Saturday, June 25, 2016

Stubs - International House (1933)

International House (1933) Starring Peggy Hopkins Joyce, W.C. Fields, Rudy Vallee, Stuart Erwin, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Sari Maritza, Col. Stoopngale and Budd, Cab Calloway and his Orchestra, Baby Rose Marie, Bela Lugosi, Lona Andre, Sterling Holloway, Franklin Pangborn, Edward Breese, Lumsden Hare and The Girls in Cellophane. Directed by Edward Sutherland. Screenplay by Francis Martin and Walter DeLeon. Produced by Emanuel Cohen (uncredited). Black and White. USA. Run time 69 minutes. Comedy

Sometimes an innocuous film has more going on than the results on the screen would imply. Such is the case with Paramount Picture’s International House (1933). If you’re a W.C. Fields fan, this is the sound film that finally made him a star in Hollywood. And the film and its vulgar humor may have been one of the last straws for the Hays Office, which felt the producers of the film had pulled a fast one on them, but more on that later.

The film itself is less movie and more a showcase for radio acts under the pretense of demonstrating a new invention, television, called the radioscope by its inventor Dr. Wong (Edmund Breese). This is not the TV we’ve all grown to love and hate, but rather a very mechanical machine that allows for the broadcast of both picture and sound from anywhere in the world without the need for a camera. 

Seeing the potential for millions, companies from all over the world send representatives to bid on the machine. Wong is especially interested in the American Electric Company, which is sending Tommy Nash (Stuart Erwin) because of his familiarity with the country and culture. But the trains from Shanghai to Wuhu are out and Tommy is going to have to drive. Peggy Hopkins Joyce (Peggy Hopkins Joyce) also wants to get to Wuhu, not so much for the invention, but because there will be millionaires there bidding on the device and she’s interested in marrying one of them. She convinces Tommy to let her ride with him, even though it’s a 24 hour trip and they will have to spend a platonic night together on the road.

Also waiting in Wuhu is Tommy’s twice left at the altar fiancĂ©e Carol Fortescue (Sari Maritza), who is not happy to hear about the travel arrangements after the fact. Hopkins Joyce has a well-deserved reputation, more on that later as well.

Additionally, there are representatives from other nations, Russian General Petronovich (Bela Lugosi), who is also one of Peggy’s jealous ex-husbands; German Herr Von Baden (Harrison Greene); and British interests are represented by Sir Mortimer Fortescue (Lumsden Hare), who is also Carol’s father.

Russian General Petronovich (Bela Lugosi) plays one of Peggy Joyce Hopkin's ex-husbands.

Throw into the mix Professor Henry Quail (W.C. Fields), who has no one’s interest, other than his own, in mind. The Professor, a heavy drinker, flies to the conference in an autogyro, aka gyroplane, though his original destination was not Wuhu, China, but rather Kansas City.

Professor Henry Quail (W.C. Fields) has a glass of beer before flying his autogyro.

The demonstration is to take place at International House, a hotel run by a daffy manager (Franklin Pangborn). While most of the staff seems to be Chinese girls (Bo-Ling and Bo-Ching), he does have an American doctor on staff, Doctor Burns (George Burns), who has a new nurse, Nurse Allen (Gracie Allen). While these two get involved when Tommy breaks into measles after he decides to tie the knot with Carol, most of the time they are recreating their vaudeville routine.

Gracie Allen as Nurse Allen is exasperatingly vapid in International House.

Gracie is exasperatingly vapid, the basis of their humor which they managed to build into successful radio and television series. While I would never consider Gracie to be vulgar, one of her lines of dialogue would come under scrutiny from the Hays Office. In one of her scenes, ditzy Gracie sits down on a stethoscope and says she can hear her heart beat. What might sound like a non sequitur Garcie-ism to modern audience, was one of six scenes the Hays Office advised Paramount producer A.M. Botsford to be careful with.

Botsford wrote back, “We are very much perturbed by the suggested deletions which we feel eliminate considerably comedy, and comedy which is, we believe, entirely innocuous. The stethoscope gag by Gracie Allen has no element of offense to it. Gracie Allen is a dumb girl who makes all kinds of mistakes constantly and the very way the scene is played cannot, we believe, cause offense to the most squeamish person in the audience. It is merely funny.

Meanwhile, Petronovich uses Tommy’s measles as an excuse to have the entire hotel quarantined, but as his luck would go, he ends up being locked out.

When he arrives, Quail drives to the hotel in an American Austin car that is stored in the autogyro’s cargo hold. Even though the hotel is under quarantine, Quail forces his way in. Even though there is no room at the hotel for him, like a bull in a china shop, Quail wrecks havoc, first disrupting the orderly front desk and then searching the hotel until he finds an unlocked room, which he moves into. The room he picks belongs to Hopkins Joyce, but the two manage to avoid seeing each other until Quail’s snoring wakes her up. Quail makes a run for it when the members of the hotel staff knocks on her door inquiring if she’s okay. But Quail’s antics are not lost on Petronovich, who has been watching from his room and takes a shot at the fleeing Quail, though he only manages to hit his cigar.

