After an introductory sequence set in Shanghai, the setting shifts over 200 miles away to the International House, a large hotel in metropolitan Wuhu, China ("Wuhu" also serves as a pun on "Woo-hoo!", an exclamation which at that time was sometimes used to comment that something was sexually naughty or gay).
The unifying plot line concerns Chinese inventor Dr. Wong (Edmund Breese) soliciting bids for the rights to his "radioscope", a kind of television. Unlike real television, his Art Deco contraption does not need a camera; it can look in on events anywhere in the world as if it were a ground-penetrating electronic telescope, complete with audio.
Prof. Henry R. Quail (W. C. Fields) is one of many people from around the world converging on the hotel, though he is one of the few not hoping to buy (or steal) Dr. Wong's invention, as he was intending to land in Kansas City in his autogyro but flew off-course. Other plot threads include four-times-divorced American celebrity Peggy Hopkins Joyce (playing herself) avoiding one of her ex-husbands, violently jealous Russian General Petronovich (Bela Lugosi); Tommy (Stuart Erwin), the representative of an American electric company, hoping to buy Wong's invention and finally wed his sweetheart Carol (Sari Maritza); resident physician Dr. Burns (George Burns) and his goofy aide Nurse Allen (Gracie Allen) dealing with a quarantine on the hotel; and the exasperation of the hotel's fussy and frustrated manager (Franklin Pangborn).
All of this is broken up by demonstrations of Dr. Wong's radioscope, as well as a floor show (featuring Sterling Holloway and Lona Andre) in the hotel's rooftop garden restaurant. Dr. Wong is particularly eager to look in on a six-day indoor bicycle race in New York, but instead brings in performances by popular crooner Rudy Vallée, bandleader-vocalist Cab Calloway, and precocious torch singer Baby Rose Marie (who won enduring fame through real television, three decades later, playing Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show). The droll Stoopnagle and Budd, now-forgotten stars of a popular network radio comedy show, are also accorded a brief segment.
When the time comes to wrap up the proceedings, Tommy wins both the rights to the radioscope and his sweetheart, and Peggy Hopkins Joyce, having learned that Prof. Quail is a millionaire, quickly attaches herself to her next sugar daddy. The film ends with Prof. Quail and his new companion being chased as he drives his little American Austin automobile through several public areas of the hotel and down several flights of a fire escape before driving it back into the hold of his autogyro and taking off.Peggy Hopkins Joyce as herself
W. C. Fields as Prof. Henry R. Quail
Stuart Erwin - Tommy Nash
George Burns - Doctor Burns
Gracie Allen - Nurse Allen
Sari Maritza - Carol Fortescue
Lumsden Hare - Sir Mortimer Fortescue
Bela Lugosi - Gen. Nicholas Petronovich
Franklin Pangborn - Hotel Manager
Edmund Breese - Dr. Wong, Chinese inventor
Stoopnagle and Budd - F. Chase Taylor and Budd Hulick
Rudy Vallee as himself
Cab Calloway as himself, with his band
Baby Rose Marie as herself
Lona Andre as China Teacup
Sterling Holloway - Coffee Mug
International House was produced before a strict Hollywood Production Code took effect in July 1934, and it is notable for the kind of risqué subject matter, humor and costumes associated with Pre-Code Hollywood. Top-billed Peggy Hopkins Joyce was famous as an unabashed real-life gold-digger, not as an actress. Her many affairs with and several marriages to wealthy older men earned her millions, and in the film she makes several humorous references to her profitable divorces, a topic that would become almost completely off-limits with enforcement of the Code. Several of the "cellophane" costumes in the "She Was a China Tea-cup" production number allow the bare outlines of breasts to be seen, a degree of nudity that the Code would not permit.
W. C. Fields, as Professor Quail, responds to what he mistakes as homosexual flirting with "Don't let the posy fool you", referring to his own boutonniere, which he plucks out and tosses away. Walking down a hotel corridor, Fields pauses to peep through a keyhole, then comments, "What won't they think of next!" Such implications of what the Code called "sex perversion" (usually defined then as anything other than procreative sex in the missionary position) would soon be strictly prohibited. This was one of several films in which Fields tweaked censors' noses with one particular deniable double entendre. Sitting next to him in a small car, Joyce (whom he has punningly called "my little Laplander") squirms uncomfortably and tells him she is sitting on something. Fields checks, finds a cat under her, and exclaims, "Ah, it's a pussy!"
Performing with his hot dance band, Cab Calloway sings "Reefer Man", which describes the odd behavior and ravings of the titular heavy marijuana smoker (portrayed by bass player Al Morgan, who performs as if in a trance). In one gag, W. C. Fields enters a scene contentedly smoking an opium pipe (but with a cigar in place of the opium) and commenting, "They stupefy! They're roasted!", a play on two then-current cigarette advertising slogans. References to recreational drug use were among the many Legion of Decency thou-shalt-nots that would soon be rigidly enforced.
In the sequence with the Austin – the smallest car sold in America at that time – W. C. Fields remarks that it "used to belong to the Postmaster General." This was a potshot at Will Hays, the diminutive former Postmaster General who was then trying to enforce an essentially voluntary and often disregarded early Production Code.
On March 10, 1933, an earthquake occurred during production, and a Paramount newsreel featured what was presented as footage of cast members on the set reacting as it struck. A documentary featurette on W. C. Fields accompanying the film's DVD release, however, reveals that Fields and director Sutherland faked the footage for the publicity. The actual earthquake, centered off nearby Long Beach, caused widespread major damage to unreinforced masonry and about 120 consequent fatalities.
Lyricist Leo Robin and composer Ralph Rainger wrote three songs for the film, "She Was a China Tea-cup and He Was Just a Mug", performed offscreen by an unidentified male vocalist; "Thank Heaven For You", sung onscreen by Rudy Vallee; and "My Bluebird's Singing the Blues", sung onscreen by Baby Rose Marie. Cab Calloway and His Orchestra perform 1932's "Reefer Man", written by Andy Razaf (lyrics) and J. Russel Robinson (music).
In 1996, Universal Studios Home Video released the film on VHS. In 2004, it was released on Region 1 DVD as part of the five-disc W. C. Fields Comedy Collection set.