Thursday, January 7, 2016

International House (Paramount, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

International House is a marvelous movie, a product of the so-called “pre-Code” 1930-34 era of relaxed censorship which Leonard Maltin calls “Forbidden Hollywood” and I call “Hollywood glasnost” — the words “sex appeal” appear in a song lyric and Fields and Franklin Pangborn play a marvelous scene in which Fields takes Pangborn’s statement of their location — “Wu-Hu” (the film takes place, improbably enough, in the International House hotel in Wu-Hu, China) as a cruise! “Don’t let the posy fool you,” Fields mutters to Pangborn as he takes the flower out of his lapel and throws it away. Peggy Hopkins Joyce — considerably more famous as a gold-digger than for her stage appearances (apparently she made only one other film) — plays herself, and her notoriety was such that they were able to stick her in the middle of the story, under her real name, without having to bother to explain to 1932 audiences just who she was. The film centers around a Chinese inventor named Wong who has invented a “radioscope,” a magical form of television that can pick up an image of anything anywhere in the world without the need of a radio transmitter anywhere nearby, and the “radioscope” picks up a wide range of specialty acts, from a short but cleverly funny routine by Col. Stoopnagle and Budd (“Stoopnocracy is peachy,” they said — a tag line that Richmond Young and I threw around the office of the Associated Students of College of Marin in the early 1970’s after we’d seen this film on TV) to Cab Calloway’s performance of the song “Reefer Man” (revealing, if nothing else, that druggie slang hasn’t changed that much since 1932 — though this scene was removed from some 1970’s-era prints). Of all the acts in the film, however, Charles found George Burns and Gracie Allen the funniest — later he told me he’d grown up watching an L.A. TV station in the 1970’s that was still running the Burns/Allen TV shows from the 1950’s, so he remembered them well from his childhood (and probably wondered why the more recent TV sitcoms weren’t anywhere nearly as funny). There’s a marvelous routine early in the movie in which Burns and Pangborn take turns being Gracie Allen’s straight man — as if a single individual can’t stand doing that for too long — and Burns is cast as the hotel doctor and Allen is a nurse (a bow to the success of their marvelous short, Oh! My Operation, I think). — 11/25/95


The film was International House, the utterly joyous 1933 Paramount comedy featuring an all-star cast (though the people you’ll notice today are W. C. Fields, George Burns and Gracie Allen) in a loony story about ancient Chinese inventor Dr. Wong (played by the decidedly non-Chinese Edmund Breese), who has invented something called a “radioscope.” This is a television set — at a time when television was still the subject of science-fiction stories and articles in magazines like Popular Science speculating whether it would ever exist — only, unlike any existing TV set in the world, then or now, it can pick up events around the world and telecast them without any camera to photograph them or transmitter to transmit them. Dr. Wong lives in the (decidedly fictitious, though represented on-screen by sets the Paramount set builders constructed for Shanghai in Josef von Sternberg’s 1932 film Shanghai Express, with Marlene Dietrich and Clive Brook) city of Wu-Hu, China, which gives rise to the film’s most famous gag line (more on that later). The main part of the plot, to the extent this film has one (Neil Brant and Louis J. Heifetz wrote the original story — during a recreation break at their asylum, one wonders? — and Francis Martin and Walter DeLeon did the screenplay, though it’s almost certain Fields himself came up with most of his own lines), concerns the international bidding war between countries for the rights to Dr. Wong’s radioscope. U.S. representative Tommy Nash (Stuart Erwin) is also the fiancé of Carol Fortescue (Sari Maritza), only they haven’t got married yet because every time they set a wedding date they have to cancel because Tommy keeps getting diseases like chicken pox and mumps that Carol (and most people) already had in their childhoods.

