In May of 1955, a tiny piece of television history happened when Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx did their famous mirror routine in “Lucy and Harpo Marx.” (Episode titles weren’t a big deal on I Love Lucy.) For those of you who haven’t seen it, I suggest watching it right this second and then coming back for the rest of this post. For those of you who can’t watch it for some reason, it goes like this:
Lucy and Ethel have convinced their friend Caroline that they hobnob with celebs 24/7 in glamorous California. Caroline decides to come meet one for herself, only the whole thing is a lie, so there are no celebrities available to come visit. Luckily, Caroline is blind as a bat without her glasses. The solution is obvious – well, obvious to Lucy, regular humans would probably do something different. Caroline will “lose” her glasses, and Lucy will impersonate various celebrities to amuse her and keep the lies alive. One of the celebrities she chooses is Harpo Marx, who Ricky and Fred have asked to come over, and Harpo arrives just as Lucy is pretending to be him. In order to keep the hopeless charade going, she mimics his every move, pretending to be his reflection.
But that classic moment wasn’t the first time Lucy and Harpo had worked together.
I have to confess to not knowing too much about the Marx Brothers. There are only so many hours in a day, and I watch a lot of things. (I should probably choose to watch something other than Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein the next time I’m sad, though. Spread my wings a little.) What I do know is that it was unusual for the Marx Brothers to play characters that hadn’t been specifically written for them, but after 1933’s Duck Soup, Zeppo Marx stopped performing and began managing the act. He found a Broadway play called Room Service, and negotiated with RKO to purchase it for the Marx Brothers’ next project. This was some fancy footwork on Zeppo’s part because, at the time, the Brothers were under contract with MGM to make a picture a year.
The play was written by Allen Boretz and John Murray, and according to reliable sources like Wikipedia and IMDB, it’s a pretty faithful adaptation. Also, one time, Jack Lemmon was in a 1953 revival and played the Groucho role. The things you can learn when you’re double checking release dates…
Lucy, somewhat disappointingly, has a straight role in the film. She plays the leading lady of Groucho’s new Broadway play, which may or may not exist, and she brings an eager young playwright to the hotel that Groucho lives and works out of to invest. Zaniness ensues.
But not quite as much zaniness as previous Marx Brothers outings. The larger-than-life, absurdist personalities that audiences had grown to love didn’t work for the pipe laying necessary in a more mainstream and subdued comedy, even if that comedy happened to be a hotel farce. It’s not a very potent mix, and with history’s hindsight, Lucy feels squandered in a thankless role.
Also, there’s a distinct note of ickiness going on by way of Ann Miller. When Ann Miller was 13 years old – 13 – she told the people hiring showgirls at the Black Cat Club in San Francisco that she was 18, and totally cool to work there, so they hired her because it was the 1930’s and nobody had time to double check things, a war was looming. A year or so later, she was discovered by Lucille Ball and RKO talent scout Benny Rubin, who she also told she was 18, and then she got a contract at RKO who also believed her to be not 14 years old at this point.
In this movie, which she made at age 15, we all get to watch her make out with her 30 year old love interest played by Frank Albertson, who probably didn’t know how old Ann Miller actually was because good god, Ann Miller, that was not okay! There are reasons for these age gates in society!
(It’s like Sullivan’s Travels. I don’t enjoy it, I just shake my head at Veronica Lake and wonder where the hell her parents were.)
Room Service is a disappointment for a few reasons, but it’s not the worst Marx Brothers movie. I’m told that one is called Go West. Still, it’s worth it to see Lucy forging the relationships with the male comics of the era before TV, creating a thread that would allow them all to last longer than they would’ve otherwise.
Lucille Ball was known for her work ethic and professionalism, even if she was a sometimes difficult personality because of a notorious lack of tact. But she was dogged in rehearsals, on time, and deeply committed to her material. 17 years after Room Service, this reputation brought Harpo Marx back to the studio at age 72, while he was recovering from a heart attack, and he and Lucy put smiles on countless people then and now, and for who knows how many generations to come.
So if you hear somebody complaining that Room Service isn’t as good as Duck Soup, tell them that it doesn’t have to be, because it brought Lucy and Harpo together. Then dump a milkshake down their pants or something.