International House (1933) Review, with W.C. Fields

The Professor
W.C. Fields
Peggy Hopkins Joyce
Peggy Hopkins Joyce
Rudy Vallee
Rudy Vallee
Released by Paramount
Directed by Edward Sutherland
Run time: 68 minutes

Proof That It’s a Pre-Code Film

  • Alright, let’s start with the film’s nominal star. Peggy Hopkins Joyce was a nationally famous showgirl but most well-known as a gold digger. One telling excerpt from her profile on Wikipedia:

The newly married Mrs. Joyce drew attention for a $1 million shopping spree over the course of a week’s time. By 1922, Joyce’s romantic escapades had made her one of the most written-about women in the American press. She granted any interview, sometimes receiving reporters in her bedroom while wearing a sheer negligee, sans undergarments.

  • Peggy Hopkins Joyce smiles coyly at a man she’s hoping to share a night with on a journey across China, “I prefer a double bed, don’t you?” Though they don’t sleep together, she does end up with much of his clothing, angering his fiance.
  • “Nurse, this is the patient. Undress him and put him to bed!”
    “Oh, doctor!”

  • A very sloshed W.C. Fields crashes his autogyro onto the rooftop of the International House hotel. He asks, “Where am I?” Franklin Pangborn tosses back the city’s name, “Wu-Hu!” and Fields huffs, pulling a flower from his vest, “… don’t let the posey fool ya!”
  • “Now can you see anything?”
    “Almost everything.”
  • There’s an extensive musical number, “For She Was a China Teacup, and He Was Just a Mug”. It feels like an unholy mixture of Busby Berkeley and the outfits from Madam Satan, and features a ‘between the legs shot’ that Berkeley would use, though we are certainly given more of a view of the chorus girls’ rear ends.
  • During the aforementioned bouncy musical number, we get this brief cutaway of a Chinese woman in a tux watching the chorines dance with admiration.

  • The Professor spends some time peeping into hotel keyholes. After one, he grumbles in amazement, “What won’t they think of next?”
  • “I’m sitting on something.”
    “I lost mine in the stock market!”
  • Cab Calloway has an entire musical number called “Have You Ever Met that Funny Reefer Man?”. Yes. You should give it a listen.

  • While we never see him take a puff, there is a moment where W.C. Fields is lugging around an opium pipe.

  • To inform Peggy that’s she’s lost the lower part of her outfit, the Professor huffs, “Pardon, my little scanty panty– your skirt!”
  • There’s an extended sequence where Peggy Hopkins is in a car, sitting on a cat, and keeps asking W.C. Fields “What am I sitting on? What’s under me?” Fields pops out of the car and exclaims, “Ah, it’s a pussy!”
  • Looking at a litter of kittens, Peggy asks, “I wonder what their parents were.” The Professor sighs, “Careless, my cupcake. Careless.”

International House: Of Cards

“Is this Kansas City, Kansas, or Kansas City, Missouri?”

Another unhinged Paramount comedy of the early 1930s, International House both takes no prisoners nor makes much sense. It’s a free-wheeling, anything-may-go kind of comedy, sprinkled with many of their comedians who didn’t have the legs to make a full feature on their own but would be fine if they were tossed into the goulash and let loose to fight with other B-listers.

Let’s cover the plot quickly since there’s a lot more of interest here to dissect than that. A Chinese inventor, Dr. Wong (Edmund Breese, who I probably don’t have to tell you is in yellowface), has created a pseudo-television set called the Radioscope. The only catch is that it can watch anything anywhere, making it of great interest to all the great powers. These include America’s representative and Typhoid Mary-wannabe Tommy Nash (Stuart Erwin), Soviet representative and jealous monster General Petronovich (Lugosi) and moribund British rep Sir Mortimer Fortescue (Lumsden Hare).

Wong asks for all of the representatives to come to the International House hotel in Wu-Hu, China for a demonstration and bids. The hotel itself is managed by Franklin Pangborn, with George Burns and Gracie Allen serving as the resident doctor and nurse. Then there’s gold digger Peggy Hopkins Joyce, playing herself in a winking nod to the audience, and Professor Quail, a drunken American pilot who flies around the world dropping empty beer bottles on unsuspecting people until landing on the hotel’s roof and promptly vacuuming up all their liquor as well.

International House almost sounds like it has a plot there, but like other Paramount products of the time, such as Six of a Kind, it really is a smorgasbord of comedic routines, musical numbers, risque jokes, and insane stunts. There’s something for everyone in the picture, though we may have to debate later whether that’s a good or a bad thing.

As such, the movie is disconnected. Dr. Wong’s Radioscope even allows for the film to filter in a few extended short bits that seem to come from another universe entirely, including the aforementioned “Reefer Man” number from Cab Calloway, a cow speaking and Baby Rose Marie singing a torch song atop a pair of pianos. There is also a scene of a pair of inventors named “Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd”.

