The Marx Brothers were always known for a very frenetic style of comedy in their films. Anything could, and usually did, happen. Things like story and plot usually took a back seat to just making sure the boys had plenty of opportunities to do their thing. Their material was written specifically for them…however there was one occasion where they plugged themselves into another script that was not written with them in mind. Adapted from the play of the same name, it’s 1938’s Room Service.
The majority of the film takes place in one room in a New York hotel. Groucho plays Gordon Miller, a producer who is struggling to get his latest production off the ground. He and his assistants, Binelli (Chico) and Faker (Harpo), have assembled a large cast and have put them all up in the hotel. The bills are mounting, but without a backer there is no hope of paying them off. Just as Miller plans on skipping out on the bill, the play’s young author, Leo Davis (Frank Albertson), shows up to see how things are going. Luckily, a member of the cast, Christine (Lucille Ball) has found a potential investor.
This doesn’t make things easier for Miller and his crew, though. Not only do they have to convince the shy investor to sign over the check, they also have to deal with the hotel management who are anxious for the bills to be paid. They even have Leo fake a breakout of the measles so the manager will have no choice but to let them stay. There’s also a repo man who keeps showing up to collect on Leo’s typewriter and a crazed turkey who keeps flapping all over the room. Even when the play begins it’s run, the boys have to come up with some last minute scams when the investor’s check bounces.
Room Service is an unusual little film. While it has a number of funny moments, it is one of the most un-Marx Brothers films I’ve seen from the comedy team. As stated earlier, the material was not written specifically for the brothers. Room Service ran on Broadway as a play a year before the film. In fact, it was 4th brother Zeppo Marx (once a part of the on-screen team but now their rep) who struck the deal with RKO to produce this film. It’s kind of odd that he didn’t realize that the material was not exactly suited to the style his brothers had become famous for. Oh sure, they inject a few of their quirks here and there, but much of the film just doesn’t feel like a Marx Brothers film. Gone are many of the team’s signature bits. There’s not piano scene for Chico and no chance to play the harp for Harpo. The biggest sin, though, is Groucho’s character’s name. He usually plays characters with names like Captain Spaulding, Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff, or Rufus T. Firefly. Here he’s Gordon Miller!?! That sounds like an insurance salesman…not a Groucho Marx character!
I will say that one area where Room Service outshines some other Marx Brothers films is in its supporting cast. Most of their films have a male and female character who the “plot” center around while the boys do their gags. Usually these characters are pretty bland. In this one, though we have Frank Albertson as the playwright Leo Davis. Albertson manages to hold his own with the Marxes and is pretty funny in his own right. We also have Lucille Ball in this one. Given what we know about her comedic abilities from her long career in television, she is severely underused here. She does a fine job with her limited screentime here, though. Getting even less time is the love interest for Leo, Ann Miller as Hilda. She didn’t really make much of an impact, but I mention her here for the sake of trivia as she was a mere FIFTEEN years old when she made this. She lied to RKO, claiming she was eighteen when she signed her contract.
I did have a lot of fun with Room Service. The scene in which the Marx Brothers and Frank Albertson scarf down all the contents of a meal cart just delivered to them by a bellhop is worth the price of admission alone. There are some other fun moments of punchy dialogue, but as a Marx Brothers fan I found the film to be somewhat frustrating. Had the boys been allowed to put more of their stamp on the film, Room Service could’ve been a much more satisfying comedy.