Friday, July 3, 2009

Week-End at the Waldorf (MGM, 1945)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a “feature,” the 1945 MGM all-star film Week-End at the Waldorf (that antique spelling of “Week-End,” as two words with a hyphen between, is the one on the main title), a cleverly reworked remake of the 1932 film Grand Hotel with the locale changed from a fictitious hotel in Berlin to the real Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City (a second unit shot footage of the exterior of the real Waldorf and it was matched to studio sets in Hollywood) and the original script by Hans Kräly (based on the 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel by German writer Vicki Baum, her own German-language stage adaptation of it in 1930 and the English-language version adapted by William A. Drake and staged on Broadway later in 1930) is quite cleverly redone by Guy Bolton and Sam and Bella Spewack for an American setting in the immediate aftermath of World War II (the film was released in October 1945 but filmed while the war was still going on).

The Spewacks would shortly go on to do an even more creative reworking of an even more prestigious play — the musical Kiss Me, Kate, based on William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and paralleling the Shakespeare play with the real lives of the divorced couple who are starring in a production of it — and some of the same sensibility is apparent here. The on-the-way-down ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) becomes movie star Julie Malvern (Ginger Rogers), who’s just about to open her latest and most prestigious film at its New York premiere; and the Baron von Geigern (John Barrymore), a jewel thief who romances her to get access to her room but then finds himself falling genuinely in love with her, becomes war correspondent Chip Collyer (Walter Pidgeon), who when he stumbles into Julie’s room (whose entrance is disguised as the door to a supply room!) while chasing down a story involving the occupants of the room next door to hers — more on that later — and is mistaken for the jewel thief Julie’s maid Anna (Rosemary DeCamp) had previously warned her about, who we never see (we’re told during the movie that the real thief has been arrested elsewhere), and in what is only the second time I can recall in the history of filmmaking that a remake has directly referenced its original film, Chip starts trying to seduce Julie with some of John Barrymore’s dialogue and she recognizes it and says, “That’s Grand Hotel!” (The other film I’m aware of that pulled a similar trick was We’re Not Dressing, the 1934 Bing Crosby-Carole Lombard vehicle that was a remake of James M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton — in which sailor Crosby, addressing the socialites whose yacht has run aground on a desert island and stranded them there, announces that he’s seen the previous film of this story, Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female, and he’s going to take over and assume the role of Crichton to ensure their survival.)

Kringelein, the terminally ill bookkeeper who comes to the Grand Hotel with his life’s savings determined to enjoy his final days to the hilt — so memorably played by Lionel Barrymore in the original Grand Hotel — here becomes Captain James Hollis (Van Johnson), a military pilot who’s on his way to Washington, D.C. for a delicate operation to remove some shrapnel inside him — an operation he’s told by the hotel doctor, Robert Campbell (Warner Anderson), that only has a 50 percent chance of success — and somehow a man who’s facing the prospect of an operation that he may or may not survive doesn’t seem as poignant as a man who’s already under a medical death sentence. The character of Flämmchen, the secretary played by Joan Crawford in 1932, here is saddled with the silly name “Bunny Smith” and goes to Lana Turner — who’s impassive and bovine as usual, though she comes close enough to acting to register her dilemma over whether to become the mistress of financial speculator Martin X. Edley (Edward Arnold, taking over the part of Wallace Beery in Grand Hotel and also acting a role quite similar to the one he played opposite Joan Crawford in the 1934 film Chained), who in a dangerously Production Code-bending conception appears to want her not only as his own mistress but as a sexual favor he can bestow to any potential deal partners who require such perks to agree to put money into his schemes.

Edley is in the Waldorf to meet with the Bey of Aribajan (George Zucco), who throughout the film is in heavy makeup and a full Valentino-style burnoose (those were the days in which Arab leaders actually wore classy native outfits instead of that silly thing Yasir Arafat always wore that looked like he made it from a dish towel) and is pretending to be unable to speak a word of English. The gimmick is that in order to impress the Bey and his handlers — one of whom is played by the great British character actor Miles Mander, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s first film as a director (The Pleasure Garden, 1925) and played the rich old man in Murder, My Sweet — and get them to give his oil company the rights to their country’s petroleum reserves (a plot line that makes this otherwise dated movie seem awfully contemporary!) Edley has falsely said that honest oil broker Jessup (Samuel S. Hinds, playing a character the cadaverous Tully Marshall portrayed in Grand Hotel) is a partner in the deal — which he isn’t. (This is the story Collyer was chasing after when he stumbled into Julie’s room by mistake.)

