to sustain a play until its (fingers-crossed) Broadway opening. By carefully shuffling his cast around the White Way Hotel, Miller keeps them in room and board, but the presence of an auditor named Wagner (an energetic Donald MacBride, frequently spouting "Jumping butterballs!") puts the fly in the ointment. Worse, the play's wide-eyed young author Davis (Frank Albertson) arrives from Oswego to observe the production, and he assumes he'll eat and sleep on the production's dime. Along with director Harry Binelli (Chico) and so-called business manager Faker (Harpo), Miller must stall Wagner, appease Davis, dodge creditors, and woo a backer for the deeply indebted production while squatting in the hotel until opening night.

The machinations of the fleet farce include business with a stuffed moose, a live turkey, and an imaginary tapeworm. Feigned illness and death play their parts, with a harried hotel doctor appalled by all he sees. A young Lucille Ball fritters in and out as Miller's star and girlfriend, while a young Ann Miller plays Albertson's newfound sweetie. Though director William A. Seiter fails at times to capture the energy which sells the play onstage (and indeed, the hotel-room set becomes a bit claustrophobic on film), the Marxes bring their vaudeville-honed chops to the frenetic goings-on, including a packing and unpacking running gag and a justly well-known eating scene which finds the dog-eat-dog brothers competing over the first meal they've seen in a while. Room Service represents something different for the Marx Brothers, but the results speak for themselves.

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Aspect ratios: 1.33:1 Full Screen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono

Street date: 5/4/2004

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner's presentation of Room Service—available exclusively in The Marx Brothers Collection on a double-feature disc with At the Circus—is a bit scratchy but a solid transfer of an old film. The disc also includes a beat-up two-minute trailer (always a laudable bonus) and two vintage shorts. The 1938 "Our Gang" short "Party Fever" tells the cute, "aw shucks" story of a kiddie mayoral race with Darla as the prize. The deliriously absurd, seven-minute Looney Tune "The Daffy Doc" (1938) rounds out the extras. Though it purportedly features Porky Pig, Daffy Duck has three times as much screen time in this hospital-themed Bob Clampett cartoon, graced by a Carl Stalling score. A fine disc with At the Circus (and more extras) on the flip side.
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