On YouTube, the 21st century version of vaudeville, a mess of huge talents and no-talents, new faces and "New Faces of 1952" alike, fill out a single, enormous bill for our diversionary pleasure and advertisers' prospective profits. People used to go out for variety shows. Now we don't as much.
Historical vaudeville today is a memory of a memory. Vaudeville had its run, from 1880 or so to the early '30s. The rise of the movies, first silent and then full of sound, killed it off, gradually. But some of the tastiest, most valuable and funniest early sound comedies drew their on-screen talents from vaudeville-born and -bred ranks.
Take, for example, "International House," an all-star 1933 Paramount oddity, which returns to the screen in a restored 35mm print for one showing only (6:15 p.m. Wednesday) as part of the Siskel Film Center's 2013 UCLA Festival of Preservation.
Those who came to know "International House" at an early age did so because, nominally anyway, it's a W.C. Fields film, and comedy nerds of a certain age (not to mention exquisite standards) found the thing sooner or later, on late night or early afternoon TV. This barely plotted lark was designed to showcase Paramount's contract players and some radio stars flirting with the movies. The studio sold it as "the Grand Hotel of comedy," riffing on the previous year's Oscar winner.
Fields crash-lands into the film as the soused pilot of a helicopter-like "autogyro." Looking for Kansas City, Fields lands in Wuhu, China, at the swank hotel of the title. There, the inventor of a "radioscope" — live, free-ranging television in the earliest days of television — hopes to sell his technological wonder to the highest bidder. George Burns and Gracie Allen appear as the hotel's resident doctor and nurse. Cab Calloway bounces through a song while leading his band, and the song is a classic pre-Production Code era doozy: "Reefer Man."
Oft-married heiress and sometime screen siren Peggy Hopkins Joyce plays a steely gold-digging version of herself, macking on every male in the picture, including her husband, a Russian aristocrat played by Bela Lugosi. Parts of "International House" defy description. For a couple of minutes, the movie stops in its tracks to present a routine from Stoopnagle and Budd, a laid-back radio team of the day, the toast of Buffalo, N.Y., (where they started out) and for a while, against all odds, nationally famous. Crazy inventions were Stoopnagle's bit. In the movie, the team demonstrates a mechanical rotating goldfish bowl for tired goldfish.
Franklin Pangborn, that peerlessly flustered and outrageously camp authority figure of so many '30s and '40s comedies, enjoys a generous amount of screen time as the International House hotel manager, running afoul of Fields throughout. The latter mutters a couple of lines unthinkable just a year later, by which time the Catholic Legion of Decency and various other pressure groups had erased much of the salaciousness of the pre-Code early talkies phase. After 1934 Fields couldn't get away with calling Joyce "my little scanty-panty," as he does here.
The glorious haphazard quality to "International House" is of a piece with one other Fields vehicle in particular, "Million Dollar Legs," which Pauline Kael once declared, semi-seriously, her favorite movie. Here, in all its desperation and unstable glory, is Depression-era America, laughing it up. Various pictures of the era, such as "The Big Broadcast," made hay on a melange of radio personalities and stage novelties. Some of these movies today are historically interesting at best. But in its blase confidence; its pungent air ("Aren't you ashamed of yourself," somebody says of Ms. Joyce, "arousing the entire hotel?"); and for the delight of seeing Ms. Allen and Mr. Burns, vaudeville veterans like Fields, mining Allen's dim-bulb archetype for comic gold, "International House" is worth a visit. Just don't expect good taste, or good sense, or even a classically defined good comedy. Instead, expect a turn from Baby Rose Marie, all of 10 years old here, mimicking Sophie Tucker's blues vocals and giving her slightly unsavory all, decades before she lost the "Baby" and became better known as Sally Rogers on "The Dick Van Dyke Show."
"International House," 6:15 p.m. Wednesday, Siskel Film Center. Running time: 1:08.
Movies on TV: On Friday Michael returns to Turner Classic Movies to host another evening of "Future Shock!", TCM's Friday Night Spotlight series for September. The line-up: "La Jetee" (7 p.m.); "Rollerball" (7:45 p.m.); "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence" (10 p.m.); and "Total Recall" (12:45 a.m. Saturday).