Movie Review: ROOM SERVICE, 1938

Movie Reviews

Directed by William A. Seiter
Starring: The Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball
Review by Steven Painter


The Marx Brothers try and put on a play before their landlord finds out that they have run out of money. To confuse the landlord they pretend that the play’s author has contracted some terrible disease and can’t be moved. Originally a stage play, the setting shows it’s origins, but this is vintage Marx Brothers.


Lucille Ball is considered a comedic genius today. The Marx Brothers are looked at in the same way. So when you put the two together you should get one of the best comedies ever made right? Not exactly. The two combined to create Room Service (1938) for RKO. At this time Ball was just beginning her comedy career. The Marx Brothers were past their prime at this point. Also, Room Service, which was a hit Broadway play, was not written with the Marx Brothers in mind. This is the main reason why the movie just does not work.

As would happen many times more in the future, and happened quite often in the past, Chico was in debt due to his love of gambling. In order to bail him out, the Marx Brothers made a movie for RKO. RKO loved the idea of having the Marx Brothers and they thought Room Service would be a good movie to have them in, since it was a hit on the stage. In order to help make it a more Marx Brothers friendly movie, they brought in writers who had previously worked with the Brothers. They hoped this would get them some of the Marx magic that was present in all of their previous work. It did not happen.

Groucho plays a struggling theater company owner who has holed up in a swanky hotel, along with the rest of his production company. Groucho’s brother-in-law happens to be the hotel manager, so he lets the debt ride for a little. It is not until the hotel is being looked at by Gregory Wagner, played by Donald MacBride, that the screws have to be put to Groucho and his crew. Groucho happens to have a play that he thinks is a hit all ready to debut in the hotel’s auditorium. But some money is needed to pay off the hotel bill otherwise the crew will be lost and Groucho’s play will not go on.

In the midst of this, Chico and Harpo arrive and ask if they can stay with Groucho. Harpo has been kicked out of his own apartment complex because he couldn’t pay the rent. The same happened to Chico. In one of the only funny scenes, Groucho and the hotel manager are discussing what they should do when Chico walks into the room carrying a moose’s head. This is just something that you would expect in a classic Marx Brothers movie, but there is very little of it here.

In order to get some money, Groucho turns to a wealthy businessman who knows nothing about the theater, but wants to get involved in it. His secretary happens to be Lucille Ball. I should also mention that the writer of the play Groucho wants to produce pays him a visit to see why the play has not been produced. He is broke as well and asks Groucho if he can stay with him. Of course Groucho says yes. The writer and Ball have a brief romance in the movie.

Having plenty experience in swindling people, Groucho is able to convince the businessman that his property is a good investment. The man agrees to pay Groucho, the only catch is the money will not be there until 10 a.m. the next morning. Wagner wants all the non-payers out of the hotel as soon as possible. So the Marx Brothers have to devise a way to stay in the hotel until 10.

They do this by having their young writer friend come down sick with the measles. Naturally, Wagner cannot kick a sick man out onto the streets. But the Marx Brothers forgot one thing. They have no food in the room. They send Harpo out to get some food so that they will not starve. He comes back with a turkey, but the bird manages to fly out the window.

They end up ordering room service, which means that the writer must not be as sick as Wagner originally thought. So Wagner decides to have a look at the patient. In order to prepare him, Harpo grabs a funnel and blows ink spots onto the writer’s face.

As Wagner becomes more suspicious, the writer becomes sicker and sicker. Eventually they have him mock killed. The Brothers give stirring renditions of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” during this time period. In the end, as Wagner, the hotel manager and the Brothers mourn the loss of their writer friend, Groucho’s play becomes a success on the stage. Things end up well once again for the Marx Brothers.

Room Service is not a good movie. It has some funny bits, but not enough to warrant a watch of the movie. The script is funny and the ideas are good, but this is just not a Marx Brothers comedy. It probably would have worked better if some other comedians had done it, but with the Marx Brothers you expect anarchy, not being stuck in one room for the whole movie.

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