Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

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. Paramount's ALICE IN WONDERLAND was a disaster but INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (both 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.... one of the few non-Hawks movies to earn that admittedly dubious privilege.

Just so just so.

The love story began when I was fourteen years old in the early days of VHS, scouring the pre-cable days of TV Guide for things to videotape and ease my lonesome adolescence. I had a thing for 50s monsters and 30s old dark houses. I loved the secret panels, and furry suits of the Lugosi Monograms, which were always on when I was very young. I taped INTERNATIONAL HOUSE because Lenny Maltin's guide (my bible back then) 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 exhausted my Marx Brothers movies (I know their first six almost by heart) and was scraping bottom with things like THE GORILLA (the awful Ritz Brothers --identical triplets nursing the same half-baked overacting schtick, now well-forgotten), and 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). 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.

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!?" / "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.

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 not so his marvelous 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 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 (and tells Quail, "I suggest you get back into that flying windmill of yours and depart!" Pangborn, always marvelous.

Bela Lugosi as the Soviet ambassador suspects Professor Quail of being the American representative. He's also one of the ex-husbands of Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Like mealy Tommy Nash (Stu Erwin), whose imagined measles puts the hotel under quarantine, Lugosi's in Wu-Hu to buy Professor Wong's radioscope; 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!" 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 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 more illegal drugs are done under the table (we never see Cab's bassist actually 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"), one shot of a Chinese drag king, 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 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. 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 in full exotica headdress. And there's simply nothing better to hallucinate onto than a shimmering exotica headdress, skimpy pre-code spangles, 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 "normalcy." It's the difference between seeing sleeping souls shambling through habitual rituals and 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. 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.

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, just a blast of soda in a gigantic highball of whiskey. There's never been another like it. Woo-Hoo! As a fourteen year-old 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 -- one glance at the spoon lady, or that crazy autogyro, and burdensome morning would fade into cozy blackout.


  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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