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Wayside Cinema: Room Service

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The Marx Brothers were true masters of the art of controlled chaos. No matter how wild their shenanigans got, there was always a method to their madness, indicating just how much intelligence went into their comedy. These guys didn't mess around when it came to making viewers laugh, which is as true for classics like A Night at the Opera as it is for lesser-known pictures like Room Service. The latter stands as the only Marx comedy not originally written just for them, though the boys have no trouble turning the premise into something that suits their style just fine.

Groucho toplines this circus of silliness as Gordon Miller, theatrical producer extraordinaire and professional deadbeat. Along with his associates Binelli (Chico) and Faker (Harpo), Miller has taken up residence in a posh metropolitan hotel where his latest production is set to debut in a matter of days. But their carefree ways have parlayed into a sky-high bill, which hotel representative Mr. Wagner (Donald MacBride) demands be paid immediately. With no cash on hand, it looks as if Miller and company will have to pack up and go, until the shysters devise a sure-fire scheme. The guys manage to persuade the play's author (Frank Albertson) to feign sickness, ensuring that Mr. Wagner can't give them the heave-ho before a backer arrives with some much-needed funds. But with runaway turkeys, persistent collection agents, and the suspicious Mr. Wagner entering the picture, Miller's boys will have their hands full trying to maintain their ruse until the check clears.

In typical Marx fashion, Room Service has the brothers taking on nothing short of the establishment itself, though it's a bit more difficult to root for them here. The guys are in full troublemaking mode, spending most of their time shirking responsibility and doing everything possible to avoid paying their bills. No matter how much of a jerk Mr. Wagner is, it's a bit hard to like the Marx characters under these circumstances. But as a means of providing the story with plenty of conflict, it does the trick just fine. Room Service is an unabashed farce, in which an already crazy situation proceeds to snowball out of control. However, while this "anything goes" atmosphere reigns supreme, the roguish charm of the Marx Brothers brings a real touch of class to the insanity. They do a great job of playing up their quick-witted nature, chucking out tons of choice one-liners in rapid succession. Such moments are too smart to have been done on the fly, yet the Marx style maintains an unpredictable atmosphere that makes them feel like they were.

But what may surprise some viewers about Room Service is where the material came from. As I mentioned before, the film's script wasn't tailor-made for them but was rather based on a Broadway smash at the time. I couldn't tell you what's from the show and what frequent Marx collaborator Morrie Ryskind added, but the story is still a hotbed of humor that the brothers waste no time in seizing. The only trouble is that, being based on a theatrical show, Room Service never shakes its inherent staginess. Don't get me wrong, Groucho and the guys work wonders with what they have, but with 90% of the movie taking place in one room, you'll find yourself begging for some different surroundings. The flow of the jokes is also frequently interrupted by the film's own attempts to pad out the running time. There's a romantic subplot involving the author that leads to nowhere, and, in an early screen appearance, Lucille Ball just sort of hangs around without anything to do.

Quibbles aside, Room Service is still a funny, funny flick at the end of the day. It's not going to earn a place in comedy history alongside Duck Soup and A Night at the Opera, but when it comes to delivering some hearty laughs on a rainy day, this flick is hard to beat.

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About A.J. Hakari