International House (1933)

Directed by A. Edward Sutherland


W.C. Fields is one of those comic figures like the Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and even later caricatures like Mr. Bean and a series of characters played by Woody Allen.  He’s a comic persona, playing the same role through a series of different films.  At least, that’s what I can tell.

International House is the only W.C. Fields movie I have seen.  I say it’s a W.C. Fields movie because he’s the only recognizable name in the production, but this 1933 film is a true ensemble, and Fields isn’t that prominent of a figure in it until the film’s climax.  Before then he is just one of many broad characters who make their way to a hotel in Wuhu, China.  “Wuhu” will be mistaken for “Woo-hoo,” slang for “sexually naughty or gay” (according to wikipedia) on multiple occasions, notably when Fields first shows up.

This ensemble cast arrives in Wuhu to glimpse and bid on Dr. Wong’s television-like “radioscope.”  It’s a large machine that somehow manages to glimpse anything going on anywhere in the world.  ***Alright, so I missed the first couple minutes when I went to see this film at an old local theatre, but I’m trusting the wikipedia description on this one.  There’s no reason to distrust this sensational description of Dr. Wong’s machine because it’s right in line with the zany, slightly magical world of the rest of the movie.

So all these characters from all over the world want to bid on this machine, and multiple demonstrations by Dr. Wong throughout the movie allow for a sketch show-like narrative, with musical numbers there to break up the plot.

There’s not even much of a plot.  Like other broad comedies at this time, International House is a loosely structured movie built around multiple set pieces and mostly disconnected sketch premises.  Though all the characters exist within this constrained ecosystem of a hotel, many of them never interact, but their stories are loosely connected through shared appearances by side characters.

Alright, so the idea is that everyone wants Dr. Wong’s invention, but W.C. Fields has no interest whatsoever in this machine.  From what I read this is part of his comic persona.  While everyone is wrapped up in this craze, Fields has no interest in it.  He does catch a glimpse of the machine, but he doesn’t like it, looking at the machine like Don Draper looked at the IBM computers in a later season of Mad Men.

Eventually, Fields takes one of the other characters, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (playing herself), on a date in the film’s most enduring visual gag (a small car, a hole in the roof and Fields wearing his top hat through the roof of the car), and the movie ends with a car chase through the hotel before Fields and Joyce fly away together.

There’s not much of a story but instead a series of gags with much of the humor derived from existing public knowledge of the characters in the film.  Like Fields playing his usual W.C. Fields persona, Joyce was an actress known for a flamboyant lifestyle and several marriages to wealthy men (again, thank you wikipedia).  Joyce’s infatuation with Fields would be like… maybe Tom Cruise playing himself in a movie and falling in love with Kristen Wiig’s SNL character Gilly.  The audience would watch it and laugh as they say, “Tom Cruise does get married a lot!”

Similarly, all of the vignettes we see through Dr. Wong’s radiocope depict performers from popular radio comedies, just about all of whom the average audience member would be familiar with.

So in some ways, International House is just a variety show full of famous characters and performances.  It’s a wacky movie, and– well, I don’t know what else to say, so I’ll go back to my old pal wikipedia because this is kind of fascinating:

International House was produced before a strict Hollywood Production Code took effect in July 1934, and it is notable for the kind of risqué subject matter, humor and costumes associated with Pre-Code Hollywood. Top-billed Peggy Hopkins Joyce was famous as an unabashed real-life gold-digger, not as an actress. Her many affairs with and several marriages to wealthy older men earned her millions, and in the film she makes several humorous references to her profitable divorces, a topic that would become almost completely off-limits with enforcement of the Code. Several of the “cellophane” costumes in the “She Was a China Tea-cup” production number allow the bare outlines of breasts to be seen, a degree of nudity that the Code would not permit.

W. C. Fields, as Professor Quail, responds to what he mistakes as homosexual flirting with “Don’t let the posy fool you”, referring to his own boutonniere, which he plucks out and tosses away. Walking down a hotel corridor, Fields pauses to peep through a keyhole, then comments, “What won’t they think of next!” Such implications of what the Code called “sex perversion” (usually defined then as anything other than procreative sex in the missionary position) would soon be strictly prohibited. This was one of several films in which Fields tweaked censors’ noses with one particular deniable double entendre. Sitting next to him in a small car, Joyce (whom he has punningly called “my little Laplander“) squirms uncomfortably and tells him she is sitting on something. Fields checks, finds a cat under her, and exclaims, “Ah, it’s a pussy!”

Performing with his hot dance band, Cab Calloway sings “Reefer Man“, which describes the odd behavior and ravings of the titular heavy marijuana smoker (portrayed by bass player Al Morgan, who performs as if in a trance). In one gag, W. C. Fields enters a scene contentedly smoking an opium pipe (but with a cigar in place of the opium) and commenting, “They stupefy! They’re roasted!”, a play on two then-current cigarette advertising slogans. References to recreational drug use were among the many Legion of Decency thou-shalt-nots that would soon be rigidly enforced.

In the sequence with the Austin – the smallest car sold in America at that time – W. C. Fields remarks that it “used to belong to the Postmaster General.” This was a potshot at Will Hays, the diminutive former Postmaster General who was then trying to enforce an essentially voluntary and often disregarded early Production Code.

Up Next: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), Sabrina (1954), The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

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