An anomaly among Marx
Brothers films, ROOM
SERVICE features the brothers for the first and only time playing roles
not written for them. Adapted from a hit Broadway show by
Murray and Allen Boretz and produced at RKO, the film was the result of
the Marxes trying
something different following the death of producer and mentor Irving
Thalberg in 1937. As such, ROOM SERVICE is a noble experiment
with mixed results. The farcical story line (about a broke
company of players who try to raise money as they evade their hotel
bills) offers enough fun to sustain interest, and there is an extended
eating scene that could fit in any Marx film without embarrassing
itself. But the film's most glaring flaw is the approach to
material: what should be a lightning-paced, door-slamming farce is
played with listless deliberation. It's an enjoyable film if
you're in the right mood, but you might wind up yawning more than
laughing. - JL
The way I figure it,
ROOM SERVICE starring
the Marx Brothers was not going to work. There were two ways
could have approached it.
Approach one: Keep the basic premise of the play, but completely rewrite it from scratch to adapt it to the Marx Brothers proven style. Add jokes for Groucho, puns for Chico, gags for Harpo. Perhaps bring in Margaret Dumont or Sig Ruman. In other words, make a Marx Brothers movie. But that would beg the question: why call it ROOM SERVICE when it clearly would not be the play that was such a hit on Broadway?
Approach two: Keep the play as it is, and allow the Marx Brothers to play it completely straight. No greasepaint mustache for Groucho, no Italian accent for Chico. I suppose Harpo would have had to remain silent, but otherwise, let the Marx Brothers actually play the characters of Gordon Miller, Harry Binion and Faker England as written, and allow the comedy of the play to carry the film. But that would beg the question: why cast the Marx Brothers if you are not going to let them be the Marx Brothers?
The first approach does not do justice to the play, which is a great farce, and the second approach does not do justice to the Marx Brothers, who are a great team. As it is, in the film, the play and the Brothers meet somewhere in the middle, and both seem completely lost. We we wind up with a farce that is not really farcical starring a madcap comedy team that is not really madcap. Chico and Harpo come off okay, but poor Groucho is hampered by a character who is simply not Groucho. Groucho Marx has hundreds of memorable lines throughout his career, and arguably not one of them came from ROOM SERVICE. It's not that the jokes written for the character of Gordon Miller aren't amusing. They just aren't amusing coming out of Groucho's mouth because they are standard, mundane jokes, and from Groucho we expect leaps of illogic and pithy, punny epithets you would be proud to have somebody carve on your tombstone, and there are just none of those in this film.
Director William Seiter must take the blame for pacing ROOM SERVICE as methodically as his Laurel and Hardy film SONS OF THE DESERT. For Laurel and Hardy, such a pace was perfect, but for the Marx Brothers, it was deadly, sapping the energy out of many scenes that could have been much funnier than they are. Where was Norman Z. McLeod when we needed him? ½ - JB