I want to do a brief aside about Colonel Stoopnagle and Budd, because, honestly, what the hell is this. A pair of radio comedians, their segment lasts for barely a joke and a half before fading away with the words “Stoopnocracy is Peachy” hovering over the ominous outline of a clock. This is not explained. I still don’t understand it even after reading the duo’s Wikipedia page or a fawning Tripod (!) site. (One source I read supposed it that Paramount had hacked the material out of some unfinished short, and that would make sense– but not enough.)

That may be one of the biggest issues with the film, which is so rooted in early-30s pop culture that at points it becomes incomprehensible. If you don’t know who Peggy Hopkins Joyce is, much of the jokes about her personality and background can land flat.

The film’s best parts undoubtedly come from Gracie Allen (“To what do you attribute your smartness?” “Oh, three things. First is my very good memory, and the second two… I forget.”) and Fields’ turn as a force of nature. Fields gets to do a lot of subtle little gags, from accidentally almost smoking his cane instead of his cigar, to driving his miniature automobile down a fire escape. The car is so small that his head pokes through the roof and his top hat then rides around on the car, which also jumps whenever he hiccups. The interactions between the two of them are unfortunately rare but among the film’s funniest moments.

A lot of the racial stuff present is off-putting, especially setting a film in China and having the only main Chinese character a man in yellowface who is a dopey, forgetful inventor. The film does try and counterbalance this with the lopsided arrogance of the American Fields, who could certainly be said to be representing a certain American trait of selfish hedonism expunged upon the unprepared world. The movie itself also has a satirical bent, taking a contest of the great powers for greater control of their own populaces and pointing out the foibles of each nation, whether it’s Russian peevishness, American haplessness, or British sleepiness. But whether you find these points still barbed in modern times will depend on the viewer.

Franklin Pangborn gets a lot more to do here than usual, and an early scene where he and George Burns take turns playing the straight man to Gracie is pretty delightful. Sari Maritza, trapped in the film playing Erwin’s hapless fiance, is probably the most pitiable. You’re in a Grand Hotel send-up and you don’t even have her do a Garbo impression?

(A side note: at one point the entire hotel is put under quarantine due to Erwin having a rash, and that is not something I needed to experience right now. The guests of the hotel are not very astute to their quarantine, however, which made me feel a little panicky! Gotta admit it!)

Whether International House is good or not is probably a debate left to people not exhausted by trying to research ‘the Stoopnocracy’ for several hours. But what the film undeniably is is unhinged, a Paramount picture that probably reaches closest to the Marx Brothers canon for pure anarchic screwball insanity. But it is also wildly uneven and almost incomprehensible without detailed research. Should you watch it? Shall light ever enter my darkened window again? Alas, I do not know.

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Other Reviews, Trivia, and Links

  • The American Film Institute has got us on this one with a lot of details of the censorship battle behind the scenes of this one. (You didn’t think they’d let that ‘pussy’ line go unchecked, do you?). One scene that seemed to be of great concern that I didn’t even mention at the top is one where Gracie Allen is sitting on the flat part of the stethoscope and listening, excitedly telling George she can hear her heartbeat. I’m going to include an extremely long excerpt here just because I think it’s all interesting and, as noted earlier in this month, no one can stop me:

According to files in the MPAA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library, on 28 Jan 1933, Dr. James Wingate, Director of the Studio Relations Office of the AMPP, wrote to Paramount executive Harold Hurley stating that this film was “satisfactory under the [Production] Code, providing the [scene] with Gracie Allen and the stethoscope is handled so as to avoid any possible offense under the Code against vulgarity.” On 18 Feb 1933, Wingate wrote to Paramount producer A. M. Botsford advising “great care” in the filming of the stethoscope gag and the scene in which Professor Quail and Peggy Hopkins Joyce end up in the same bedroom by mistake, as well as the scene in which Peggy loses her skirt in the door of the Austin. Wingate further warned, “…this is a type of picture with which censor boards recently have been dealing severely, with particular reference to double-meaning lines and gags…”

On 8 May 1933, after the Hays Office viewed the film, Wingate sent Botsford an official list of recommended deletions, which include: 1. Gracie seated on stethoscope in which she says she can hear her heart beat. 2. Fields’ line, “Don’t let a flower deceive you,” “as an inference of sex perversion.” 3. the dance girls bent over and the camera “focused on their posteriors.” 4. Fields’ peering into a keyhole and saying, “What won’t they be trying next.” 5. Fields’ line, “What isn’t crosswise in China.” 6. Fields’ line, “Careless,” in reference to the parents of a litter of cats. […]

