After ten minutes of watching Room Service, it’s perfectly obvious that the movie (a) has been adapted from a stage play and (b) was not originally written for the Marx Brothers. But if you can get past those barriers, it turns out to be one of their funnier late-’30s movies.
Its story is that Gordon Miller (Groucho), producer of a premiering play titled “Hail and Farewell,” is holing himself and his cast up in a hotel that is none too pleased about his non-payments. Gordon’s plan is to stall hotel boss Wagner (Donald McBride) until 10:30 of the night of the play’s debut, at which time it will be a solid hit and he can pay his debts.
Let’s get the movie’s contrivances out of the way first. For a movie that the Marxes did “on loan” (at RKO), its script looks like it came right out of the M-G-M Formula Book. The billing and cooing between the play’s author, Leo Davis (Frank Albertson), and an ingenue (Ann Miller) plays just like the sappy romantic subplots that stopped the Marxes’ M-G-M movies dead in their tracks. And the role of one-note villain Wagner wouldn’t have been at all out of line for Douglas Dumbrille or Sig Rumann to play. (History has noted that screenwriter Morrie Ryskind had to tone down the original play’s adult language for the screen. Still, you have to wonder about the managerial skills of a manager who constantly jumps up and down and yells, “Jumping butterballs!”)
But Jackie Gleason once said that there are three stages in a comic’s career. Stage One is when the act is fresh and surprising; Stage Two is when the act is familiar but the audience looks forward to the familiar gestures; Stage Three is when the act is stale and the audience couldn’t care less. Happily, Room Service finds the Marxes in Stage Two. (We’ll get to Stage Three when we discuss the later M-G-M movies.)
Groucho remains the fast-talking con man, Chico still has a one-track mind of non-sequitors (for no good reason, he wants to hang on to a prized, stuffed moose head), and Harpo remains startlingly resourceful. (When Groucho and Chico temporarily put on every piece of clothing they can in order to desert the hotel, Harpo makes his first entrance shirtless.)
And there are plenty of big laughs. Harpo’s insistence on chasing a live turkey to catch him for dinner, even after they’ve already eaten, is typical of his id-powered brain. And the eating scene itself is one of the Marxes’ funniest bits. (One great shot shows Harpo from a food’s-eye view, as though the camera is just one more thing waiting to be stuffed into Harpo’s mouth.)
This is a movie where the Marxes’ personalities have to carry the load, and unlike their later M-G-M efforts, they mostly succeed here. Lucille Ball, in one of her pre-“I Love Lucy” roles, also serves as an excellent foil to Groucho.
Room Service shows the Marx Brothers at a satisfactory mid-level — they’ll never hit the heights of their first M-G-M movies again, but it’s far better than their later M-G-M movies.