Professor Quail and Peggy Hopkins Joyce don't seem to notice each other.

Quail ends up disrupting one of Dr. Wong’s product demonstrations and ends up sharing Dr. Wong’s room.

Quail has a little bracer the next morning after spending the night in Dr. Wong's room.

Wong’s is trying to use a six day bicycle race from New York to demonstrate his radioscope, but he ends up showing pretty much everything but. Instead we are treated to vignettes from such talent as Col Stoopnagle and Budd (F. Chase Taylor and Budd Hulick) a popular radio comedy team at the time; Rudy Vallee, a huge singing star during the 20’s and 30’s and who would appear in 33 films; Baby Rose Marie, whom we all may know better as Rose Marie or Sally Rogers, the character she played on The Dick Van Dyke Show; and Cab Calloway and this Orchestra, a jazz singer closely associated at the time with the Cotton Club in New York and, along with Duke Ellington, responsible for breaking the colored barrier in network radio.

Of the performances, three make an impression. Vallee’s is more because his is the one Quail disrupts and he, through the power of the radioscope, tells him to stop. Baby Rose Marie, making her feature debut at 10, was one of those child singers with a grown up voice. "My Bluebird's Singing the Blues," one of three songs written for the film by lyricist Leo Robin and composer Ralph Rainger, is by far the strongest of the three. Marie had been singing professionally since the age of three, was an old hat by now and had been a radio star on NBC for five years by the time she appeared in this film. She had even starred in one of the early Vitaphone sound shorts, "Baby Rose Marie the Child Wonder" (1929), before sound became all the rage. Her singing of a torch song has the brassy quality of an older performer and it is easy to see why she would be a star at such a young age as well as continue to be one for years.

Rose Marie (here billed as Baby Rose Marie) makes her feature film debut.

The other performance is Cab Calloway’s and mostly for the subject matter; “Reefer Man” a 1932 song written by Andy Razaf (lyrics) and J. Russel Robinson (music) was the sort of thing that would soon disappear from Hollywood movies thanks to the Production Code. Sample lyrics:

Man, what's the matter with that cat there?
Must be full of reefer
Full of reefer?
Yeah man
You mean that cat's high?
Sailing, Sailing

Sailing lightly
Get away from here
Man is that the reefer man?
That's the reefer man
I believe, he's losin' his mind
I think, he's lost his mind

If he trades you dimes for nickels
And calls watermelon's pickles
Then you know
You're talkin' to that reefer man

Cab Calloway leads his band in a rendition of "Reefer Man".

The third composition from Ralph Rainger to be featured in the film, "She Was a China Tea-cup and He Was Just a Mug," is notable only because the production number features Sterling Holloway as the Chorus King (aka Coffee Mug) and Lona Andre as the Chorus Queen (aka China Tea Cup). The number was featured in a floor show which preceded what was supposed to be Dr. Wong’s first demonstration of his invention on the hotel’s rooftop garden restaurant.

Holloway was a character actor noted for his red hair and high pitched voice and was still in the early stages of his career. Between 1932 and 1934 he would appear in over 30 movies, many times in small roles. I don’t know if his appearance here is typical of his roles at the time, but from what I remember of his films, he is usually the comic relief as he is in International House. His partner in the routine, Andre, was also at the beginnings of her career. Just 18 in this film, Andre would go on to to star in several B films and would appear in nearly 50 films by the end of the decade. She is also known for setting a golf record for women in 1938, playing 156 holes of golf in 11 hours and 56 minutes on the Lake Norconian, California course.

Back to the film, after the quarantine is lifted, Tommy hurries to Dr. Wong to secure the patent. Petronovich, who has been locked out, storms around the hotel looking to kill whomever got the patent instead. He is enraged to find his ex- in the car with Quail, along with Tommy and Carol.The movie ends with Professor Quail in his American Austin and passengers driving through the hotel before getting back to his autogyro and taking off.

Petronovich is not happy when he finds Peggy, his ex-, in Quail's car.

The dialogue at the end was very pre-code as well:

            Peggy: I’m sitting on something.
Professor Quail: I lost mine in the stock market.
            When she gets up from her seat, she has been sitting on a box of kittens.
            Professor Quail (looking between her legs): My, what a cute little pussy!

That little bit of dialogue at the end is one example of the issues this film had with the Production Code. The Hays Office in fact felt like the studio had “pulled a fast one” by changing the scene. James B.M. Fisher, a Hays Office representative, wrote in a memo dated June 23, 1933, that in the version they were shown “it is my impression that he used the word, ‘cat,’ rather than ‘pussy’." 

But that wasn’t the end of it, Carl E. Milliken, Secretary of the MPPDA wrote to Joseph I. Breen at the Hays Office after a conversation he had with Ed Kuykendall, president of the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America. Kuykendall, he wrote, wanted “an opportunity to tell the executives actually responsible for production in Hollywood what the average decent minded exhibitor thinks of some of their product and why." Milken called International House “vulgar and borders constantly on the salacious according to the comments of the public groups.”