On 10 May 1933, Botsford wrote to Wingate with the following protest: “1. 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 of 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. 2. Fields’ line “Don’t let the flower deceive you” indicates merely a “sissy” reaction. It would take an expert in abnormal psychology to wheedle out of that an inference of sex perversion. 3. The shot in the dance routine in question might be argued about, although there have been dance routines with exposures of this sort in films constantly. I know we are not supposed to hark back to what other people have done, however. 4. Fields’ line into the keyhole, “What won’t they think of next,” is smutty only in the minds of persons who want to construct smut out of it. 5. The “crosswise in China” line will come out. 6. The “careless” line in reference to the parents of the cats is, we believe, merely innocuous in this day and age. Such references are constantly made in public and in print, and are not indicative of anything particularly obnoxious.” The “crosswise” line was cut 12 May 1933, making the film satisfactory under the Code.

On 23 Jun 1933, however, Hays Office representative James B. M. Fisher sent a memo to Wingate protesting the scene in which Peggy sits on a cat in Fields’ Austin automobile. Fisher states: “It seems apparent from what a number of people have said to me that the studio “pulled a fast one” by changing the scene between W. C. Fields and Peggy Joyce in the Austin when Peggy keeps repeating, “I’m sitting on something” and Fields pays no attention, but eventually reaches down and produces a cat….In the version which we saw, it is my recollection that the scene went as follows: A shot of the car with a door open establishes unmistakably the presence of a cat lying on the seat. Peggy and Fields climb into the car and drive off, and then Peggy starts to wiggle around repeating, “I’m sitting on something.” [Fields pulls out a flattened cat and says, “It’s a cat.”] “…and it is my impression that he used the word, “cat,” rather than “pussy.” …From various comments, it appears we are taking a terrific beating in allowing something to pass which is unmistakably vulgar.” Maryland censor boards eliminated Peggy’s line, “I tell you I am sitting on something” and Fields answer, “It’s a pussy,” which Pennsylvania censors also eliminated. In the viewed print, the audience does not see the cat until after Fields has stopped the car to remove it, uttering “It’s a pussy.”

These deletions caused Carl E. Milliken, Secretary of the MPPDA, to write to Joseph I. Breen, also of the Hays Office, following a conversation he had with Ed Kuykendall, president of the Motion Picture Theatre Owners of America. Milliken writes, “Among other things [Kuykendall] suggested that some time he ought to have 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.” Milliken mentions the censored “pussy” line and went on to say, “…the whole picture is vulgar and borders constantly on the salacious according to the comments of the public groups. Originally our 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. I wish that Kuykendall or somebody whose words would carry weight could manage to give him an impression of the opinion that is rapidly developing throughout this country regarding him and his kind.” The last two reels of the film were reviewed by the Hays Office on 26 Jun 1933. The film was released with the line in question intact in 1933, but when Paramount requested a Code seal for a re-issue for the film in Oct 1935, the PCA suggested that Paramount withdraw its application. Breen wrote to Paramount executive John Hammell that the film “is filled with gross vulgarities in both action and dialogue.” When Paramount again tried to re-issue the film in Mar 1950, Breen re-iterated for Paramount executive Luigi Luraschi the list of deletions recommended in 1933, as well as the song “Reefer Man,” sung by Cab Calloway.

  • Speaking of censorship, Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s presence had a history of catalyzing it. Again from Wikipedia:

She appeared in her second film, The Skyrocket (1926), which provoked the Wisconsin state legislature into introducing a bill to allow censorship of all movies entering the state. In any event, the film was a box office failure.

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. 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!”)

  • Variety explains its readers that the movie’s star-power should be enough to make money, even if their presence “is accentuated by the picture’s lack of entertainment.” They add, “It’s no more than another instance of Hollywoodian mishandling broad satire, a branch with which few picture makers have been able to cope.”
  • Here is an extended article from Sara Hamilton in Photoplay called “Yoo Hoo! Here Comes Gracie!” that purports on Gracie Allen’s behind-the-scenes mischief, wherein she confuses and frustrates the cast and the director much as she does in the actual movie. I can’t tell you how much of this is true or just fluff, but if you enjoy her schtick, it’s a fine way to pass a few mintues.
  • TCMDB’s article by Mel Neuhaus goes into how International House was the coronation of W.C. Fields’ career in Hollywood, finally landing him a longterm contract as a leading man.
  • Humorously, for however little Sari Maritza was featured in the final film, movie magazines ate up her fashions and appearance with several spreads dedicated to her Travis Banton-designed gowns. (Sources: 1, 2, 3)
  • And here’s some advertisements for the picture from trade magazines. In the left one, notice the emphasis on Joyce, “space-grabber deluxe”. (Sources: 1, 2)
  • Here’s the film’s original trailer:

Awards, Accolades & Availability

More Pre-Code to Explore

 

5 Replies to “International House (1933) Review, with W.C. Fields”

  1. Surely International House owes something to Shanghai Express…train ride… disdain for the people…exoticism…The US had marines serving in the «International Settlement» in Shanghai…Is the Chinese woman in a tux a once-removed reference to the « twinning» of Anna May Wong and Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express? Recall Marlene in
    Morocco, wearing a tux and kissing a woman.

