Friday, August 07, 2009

Kansas City is Lost! INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933)

When Hollywood decides to dump cavalcades of stars into one comedy, the results can be over-baked and dreary 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) to bring to 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. Alcohol saved my life, then damn near took it away.... but hey - I still have the movies- and watching WC Fields drink in this movie gets me drunk on pre-code Paramount. 

Just so just so... 

He was just a mug

This love story began when I was fourteen years old, it was the early days of VHS, I was hormonal and introverted--I could have sure used a drink then, but it never occurred to me, for I never really put two and two together and equated drinks or food or pills with mood or emotion (I only knew it made parents sloppy, irritating, repetitive and loud). The only guide to what might be worth taping off the then old movie-filled local TV stations, was Leonard Maltin's book. I spent endless hours cross-indexing it with the local TV listings in the old Courier News and NY Times Sunday TV Guide inserts.  As many a 'monster kid' from the era, I had a thing for the classics - 30s Universal, 50s giant bugs and 30s old dark houses. I hated most non-horror or sci-fi old movies, i.e. the musicals and adult dramas, but I was so desperate I went ahead and taped INTERNATIONAL HOUSE, mainly because Maltin gave it ***1/2, and it had my main monster man, Bela Lugosi, in the credits. I was desperate for something new, down to try anything since I had, in my alienated introverted never-go-outside-to-play isolation, exhausted my Marx Brothers, my Universal horror, my 50s big bugs, and was trying to enjoy lesser crap like YOU'LL FIND OUT, THE GORILLA and ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY. I'd watched the good stuff so many times I couldn't concentrate on it, my brain just surging hormonally for some source of easy distraction. 

Even so, INTERNATIONAL HOUSE was a risk. It came on at three AM, my VHS timer was hit or miss. But a miracle happened. It actually worked. And 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. 

The plot occurs over a a few days at the titular first-class hotel in Wu-Hu China, a kind of GRAND HOTEL satire with various musical numbers and comedy bits rotating like a revolving goldfish bowl around Dr. Wong's demonstration and selling of his 'Radioscope' (an early form of television), with envoys from all sorts of companies and countries in town to submit sealed bids to buy it. Wong keeps trying to get the "Six Day Bicycle Race" but he takes what he can get, everything from Cab Calloway doing "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!" they shout. "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. Paired together in the mind of writer Nathaniel West, these bits are undoubtedly the inspiration for the memorable dancing moppet singing the "Reefer Song" in Day of the Locust!

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

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 his marvelous Professor Quail in INTERNATIONAL HOUSE is a a whole other breed -- an American bull in China, swaggering around without ever deigning to imagine he might be causing chaos. Perhaps due to not having to carry the film by himself, he's finally allowed to let go completely. A drunken autogyro pilot and reckless adventurer, Quail lands on the roof deck 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, all while swirling about him a veritable cape of American arrogance; gathered guests are bemused but hotel manager Franklin Pangborn throws a hissy fit ("I suggest you get back into that flying windmill of yours and depart!")

Bela Lugosi as the Soviet agent, in town to bid on the radioscope, suspects Professor Quail of being the American representative interested in Wong's invention and, since he's also one of the ex-husbands of Peggy Hopkins Joyce, feels its his right to try and kill Quail at every opportunity. The actual American rep is Tommy Nash (Stu Erwin), whose imagined measles puts the hotel under quarantine. Burns is the doctor; Allen his nurse. Yikes.

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!

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.


  1. I've always wondered why more people don't discuss this wonderful movie, one of the most blissfully deranged products of classical Hollywood, so thank you for doing so. Some of the gags are on the level with Harpo's tattoo in Duck Soup, like Fields shooting at the television and sinking an onscreen ship. I second your occasional exasperation with Fields as family man--I much prefer him as a sloshed lord of misrule, whizzing around in autogyros or leaping out of airplanes after dropped flasks.

  2. What a terrific, unsung movie. And a really great site. I'm adding you to my blogroll on And congrats for being included in the FILM COMMENT online roundup!

  3. You mentioned (and I quote) "ZOMBIES ON BROADWAY (with a horrible fake Martin and Lewis, as if Lewis wasn't bad enough - and poor Lugosi so old and shattered he could barely keep up with them)."

    The movie you're thinking of is actually BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952) with Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo stealing Dean and Jerry's act. An understandable mixup, since both pictures involve jungle stuff.


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