Irving Thalberg the MGM wunderkind producer who shaped A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races and proved that the Marx Brothers could have wide appeal, died suddenly in 1936 during the production of the second film. Groucho later recalled “after Thalberg’s death, my interest in the movies waned. I continued to appear in them by my heart was in the Highlands. The fun had gone out of picture making. I was like an old pug, still going through the motions, but now doing it solely for the money.” Room Service, the first film the Brothers made after Thalberg’s death, serves as pretty good evidence that Groucho’s mind was elsewhere.
The deal that brought Room Service to the stage was brokered by Zeppo Marx, who had retired from the screen after Duck Soup and was now working as an agent, representing his brothers for the first and last time in a one-film, $250,000 deal with RKO. Going back to the Brother’s first feature film, The Cocoanuts, their scripts had always been written especially for them, tailored to the characters they had created through literally thousands of Vaudeville performances, with only minor variations from film to film. The script for Room Service, written by Morrie Ryskind who was by then a veteran Marxist, was based on a hit Broadway play, and was the only time the Brothers played characters that were already set. After finally seeing the film, it is clear why they never did again. Almost the entire story unfolds in a single hotel room, where Groucho as a penniless theatrical producer is trying to fight of the hotel manager who wants to evict him while trying to entice investors to back the show. The single location just works to underscore the hallow performances. Groucho has a few good lines, but his delivery is not a shadow of what it was in, say, Duck Soup. Lucille Ball appears in a small role, but this was when she was in her starlet days and long before she was allowed to display her comedic talents.
Room Service was the only Marx Brothers film I hadn’t seen, and if I had to choose their worst, this would probably be it. But still these are the Marx Brothers and there are a few brief flashes of brilliance, such as Harpo pretending to be dead while his brothers drag him out of the hotel as part of their plan to make sure the show goes on.