    My favorite dialogue had always been :

    Nash : Marry you? I wouldn’t marry you if you were Peggy Hopkins Joyce.

    Joyce : I AM Peggy Hopkins Jouve.

  2. Along with Million Dollar Legs, this crazy, often Surreal compilation of off-the-wall and topical satire is one of nuttiest delights ever to emerge from the studio system–totally topical with its jabs at Technocracy, starring of the most current of controversial females–Joyce, always in the columns for misbehavior, long before the half-hearted attempts at today’s “hot” blondes, tossing in the irrepressible Gracie Allen to put common sense to shame, mocking the ubiquity of television before it was commonplace, and one of the cocktail cherries on the top, Cab Calloway with a reefer song! No real plot necessary, any more than a Dali melange of melting watches. There’s very little like this nutty comedy that comes close to its enjoyable nonsense.

  3. I love what you do with this site and these films; I’m a huge fan of yours. But I have to register strong personal disagreement on the merits of “International House.”

    (First: Two points of agreement: less Stoopnagle and Budd; more Sari Maritza! Many celebrities (“Wannabuyaduck?”) had moments of fame on radio, and quickly faded. No one missed the Colonel and Budd….. Second, yes the Asian racism certainly is abhorrent; but, every pre-Code film you so finely analyze is objectionable in at least one racial, religious, cultural, social, sexual, ground. Indeed, one thing I’ve most appreciated from your reviews is the willingness to grasp and understand the appealing aspects of these films in the context of when they were made, and notwithstanding our sensibilities.)

    To me, an aging Boomer, this film captures and reflects people’s capacities for enjoyment, escape, laughter, in the depths of the Great Depression, when folks just needed to outright be entertained and forget their troubles for a few hours. Europe was beginning to break apart again; hence, all the satiric royal personages in the film. People watched Lindberg and Earhart chase flying milestones; hence the novel Autogyro. People dreamed of what we know now as television (Farnsworth had invented it); hence, the magic of such a device here, transporting you around the world (“Six Day Bicycle Race” at Madison Square Garden!) and even allowing back-and-forth engagement (Fields and Rudy Vallee have at it).

    Economic collapse abounded; hence; stock crash references. Jazz is really in its infancy; 99.99% of Americans have no idea what’s happening in New Orleans, KC, Harlem; Cab Calloway and his band with a classic “Reefer Man” then and now is to me, as startling and exciting as it must have been in the 1930’s. Bela Lugosi scared the wits out of people in horror movies; here, we get to see him try–well, you decide. Even the trivial–we love Rose Marie in “Dick Van Dyke” but, hey, listen to these pipes when she was 10! A young Burns and Allen–not doing “Pork Chops”! And on and on.

    The script is full of sure-firecracker laugh lines and director Eddie Sutherland briskly moves the action along. Yes, it’s “disconnected” and at points “incomprehensible”–you still don’t know if this is Kansas City, Kansas, or Kansas City, Missouri–but the slim fabric of auctioning off the rights to television is enough to undergird all the fun. Stu Erwin is a perfect opener and closer. And from the Pre-Code Hays Office perspective–your domain–survival of these naughty lines and bits, all in one film, is remarkable IMO. You make it even more memorable by relating the wild back and forth between Hays etc and Paramount etc.

    Peggy Hopkins Joyce? Hardly objectionable. She shows us that the Kardashians, Paris Hiltons, have been around a while. She was a media darling in the Depression. No real talent to speak of, other than you could laugh at her willingness to do or say just about anything to get what she wanted. This is, after all, the year of “Golddiggers of 1933”–when people had next to nothing, they could laugh at (or ridicule, or loathe), a Joyce. She is reduced to being a “straight man/woman” for Fields, she, unlike Mae West, is no match for him. He’s got her number from the git-go. Or, as he puts it in another film, “Now that I am here, I shall dalley in the valley. And believe me, I can dalley.”.

    I apologize for way over-staying my welcome and thank any reader who tarried with me this long. I’m thankful always for all you do and even having the opportunity to politely disagree with you is a joy. All the best Peter Hillman

  4. Dear Danny. I wrote and submitted an alternative take Friday night. Please let me know if it vanished and I’ll submit another. In my view you hit a lot of the highlights/lowlights quite nicely—but whiffed on the penultimate point. Thank you! Peter Hillman

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