Like her predecessor in Grand Hotel, Bunny is torn between Edley’s offer to keep her in luxury in exchange for making her his all-purpose whore and Captain Hollis’s honest, sincere love for her and offer to settle down with her in his home town of Jasmine in the California desert if he makes it through his operation — and eventually she chooses love and poverty over wealth and sexual objectification, a good thing since when Jessup returns from his business trip on Monday morning he exposes Edley as a fraud and Edley is arrested. The Spewacks replaced the philosophical hotel doctor’s role as narrator with Robert Benchley, called “Randy Morton” but basically playing himself, a successful columnist who lives in the Waldorf permanently — and they did an interesting switcheroo on the original’s gimmick, in which doorman Jean Hersholt is impatiently awaiting news from the hospital where his wife is about to give birth to their child, and has Benchley fretting through the whole movie about his dog being in a veterinary hospital about to have her first litter of puppies. (A rather mangy-looking street dog passes in the opposite direction from Benchley’s leash-led purebred in an early scene and we’re clearly supposed to assume he’s the father.)

Weekend at the Waldorf is one of those portmanteau movies in which the filmmakers crammed just about every device they could think of into the script to ensure that there would be something in it to entertain every audience member — a far cry from the strategy of today, which is to tailor your film so narrowly to a specific niche that members of your target audience will flock to see it on opening weekend even if nobody else particularly cares for it at all — even to including Xavier Cugat and his orchestra, performing two songs. One is a ballad called “And There You Are,” ostensibly written by an old service buddy of Captain Hollis who was killed in action during the war (actually composed by Sammy Fain and Ted Koehler, both of whom were associated with much better songs than this), and the other is a full-dress production number on Pepe Guizár’s song “Guadalajara,” which also seems to be the song’s entire lyric. The ballad is done by Bob Graham, who doesn’t otherwise appear in the movie and was probably Cugat’s regular male singer; “Guadalajara” features a lead vocal by actress Lina Romay as “Juanita,” a stereotypically temperamental singer whom Cugat fires and then almost immediately rehires.

Overall, Weekend at the Waldorf is hardly in the same league as its original (let’s face it, though they’re all talented people Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon and Van Johnson are major steps down from Garbo and the Barrymores!) but it’s still a fun film, what might be called a “comfort movie” in the sense of “comfort food.” It’s Grand Hotel with most of the sentiment (and sentimentality) preserved but all the tragedy meticulously taken out — the chilling scene in the original in which Wallace Beery murders John Barrymore by hitting him over the head with a telephone is left out here (though director Robert Z. Leonard gives us two extreme close-ups of telephones and puts doomy music under them, which probably only confused people who hadn’t seen the original Grand Hotel and led people who had to assume there would be another phone-related murder here) — and it’s also 15 minutes longer and not as well-paced — Leonard was a quite competent director (he’s never been one of my favorites, though I noticed that when Turner Classic Movies featured him as one of their 52 “Great Directors” showcased in June I recorded every movie of his they showed except for two I already had) but nowhere near Edmund Goulding either in atmospherics or in getting the most from his actors.

One thought that occurred to me after that big production number to “Guadalajara” was that as long as they were going to insert songs into it, maybe they should have gone whole hog and turned it into a full-dress musical, and cast Fred Astaire as Chip Collyer — it would have been a better reunion film for him and Rogers than their actual one, The Barkleys of Broadway. It also occurred to me that this was one black-and-white film from the classic era that should have been in color; the lavish settings would have glowed in three-strip Technicolor and color would have given this remake an appeal the original film didn’t have — but even this late MGM was surprisingly reticent about the extra expense involved in shooting in color and pretty much reserved it for musicals and historical spectacles.