Thursday, November 29, 2007

International House

“International House” (1933) is one of those free-wheeling, anything for a laugh, Pre-Code comedies that I find irresistible. There’s basically no plot, but plenty of opportunities for specialty numbers, skits, and riotous comedy.

Paramount, that most Continental of movie studios, seemed to have a special affinity for these types of loopy, off-the-cuff, anything goes movies. Check out Bing Crosby’s feature film debut “The Big Broadcast” (1932) and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Paramount had the right actors, writers, directors and technicians who could effortlessly pull off these types of movies while making it all look so easy.

And like a cherry on a sundae, “International House” is topped off by the presence of the great W.C. Fields.

Was W.C. Fields the funniest man who ever lived? I don’t know, but whenever I’m watching one of his movies I think he is.

How to describe the plot of “International House?” Let’s see, there’s an inventor trying to interest a group of investors in a new fangled invention called television. They are all gathered at the International House, a lavish hotel, in Wu-Hu, China. Fields is flyer and explorer Henry R. Quail, who is attempting to fly around the world in his specially designed airplane (liberally stocked with his favorite beverages, as seen here).

He mistakes Wu-Hu for Kansas City and makes an emergency landing in the middle of a floor show. Like a one-man army, he practically turns the hotel upside down to suit his purposes, mainly in pursuit of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, playing herself. In real life Joyce was a notorious serial divorcee and plays the part to the hilt. She has a suitor (Bela Lugosi) who does not appreciate Quail’s interest in her.

There’s also George Burns and Gracie Allen as the hotel doctor and nurse, the incomparable Franklin Pangborn as the hotel manager, and Stu Erwin, desperately trying to keep Ms. Joyce at arms length for fear of incurring his fiancee’s wrath.

The television demonstrations don’t go as planned, and instead of showing the investors a six-day bicycle race in New York, the signals go astray and pick up performances from crooner Rudy Vallee, Baby Rose Marie belting out a tune at the top of her lungs, a painfully unfunny comedy skit by Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd (radio comedians?) and Cab Calloway singing “Reefer Man” about the joys of marijuana. (You can bet THAT number would not have been allowed in the reformed Production Code a year later).

But center stage belongs gloriously to Fields. I think his entrance to Wu-Hu is one of the greatest in movie history. Customers atop the rooftop of the International House hear a noise and look up to see a bizarre looking airplane hovering above them. Over the noise of the engines can be heard the familiar Fields voice asking, “Is this Kansas City, Kansas, or Kansas City, Missouri?”

Forced to make an emergency landing, he finds out he is in Wu-Hu in a comedy exchange I won’t repeat for fear of spoiling it. But when told he is lost, Fields exclaims, “Kansas City is lost. I am found.”

I don’t know why that cracks me up, but that’s one of my favorite lines of all time. If I’m having a bad day or annoyed with something, I just think to myself “Kansas City is lost, I am found” and all is right with the world.

It’s always good to see Lugosi, especially in a big budget studio picture like this. Like his performance in the Joe E. Brown comedy “Broadminded” (1931), he was adept at comedy and it’s too bad he could not have more comedies like this. His larger than life personality is perfect for these quirky, off-the-wall, surreal yet eminently enjoyable comedies.

Rating for “International House”: Three and a half stars.


Dees Stribling said...

The depth and broadness of your movie experiences continues to astonish. Another a gem of a movie that I've never heard of -- I'll have to see it sometime for Fields' performance alone, it sounds like.

r.j. said...

Lugosi was of course also terrific in "Ninotchka", where he delivers one of the films' funniest lines. Lubitsch is later reported to have said, "I thought it would be funny if the terrible commissar everyone fears was played by Dracula" He was right. And Lugosi "delivered".

You're absolutely on the money on your assessment of the amazing ability Paramount had at this time of making comedies of this sort. Totally unself conscious, here-it-is, take-it-or-leave-it, almost as though the studio was just doing these things for their own amusement, and if anyone else happened to like them too, fine.
Over the last several weeks I have watched a video of "Big Broadcast of '36" about 5-times, and laughed myself on the floor at virtually everything Jack Oakie did and said -- and in some cases sang! Would I dare recommend this to even the most-dedicated film buff? Probably not -- they would think I was crazy. But would I recommend it to someone who extols -- and recognizes -- the virtues of these Paramount quasi-musicals of the 30's? In a heartbeat!


Kevin Deany said...

R.J: Yep, I'm one of those types who would like to see "Big Broadcast of 1936", as its the only Big Broadcast movie I've never seen. I'm hoping that TCM will show it in a few years when they start running the old Paramount catalog titles. I've waited this long to see it, I can wait a few more years. Thanks for writing.