Carol is the daughter of the British representative, Sir Mortimer Fortescue (Lumsden Hare, the guy they got when they wanted the archetypal representative of British imperialism and C. Aubrey Smith wasn’t available). There’s also a German representative, Herr von Baden (Harrison Greene), but he’s played more as a foil for jokes than a serious character — even in a comic context. The Russian representative is another story: he’s a major supporting character in the film, he goes by the grandiloquent name “General Nicholas Pernovsky Petronovich,” announces himself as “formerly of the Russian Imperial Guards; at present, general manager of the Moscow Utilities Company,” and is played to the nines by, of all people, Bela Lugosi, who proves as adept at character comedy as he was in his famous horror roles. (W. C. Fields and Bela Lugosi: no degrees of separation!) He’s also one of the ex-husbands of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, real-life gold-digger of the 1920’s, whose reputation was so notorious that not only does she play herself in the film, when Carol learns that Tommy spent the night with her — they were driving across the Chinese desert from Shanghai to Wu-Hu to avoid the washed-out bridges, and as Tommy tearfully confesses to his girlfriend, “we didn’t do anything but argue” — she’s convinced he’s been cheating on her with the spectacularly notorious woman. When he insists their relationship was “purely platonic” — in those weird, whiny tones of Stuart Erwin’s that were usually just annoying but in the right comic context, as here, were screamingly funny — once she learns her supposed rival’s identity she snarls in disbelief, “Purely platonic — with Peggy Hopkins Joyce?” Charlie Chaplin, who supposedly had a brief affair with Joyce (and a somewhat longer one with Sari Maritza, so two of the women in this film were Chaplin girlfriends!), said that Joyce once told him that one of her husbands repelled her so that on their wedding night she locked the bedroom door on him and wouldn’t unlock it until he slipped a check for $100,000 under it. Then she let him in — and the next morning bolted out of bed and made sure she got to his bank when it opened so she could cash the check before he could stop payment on it.

All of these people end up either in or around the International House Hotel, the largest and nicest in Wu-Hu, whose manager is played by Franklin Pangborn (who else?), as queeny as ever, and whose doctor and nurse are played by George Burns and Gracie Allen at the top of their form. At one point Burns and Pangborn play turns being her straight man, and at another point when Dr. Burns is out of the office, Nurse Allen answers his phone and tells the caller, “No, the doctor isn’t in just now. Oh, he won’t be back for a long, long time. He went out on one of those eternity cases.” As I’ve pointed out before, unlike Lucille Ball (another great comedienne who achieved stardom working with her real-life husband), Gracie Allen did not just play a ditz: her non sequiturs had a sort of crack-brained sense about them (in one of their other films she tells an incredulous Burns that she has a cousin with three feet, and when Burns raises those eyebrows, wags that cigar and says, “Three feet?,” Gracie says, “Yes, his mother wrote me and said, ‘You wouldn’t recognize your cousin — he’s grown another foot!’”) and you could make a case that Burns and Allen were doing surrealistic humor without actually calling it that (just as Buster Keaton, asked in the last year of his life by interviewer Rudi Blesh how he came to make a surrealistic film like Sherlock, Jr., replied, “I was not trying to be surrealistic! I was just trying to make it look like a dream!”) W. C. Fields literally flies into the action; he plays the celebrated aviator Professor Henry R. Quail, who loads beer and liquor by the case into his autogiro (an odd sort of aircraft, midway between an airplane and a helicopter, that had a brief vogue in the 1920’s and 1930’s; it has a top rotor but also a front propeller and conventional airplane wings, and in a typical Fieldsian touch he lampoons Lindbergh by calling it “The Spirit of Brooklyn”) and sets off on a flight to Kansas City. Only he gets so bombed on all that booze he loses his way completely — we see a map of the world with a dotted line across it to represent the route he’s been taking, traced by empty bottles with which he’s dive-bombed outdoor restaurants and other locations en route, much the way similar lines would later dot the maps in the Hope-Crosby Road movies to show how totally they were getting lost. Quail lands on the roof garden of the International Hotel in Wu-Hu just after a great production number, “She Was a China Teacup (And He Was Just a Mug),” starring Lona André as the teacup and Sterling Holloway as the mug (who wins the affections of a spoon, a teapot and a sugar bowl but only has eyes for the China teacup), in a dazzling number. The choreographer is regrettably uncredited but he (or she) and director A. Edward Sutherland deserve credit for taking the cameras up and filming this scene in full-on Busby Berkeley manner, including tracking shots through the chorines’ legs and giant jigsaw puzzles of the two title characters first separately, then pulled apart and rearranged to show them together at the end.