Milken noted that even though the “west coast office required six deletions under the Code. The studio gave them an argument on all of them and they finally insisted upon only one [presumably the "pussy" line] ...This deletion was not made, as evidenced by the report of the reviewer who saw the print in New York....the dirty minded lout who put it in the picture knew perfectly well, however, what he was doing and undoubtedly felt he had gained something by getting away with it.” While the film was issued with a Code seal, line still intact, Paramount could not get a seal when they tried to re-release it in 1935 and again in 1950.

Controversy aside or because of it, the film was a success and Paramount signed its star, W.C. Fields, to a long-term contract as a result. I feel I’m in the minority, but I’m not a big fan of Fields. While he’s disruptive in a Harpo Marx sort of way, Marx’s antics come across more as a devious kid; Fields' actions seem like a mean, self-absorbed man. He’s cruel, not to be kind and generally obnoxious. I have not yet found the right film to become a fan.

But it’s really Peggy Hopkins Joyce that is the most fascinating person involved; not so much for her on-screen presence, but her off-screen persona. In International House, Hopkins Joyce is sort of playing herself, a gold digger out looking for her next millionaire husband. Married six times in her life, the first when she was still underage at 17, she had numerous affairs both while married and between engagements, of which she claimed there were fifty. She had expensive tastes and preferred her husbands to be wealthy. Her affairs were with the likes of producer Lee Shubert, W. Averell Harriman, a future Governor of New York, Prince Christopher of Greece and Denmark, Hiram Bloomingdale (son of Bloomingdale’s founder), Charlie Chaplin, and film producer Irving Thalberg. The stories she told Chaplin about her previous marriage were reportedly the basis for his film A Woman of Paris (1923).

Peggy Hopkins Joyce was practically playing herself in International House.

Just as Tom Lehrer would write the song “Alma” to celebrate the life and loves of Alma Maria Mahler Gropius Werfel, (she married in succession composer Gustav Mahler, architect Waltr Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel), Peggy Hopkins Joyce was also celebrated in several songs, four alone by Cole Porter: "Why Shouldn't I?, "They Couldn't Compare to You", "Which" and "Let's Not Talk About Love" each mention her. Eddie Cantor’s “Makin’ Whoopee” written by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson, includes a stanza: "Take Peggy Joyce/With little voice/She soon became the nation's choice!/I tell you, buddy/She's made a study/Of makin' whoopee." The Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart song "I've Got Five Dollars" also sings her praises: "Peggy Joyce has a business/All her husbands have gold..."

Peggy left her second husband, Sherburne Hopkins, to pursue a career on stage, first in the Ziegfeld Follies, and later appeared in Shuberts' A Sleepless Night and in Earl Carroll's Vanities. Her romantic escapades, her jewelry and furs and her outlandish lifestyle made her a darling of the press. As an example, in 1920, while married to her third husband, J. Stanley Joyce, she drew a lot of attention by going on a one week $1 million shopping spree.

Even though when she was called "A Circe of the Cinema” when she arrived to make Skyrocket in 1926, she didn’t really take Hollywood by storm, as she appeared in only seven films. While International House was her last film and her first in seven years, she had at least achieved enough notoriety to be playing herself in a fiction film. That is a certain celebrity few reach and the fact that her name is unknown today demonstrates just how fleeting it is. It’s too bad that her on-screen performance doesn’t capture what must have been a considerable off-screen charm.

Little has been written about the film’s production, save for footage shot that reportedly showed filming during the devastating Long Beach Earthquake of 1933. It turns out that footage was faked later by Fields and the film’s director Edward Sutherland as a publicity stunt. Outside of that, and it’s not even in the film, it’s hard to see what influence if any Sutherland had over the film. There is no Sutherland touch, so to speak.

I have to suspect a good portion of the film, the vignettes with Rudy Valle, Cab Calloway and his orchestra, Baby Rose Marie and Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd were shot by a different director or directors as they were made at Eastern Service Studios, formerly Paramount's Astoria Studio in New York, rather than Hollywood.

Sutherland had actually directed Fields before in a silent film It’s the Old Army Game (1926), which co-starred actress Louise Brooks, who would become Sutherland’s wife from 1926 to 1928. Previously an actor, Sutherland made his film debut in Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914). He is best remembered though as a “comedic’ director, helming more than 50 films. To have made that many films Sutherland must have been considered good at his craft. Perhaps his humor doesn’t age all that well.

In their contemporary review, the New York Times stated: “At the Paramount they are dispensing humor by the shot-gun method, and it should be said at once that "International House" has some direct hits.” While International House is funny in places, fewer of the jokes seem to hit their mark now. Does anyone, for example, even know that when Fields remarks that his car, the Austin being the smallest car available in the U.S. at the time, had “belonged to the Postmaster General” is a pot shot at the diminutive Will H. Hays, the man responsible for enforcing the Production Code and a former Postmaster General for the U.S.?

International House is a relic of the past, after having seen it, I don’t know if I would do so again, at least not in its entirety. Controversies aside, much of the humor is a bit dated and you may find some of the jokes don’t resonate the way they might have in the early 1930s. But if you like W.C. Fields and his brand of humor, then you might want to check it out.

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