Sunday Funnies: International House (1933) with W.C. Fields

For almost as long as I can remember, I've been a fan of the classic era of comedians that emerged from vaudeville. I am a huge fan of Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Abbott and Costello. I used to sit up late into the night with a Walkman and tapes of old time radio shows and try and contain my laughter since I was supposed to be asleep. If any comedians could break me up (and ultimately get me in trouble), it was always Burns and Allen or W.C. Fields making an appearance on The Edgar Bergan and Charlie McCarthy program. That's why when I discovered the existence of this film I had to see it, and before I completely loose all you genre fans out there with my babbling about pre-historic comedy, I have to mention that this flick also stars one Bela Lugosi. It's a cavalcade of stars as they all pile into the....

International House (1933) starring W.C. Fields, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Bela Lugosi, Cab Calloway, and Rudy Vallee. Directed by A. Edward Sullivan. 

The International House hotel in China is a hotbed of activity. It seems Doctor Wong has invented a technique that will revolutionize that new fangled technology known as Television. Everyone is out to get a hold of his patent for their country, and Tommy Nash has been sent by the United States Electric Company to get it for the good old U.S. of A. His main rival is the villainous Gen. Nicholas Petronovich (Lugosi) of Russia. However Nash is waylaid when he comes down with the measles and is put under the care of Dr. Burns and Nurse Allen. 

Petronovich finds out about Nash's malady and goes to the local health inspector in order to get the him quarantined, but the General foils himself as the whole hotel is locked down with him on the outside. That night another guest arrives in the form of adventurer Prof. Henry R. Quail (Fields) who flies in on his gyro copter and lands on the rooftop dance floor. Doctor Wong assumes that Quail must be the American representative and begins negotiations with the blotto blowhard. Later Wong demonstrates his device and we're treated to performances from Rudy Vallee and Cab Calloway. In the end its a crazy grab as all the countries pull out the stops to get the patent for themselves. 

Film Facts

--During the filming Fields and the director orchestrated a fake earthquake on the set. They used the footage in newsreels to promote the film, and it is still sometimes accepted today as real footage of a quake.

--This film marked the first full length feature for Fields who had previously only starred in a couple of short talkies and silent films. 

--Director Edward Sullivan would go on to direct the 1939 Laurel and Hardy film The Flying Deuces.

Bug Rating

This film really feels like the great granddaddy of films like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Cannonball Run, and either version of Oceans 11. It's great to the see the stars of the time interacting on film, and since it came out before the Hays Office rose to censoring power, some of the off color humor seemed very surprising to see on film. At one point, Fields is trying to find a room to flop in and peeks in a keyhole. When he stands up he shakes his head and says, "Well, what will they think of next?" While this is obviously not blue material, it is a line that a couple years down the line would not make it on the screen.

Fields is really at his best in this film. Coming years before alcoholism dulled the edges of his wit, his drunkard character carries not only a bottle with him, but also a razor sharp wit. Burns and Allen as the Doctor and Nurse nearly steal the show. Gracie brings her ditsy character from the radio show onto the screen perfectly. She seems so naively sweet and cluelessly cute it is no wonder that George was so in love with her. There's one scene that Fields and Allen share that proves that Gracie could hold her own with any comic around, and it was perhaps my favorite scene in the film. It's also very cool to see Lugosi in a non horror role. He's still playing a villain, but he gets time to show off his comedy chops and it's a shame that he never really go another chance to do so.  

The big problem with the film is the length. With a running time of only 68 minutes, the film is eaten up with a dance number and several musical interludes. For the most part I had a hard time sitting though a child singer and Rudy Vallee, but when Cab Calloway took the screen and sang his song "Reefer Man", I was thrilled. The song and performance were both very funny, and seeing Cab in his heyday was very cool. 

I don't know if I can really recommend this film to anyone who isn't a nut for old comedies like me. The good part of the short length is if you don't like it it'll be over soon. However, the dated material and numerous musical numbers will probably numb the mind of anyone not down with the classic funny-men. 
Bug Rating

No trailer for this film, but having seen the trailer on the DVD that's no big loss. Instead I found the clip from the film featuring Cab Calloway doing "Reefer Man". 


  1. You've got a really cool blog. I've always been a big fan of classic comedians. It doesn't get much better than W.C. Fields, George Burns & the like. Recently I read a pretty cool book by George Burns about his friends. He went through the days of vaudeville to radio to tv and the movies. It was great reading about guys like Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, etc.

  2. Thanks Keith. Yeah I've read some of Geaoge's Books. I know I read Gracie back in the day and one other that I can't recall the name of.

    Graucho has a couple of good books. Groucho and Me and Tales of a Mangy Lover are two of them. I'm still trying to get my hands on a copy of Harpo Speaks.

    Anyhow thanks for coming over and taking a look. Please come round more often.

  3. You are welcome. I've never read any of Groucho's books though. I would like to. I enjoyed your blog. I plan to visit it more often. Feel free to check out my two blogs too. Take care. Cheers!


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