Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! This month’s Pre-Code is another notable non-essential. These films, though not possessing some of the qualities that could make them worthy of being called seminal representations of the era, are nevertheless entertaining and worthy of our attention. Up this month is…
International House (1933)
Madcap investors converge on a Chinese hotel to buy rights to a new invention: television. Starring Peggy Hopkins Joyce, W.C. Fields, Rudy Vallee, Stuart Erwin, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Bela Lugosi, Sari Maritza, Baby Rose Marie, Colonel Stoopnagle & Budd, Sterling Holloway, and Cab Calloway. Screenplay by Francis Martin and Walter DeLeon. From a story by Neil Brant and Louis E. Heifetz. Directed by A. Edward Sutherland. Produced by Paramount.
“Dr. Wong, inventor of the radioscope, which can broadcast both picture and sound from anywhere in the world, holds a conference at the hotel International House in Wu-Hu, China. Before the conference, Tommy Nash of the American Electric Company was almost married, but contracted chicken pox and left his bride-to-be, Carol Fortescue, alone at the altar. As Carol arrives in Wu-Hu, Tommy is forced to spend the night in Shanghai, where he meets well-known beauty Peggy Hopkins Joyce. Representatives of companies all over the world arrive for Wong’s presentation, but he delays it at Tommy’s request, believing the American will present the highest bid. As Wong sets up his invention, the radioscope shows Professor Henry Quail ready to take off from Juarez, Mexico to Kansas City in his autogyro, the Spirit of Brooklyn, loading both his plane and his stomach with beer. When Tommy arrives with Peggy, Carol refuses to marry him, until Peggy explains that she and Tommy spent an innocent night together…
“…the couple is reconciled, only to have Tommy break out in a rash of measles. Meanwhile, Peggy’s ex-husband, General Petronovich, to eliminate competition for Wong’s patent, has the hotel quarantined for Tommy’s rash but gets himself locked out. Still waiting for Tommy to introduce himself, Wong postpones his demonstration until Quail lands his autogyro on the roof and Wong, believing he is Tommy, offers his patent to him. That night, Quail sleeps in Peggy’s room and the next morning, she asks him to fly away with her. Tommy then has the quarantine lifted, rushes to Wong and secures the patent. Petronovich then storms the hotel, threatening to kill whomever has won Wong’s patent and is enraged to see Peggy in Quail’s car, which he brought with him on the plane. Peggy runs to the roof to escape Petronovich just as Tommy and Carol, now in Quail’s car in the elevator, save him from Petronovich. All reach the plane in time and the Spirit of Brooklyn takes off.” (This summary is brought to you by TCM.)
International House‘s plot, which quickly proves itself to be just about as irrelevant as possible, involves a host of colorful characters gathering at a Chinese hotel to bid upon an early version of television — called a radioscope, which can zero in on anybody in the whole world (but, as it happens, seems to often settle on performers just before they’re ready to perform). The nature of the premise is enough to make this a film that I, as a television lover, had to see. But there’s no doubt about why anyone else would seek to watch International House: its ridiculous cast! Where else in the world is one going to see W.C. Fields, as a zany professor and wannabe aviator, romantically involved with Peggy Hopkins Joyce, campily playing herself, with doctor/nurse schtick by comedians Burns and Allen (whose television sitcom I hope to eventually cover on this blog) in support, and Bela Lugosi, out of his typical fright-drag, intruding as one of Joyce’s bitter ex-husbands? (Answer: Nowhere else!) Talk about an odd bunch — and that’s before including the out-of-the-blue cameos by Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd, along with musical entertainers Sterling Holloway, Baby Rose Marie, Rudy Vallee, and Cab Calloway with his orchestra, performing the delightfully Pre-Code “Reefer Man.”
So, this is a curio from several different angles — whether you’re watching to see Sally Rogers when she was just a babe, the early comic stylings of Burns and Allen (back when George wasn’t always so bemused by Gracie’s antics), or even Peggy Hopkins Joyce, America’s much-married first tabloid superstar, in her only talkie, there’s a lot of unique, bizarre fun in what this brisk 68-minute Paramount programmer has to offer. It’s a bit like a surrealist Grand Hotel (1932), in the sense that the studio has decided to gather a handful of never-before-paired stars (most of them comedians) together at a hotel… but within a paper thin plot that makes time for a half-hearted central romance between Erwin and Maritza and is mostly crafted to allow for musical interludes (entirely disconnected from the action). Indeed, the story is nothing; this picture, unlike most of the Pre-Codes covered here, has nothing it wants to say or explore — it simply wants to entertain, like any great vaudeville presentation. Thus, with singers and comics galore — and W.C. Fields leads the pack alongside a gamely self-deprecating Peggy Hopkins Joyce — this is one of the best comedic revues you’ll ever see.
As for the picture’s Pre-Code elements, despite the absence of story, it certainly confounded the censors. In addition to the “Reefer Man” number, which some states refused to screen, the script is littered with jokey double entendres from Fields about sex (and thank goodness, with Joyce around — and playing herself! — it’d be a shame NOT to take advantage of that subject matter). On the taboo front, nothing beats the sheer unexpected delight of the romance between Joyce and Fields, which leads to a car chase (in a miniature vehicle — which allows for a joke about Will Hays) through the hotel and a gag about Peggy sitting on a pussy… cat. A pussycat, of course. This is just the most memorable of several similar beats, which all come together in a highly stimulated, feel-good, star-laden romp. It’s not an Essential Pre-Code, but if I ever did a series on flat-out FUN pictures, this would be a must. Highly recommended.
Come back next week for another Wildcard Wednesday! And tune in Tuesday for more Newhart!