Directed by: A. Edward Sutherland (Mississippi)
Starring: W.C. Fields, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Stuart Erwin, Bela Lugosi, Cab Calloway
A friend of mine once summed up A. Edward Sutherland’s International House (1933) by running down the cast list and concluding, “You need own no other movie.” I won’t go that far, but the cast is what makes this silly musical-comedy a joy to behold. The story—about company reps showing up in Wu Hu, China, to buy Dr. Wong’s (Edmund Breese) radioscope (a remarkable form of television)—is merely an excuse for an exotic setting, musical numbers and comedy routines. The racy nature of much of this—especially a musical number with girls in cellophane, pasties and very little else—was one of the things that helped usher in the production code. Even years later when the film was on TV, Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man” musical number was often cut out. But don’t worry, it’s here now—along with every double entendre (some are almost single entendre) and scantilly-clad chorus girl. Plus, you get Burns and Allen at their peak, and there’s Baby Rose Marie (yes, she would grow up to be the Rose Marie of Dick Van Dyke Show fame), whose performance of an adult torch song was considered very inappropriate at the time. Added to this is the comic villainy of Bela Lugosi. Reportedly, Lugosi told Fields on the set that he was taking a break from horror by playing Peggy Hopkins Joyce’s husband, to which Fields supposedly remarked, “I guess it all depends on what you call horror.” And if you don’t know who Peggy Hopkins Joyce—who plays a version of herself—was, she was a showgirl who made her fortune by marrying and divorcing a series of millionaires, much like she does in the film. She was the tabloid fodder of her era—but with some talent and a sense of humor about her own notoriety.
The Asheville Film Society will screen International House Tuesday, August 23, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther. Hanke is the artistic director of the A.F.S.