Just as the song is wrapping up, Professor Quail’s entry is heralded by an empty bottle flung from his plane that bisects one of the tables at the Roof Garden. Quail lands and says, “Is this Kansas City, Kansas or Kansas City, Missouri?” When it dawns on him that it’s neither, he asks where he is. A woman answers, “Wu-Hu,” and he answers, “Woo-Hoo to you sweetheart.” Then he sees a quivering Franklin Pangborn and asks him, “Hey Charlie, where am I?” “Wu-Hu,” Pangborn says. Fields, interpreting it as a Gay pass, snarls, “Don’t let the posey fool ya,” and he looks down at his lapel, removes the flower that’s been there and throws it away. That “Don’t let the posey fool ya” has become the most famous line in the film; one reviewer recalled that he went to a revival theatre showing International House and at least two people in the lobby were quoting it before the film began, and when I told my husband Charles what we were going to see last night, he remembered it instantly and said, “Don’t let the posey fool ya,” in a sort-of Fieldsian voice. Meanwhile, Tommy Nash and Carol Fortescue are about to get married when — once again — he feels feverish and thinks he’s getting the measles, and General Petronovich, thinking he’s going to be able to use this to keep the U.S. representative from getting to Wong and buying the radiograph, bribes the local health authorities to put Nash’s room under quarantine. Only the authorities quarantine the entire International House, so Petronovich can’t get in to submit his own bid for Wong’s invention, and he tries every avenue he can think of, including briefly considering a tightrope walk from an adjoining building (though inevitably, given who was playing him, I joked that in his most famous role Lugosi could have simply turned himself into a bat and flown into the International House), before he bribes a group of Wu-Hu plug-uglies to break down the hotel’s door — just as the authorities are lifting the quarantine and Pangborn is opening the doors, leading to a great slapstick climax in which, in order to allow them to make their escape, Prof. Quail presses a button on the side of his aircraft and out comes a little car, the “Spirit of South Brooklyn,” which he drives up and down the hotel steps and finally uses to get to his autogiro and fly himself, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Tommy and Carol (by then Tommy has completed his deal with Mr. Wong for the rights to the radiograph) out of danger from Petronovich and his thugs. There’s a lot of slapstick by-play involving the elaborate rack behind the lobby desk that contains the guests’ room keys and any letters they’ve received at the hotel, which keeps getting knocked over and spilling out its contents, whereupon Pangborn has to laboriously put them all back.

There are also some great guest acts brought into the picture by Dr. Wong and his radioscope, including the radio comedians Col. Stoopnagle and Budd (I’ve never heard their shows but judging from the clip here they seem almost as great as accidental surrealists as Burns and Allen — especially the sign on their office door, “Stoopnocracy is peachy,” a pun on the then-popular Technocracy movement), Rudy Vallée (singing a love song called “Thank Heaven for You” which he’s addressing to a figure in bed, covered in blankets and sheets, which turns out to be his megaphone — before electric amplification megaphones were the only artificial way singers had to make themselves louder and more audible over a big band — then, in a neat bit of frame-breaking that anticipates the Hope-Crosby Road movies by at least a decade, Fields snarls an insult at Vallée’s image and Vallée answers him back, whereupon Fields sticks his walking stick into the radiograph’s mechanism, short-circuiting it and forcing Wong to shut down the demonstration for repairs, an eerie anticipation of Elvis Presley’s penchant for shooting out the screens of TV’s showing programs he didn’t like — apparently Elvis so loathed Robert Goulet that every time Goulet came on a TV in his home or room, he’d shoot it), Baby Rose Marie (the future co-star of The Dick Van Dyke and salty-voiced nightclub comedienne at age nine belting out a formidable torch songs called “My Bluebird’s Singing the Blues” — this got in just one year under the wire before Shirley Temple abruptly ended the vogue for gutsy, hard-edged child performers and forced just about every kid into movies into her gooey-sweet sentimental mode), and Cab Calloway and His Orchestra. The year before Calloway had appeared in the Paramount all-star musical The Big Broadcast doing a song called “Kickin’ the Gong Around” — the title was Harlem Black slang for drug use — and just in case we didn’t get what the song was about from its title, just before he finishes it Cab lifted his sleeve to his nose and snorted it. This time Cab did a song called “Reefer Man,” first showing his bassist, Al Morgan, playing wildly, then explaining to his band members that he was high on reefers — a real jolt to anyone who was growing up in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and didn’t realize that both marijuana use itself and the slang terms for it were at least four decades old. Some prints of this movie circulating to TV in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s omitted this song, some included it, and if you sat down to watch International House at home you never quite knew whether you would be getting a version with or without “Reefer Man.” International House is an absolute delight start to finish, the sort of comedy you laugh at more rather than less the more times you’ve seen it, and (once again) a testament to the incredible creativity of comedians then versus the dreary unfunniness of most of what passes for “comedy” on both big and small screens now. — 1/7/16