When Hollywood decides to dump cavalcades of stars into one comedy, the results can be over-baked but INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933) is half-baked, which is just right. I love it so much if I had only one film (that wasn't by Howard Hawks) for a desert island, it would be this. It's my safety net, my life preserver. My drinking companion.... one of the kew few who've earn that admittedly dubious privilege.
Just so just so.
|He was just a mug|
A few years later, I brought it of it to college and my drummer and I watched it nightly while pounding bourbon and ginger ale. 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!?" And he won. / "You wouldn't say he has flew!" He has flu?) 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.
|Waking to a job well done|
As per most pre-code 1930s movies, the illegal drugs are done on the DL (though we never see Cab's bassist actually take a puff, we do see Fields with an opium pipe), 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, including a quick shot of a Chinese drag king. Throughout though, and this is why I mentioned all the stuff about the alienated teen yet to find the solace in alcohol finding it first here, Field's wild 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 the Firesign loved this movie!
Hell yeah the Firesign 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 or interminable squareness. There's even exotic fan dancers in faux-Ziegfield number, "The China Tea Cup and the American Mug," with Sterling Holloway as the mug, a US sailor bouncing around on a wire after Lona Andre in full exotica headdress. And there's simply nothing better to hallucinate onto than her shimmering exotica headdress, those skimpy pre-code spangles, and Holloway flying around on wires dressed as a sailor. Shiny = good.
This film then saved my life during two phases I need it to - that 14-16 year-old alienation phase, and the 18-24 booze/psychedelics phase. The reason why is I think that, in each case one is essentially shut out of many 'normal' forms of human interaction--such as registering for a hotel room, applying for a job, talking to your parents or a cop-- become absurd and even frightening. People's expectations have led them into boxes they can't see are all around them. Point out the box by acting free and they fear you, worry about, hate, or demonize you for being "outside the box." And if you manage to fake being 'inside' the box long enough, you may never get out again.
BUT the actions of free-spirit surrealists--such as boldly walking along the registration desk and kicking over the mail slots--are a breath of "normalcy" for the outside the boxers. It's the difference between seeing sleeping souls shambling through habitual rituals, the 9-5 slog through a work week, vs. running loose with 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 dysfunctional ones looking even cooler (the same strategy employed with the Marx Bros at the same time). And casting Peggy Hopkins Joyce seals the deal: Margaret Dumont and Thelma Todd rolled into one, the Paris Hilton or Zsa Zsa Gabor or Charro of her day, decency prevents my showing her here.
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 following morn.
Wong's Chinese houseboy asks: "Shall I get you some water?"
"A little on the side," Fields replies. The boy brings a tray with a decanter of whiskey and a soda spritzer. Fields fills a highball glass up to the brim with whiskey, spritzes a light mist of soda atop it, then leaves with the glass, grabbing the decanter as an afterthought. Man, I used to wonder if I'd ever get to the level of my drinking where I'd need to do that in the morning. And I did. Lord help you though, if you don't have a house boy to bring you such a nice tray, if the decanter's empty from the night before and it's a Sunday early in the morning and even the bars are closed.
But that was much later, for both Fields and myself. INTERNATIONAL is from a happier time, in that it's a lifting out of bondage into special delight. I want to live inside it, with just a blast of soda in a gigantic highball of whiskey
And I did. Even as a fourteen year-old loner besotted with the whole fractured business, I knew my fate. Four years later I'd be introducing it as the perfect post-show come-down chillout drug to my bandmates -- one glance at the spoon lady, or that crazy autogyro, and burdensome morning would fade into cozy blackout. Ten years after that and I'd be watching it while convulsing with the DTs, That, as they say, is another story. And now, here we are - it's on DVD and so am I, sparkly and present and fit for any China tea cup! Woo-Hoo!
1. a precursor of sorts in structure--with Fields playing a similar character--would occur in BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 though with lesser cumulative results it's still worth checking out.