blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

Room Service (1938, William A. Seiter)

Room Service appears—well, sounds like—it sounds like it ends with Groucho Marx singing along to a spiritual in a stage play and breaking into occasional mimicry of a Black woman singing. For no reason. Like there was a subplot about a racist parrot they cut from the movie (it runs seventy-eight minutes, so it’s not impossible). But, no. It’s just this weird, shitty moment, which kicks Service square in the nuts.

Without that moment, I’d describe Room Service as middling, but—wait for it—inoffensive Marx Brothers. We’re in the era where Zeppo’s retired, Groucho’s checked out, Chico’s fifty-fifty, and Harpo’s seventy-thirty, but the direction’s bringing him down. Visibly.

The Brothers will get into a bit throughout the film, and director Seiter won’t showcase it. It’s like he’s resentful at his stars… all of them. I’m not sure Lucille Ball gets more than one close-up. She just sort of walks in and out of scenes, providing cleric support and reminding everyone Groucho’s dating a hottie. It’s too bad because she and Groucho have enough chemistry; it’d have been fun to see her around more. Room Service did not start its life as a Marx Brothers play, so the archetypes are a little off. Screenwriter Morrie Ryskind is more successful with some adaptations than others. Groucho’s the least successful.


The bad guy in the movie is Donald MacBride. He’s the company man from corporate (hotel corporate) who’s in town to throw the Marx Brothers out for being deadbeats. MacBride originated the role on Broadway, which is kind of a surprise since MacBride’s the one who knows where the camera’s supposed to be, and Seiter doesn’t. MacBride does whole scenes acting in a non-existent covering shot. Or maybe all that footage got lost. Maybe it had the racist parrot on the same reel, and someone smart burned it before it got to the editing room.

It’s not in the IMDb trivia.

The direction’s never good; about a fourth of the jokes land, though there are eventually excellent jokes (thanks to Harpo). Chico gets less and less enthusiastic throughout; he’s playing Groucho’s sidekick, only Lucy really ought to be Groucho’s sidekick, but then there’s Cliff Dunstan as Groucho’s suffering brother-in-law. Dunstan’s great. He also originated on Broadway. And Room Service is actually about putting on a Broadway play. Groucho’s the broke producer. Obviously.

Just as Dunstan has to throw Groucho out, playwright Frank Albertson comes to town to see how things are going. See, he’s broke too. He’s also the most obvious Zeppo part. It’s just so frustratingly a Zeppo part.

Albertson’s okay. He’s fine. He doesn’t have to sing or dance, he just has to moon over Ann Miller, which is weird because of a significant age difference. It also complicates Miller being good. Like, she’s good, but it’s just… no. IMDb trivia page has the details.

The opening credits are cute, which shouldn’t be as memorable as one of the film’s standouts. There are some good sequences, but they’re obvious set pieces and never as good as they should be. Some of it’s the production. The sets are just a little small, especially since Seiter’s composition is so bad. That composition—and the lack of coverage—hurts the editing. George Crone’s a little slow with the cuts, even when it’s not to compensate for Seiter, but if Crone paced it better, the movie would probably only be too short to be played as the feature. Room Service’s plot is skin and bones, and they still pad reaction shots.

The third act’s a boon. Basically, once a turkey flies, it’s on an uptick until the end.

Then wham goes the WWTF of Groucho’s singing voice.

What and why.

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