When Hollywood decides to dump cavalcades of stars into one comedy, the results can be over-baked. INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933) on the other hand, is half-baked, which is just right. I love it so much if I had only one film for a desert island, it would be this. It's my safety net, my life preserver. My drinking companion.... just so just so.
The love story began when I was a 15-year old monster junkie, scouring the pre-cable days of TV Guide for things to videotape and ease my lonesome adolescence with their cozy splendor and monster suits. I taped INTERNATIONAL HOUSE because Lenny gives it ***1/2, and it had my main monster man, Bela Lugosi, in the credits. I was desperate, down to try anything since I had exhausted my Marx Brothers movies, and was scraping bottom with things like THE GORILLA (Ritz Brothers), and Lugosi's Monograms. The film came on at 3 AM, my VHS timer was hit or miss. But a miracle happened. It actually worked. I fell instantly in love with W.C. Fields, Cab Calloway, and the whole pre-code saucy comedy genre in one collective cupid arrow burst. A few years later, I brought it of it to college and my drummer and I watched it nightly while pounding bourbon and sundries. Decades later and we still have long conversations set to the vaudeville rhythm of Burns and Allen ("You had a raffle for poor old woman!?" / "You wouldn't say he has flew!") And of course there's W.C. Fields at his most insane; to drink along with him in this movie is to know a rare anarchic joy, and then to pass out.
A lot of the early Fields pictures can get exasperating, even IT'S A GIFT, because of his weird need to play henpecked small town husbands, but as Professor Quail in INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, perhaps due to not having to carry the film by himself, he finally lets go completely and plays a drunken autogyro pilot and reckless adventurer, who lands on the roofdeck of the Wu Hu, China Grand hotel, sneaks into gold digger supreme Peggy Hopkins Joyce's boudoir, scrounges everyone's leftover floorshow bottles and trashes the front desk. The gathered guests are bemused, but Franklin Pangborn throws a hissy fit (if I'm still allowed to say that) and tells Quail, "I suggest you get back into that flying windmill of yours and depart!" Bela Lugosi as the Soviet ambassador suspects Quail of being the American representative. He's also one of the ex-husbands of Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Like mealy Stu Erwin, whose imagined measles puts the hotel under quarantine, Lugosi's in Wu-Hu to buy Professor Wong's radioscope for his country.
Professor Wong will only accept sealed bids for the rights to his invention, and his demonstrations of the radioscope include Cab Calloway singing "Reefer Man" replete with zombified bassman: "Why look at that cat, he looks like he done lost his mind," notes Cab. "He's high!" shouts the band. "What do you mean he's high?"/ "Full of weed!" "Full of weed?" and there's Baby Rose Marie, a little girl belting the down and dirty blues with the voice of a 50-year old smoker on her fifth whiskey, and dancing in a dirty frock who is undoubtedly the inspiration for the dancing moppet singing the "Reefer Song" in Day of the Locust. No doubt West loved this movie!
As per most 1930s movies, the harder drugs are done under the table (we never see Cab take a puff), but there's plenty of drinking above board, with Professor Quail dropping his empty Muerto Blanco beer bottles onto people's heads as he flees his massive Mexican bar tab, and there's wry gay references ("don't let the posey fool ya") and Fields' bravado is heartening: "Is this Kansas City, Kansas, or Kansas City, Missouri?" When Pangborn tells him he's lost, Fields decrees: "Kansas City is lost. I am here!" This reminds me of what the Sufi mystic Bahauddin once wrote: "A candle has been lit inside me / for which the sun is a moth." It's small wonder that Firesign Theater dubbed their satire of the 1960s counterculture "W.C. Fields Forever." Hell yeah those guys loved this movie!
Like the Paramount Marx Brothers movies, INTERNATIONAL HOUSE is especially good for coming down off acid, since the behavior of every character is so "off" - there's no one to bring you down with bad vibes. There's even exotic fan dancers in faux-Ziegfield number, "The China Tea Cup and the American Mug," with Sterling Holloway as the mug, bouncing around on a wire after Lona Andre (top) in full exotica headdress. And there's simply nothing better to hallucinate onto than a shimmering exotica headdress and Holloway flying around on wires dressed as a sailor.
That's because on psychedelics many 'normal' forms of human interaction--such as registering for a hotel room-- become suddenly absurd and even frightening, while the spontaneous "outside the box" actions of free-spirit surrealists--such as boldly walking along the registration desk and kicking over the mail slots, are a breath of "normal" fresh air... it's the difference between seeing sleeping souls shambling through habitual rituals and living, breathing, awake people. Such is the effect in INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, which has just enough normal dull "Grand Hotel" style characters to keep the more hysterical ones looking even cooler. And casting Peggy Hopkins Joyce seals the deal - she's like Margaret Dumont and Thelma Todd rolled into one, the Paris Hilton or Zsa Zsa Gabor or Charro of her day.
One of my favorite moments: After getting kicked out of Joyce's bed, Fields winds up sleeping with Dr. Wong, who's mistaken him for the American representative. "I feel like the whole Chinese army's been marching across my tongue with muddy feet," Fields laments. The houseboy asks: "Shall I get you some water?" "A little on the side," Fields replies. That's how I roll with INTERNATIONAL HOUSE. I want to steal the whole bottle and throw chaser to the wind. There's never been another like it.