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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

My View of the Guilty Pleasure Hotel

  Don't get too excited.  The Guilty Pleasure Hotel, as a title, is a bit misleading.  We all have our guilty pleasures in life.  For some of us, it involves food.  For others, it is expensive clothes or cars.  For me, I've taken the liberty of lifting this label from Robert Osborne, of Turner Classic Movies fame, who used it to describe a film I recently viewed on TCM.  I had not really thought of this type of movie as a guilty pleasure before, however, the moment he said it, I knew he was right.  The type of movie: a star-studded, soap-opera, Technicolor extravaganza.  The movie title: Hotel.
Hotel (1967)
  Okay, let's get the confessions over with.  Since I was a kid, this type of movie has always been big on my list.  Movies like The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno, and even The Winds of War mini-series, have always been favorites of mine.  Not just the disaster movies, though they rank up there with the best star-packed movies ever made, but any sort of multiple story film set in the glamorous world of the rich and famous would do.  These kinds of flicks were always on the ABC Saturday Night Movie, as well as the late show after the news on Sunday nights.  Lots of famous actors and actresses.  Lots of over-the-top drama mixed with big, jazzy scores.  Who needed a remote control and fifty-seven channels to surf when you could watch great movies like this?
  The settings were always little microcosm worlds that were exotic for kids like me who never got out much.  The Airport  movies were fun because you were able to see behind the scenes kind of action in these giant transportation hubs.  They were the techno-thrillers of their day.
  I was always amazed to see so many stars in one movie.  My parents used to point out all of the old movie stars who had little bit parts.  It is where I picked up this habit, which I do with my kids every time we watch movies now.  See that guy?  That's Alan Arkin.  He played the Chief in the new version of Get Smart.  And that's David Niven, the bomb expert in The Guns of Navarone.  I never really understood why so many stars were in these movies.  Only later, as I was older, did I understand that with the multiple story lines, and the high number of acting roles in the movie, you needed to be able to easily distinguish the different parts.  It is much easier to quickly recognize Rock Hudson versus George Kennedy.  Also, most of these big stars were able to come into the studio and film their small roles in just a few days, and the pay checks were pretty big.  One veteran actor said he learned to do them because he could film for a few days, his name would be on the poster for the summer blockbuster, and he could spend the rest of that year doing Broadway, which was his real passion.  Not a bad set-up.

  So a short time ago, I watched Hotel with my son Maxwell.  I lured him in by telling him he could see some location shooting in New Orleans, specifically Pirates Alley, a favorite site for our family.  He was polite enough to give it a try, but he was pleasantly surprised at how good it turned out to be.
Taylor and Spaak in the French
Quarter near Pireates Alley
  To start with, one of my favorite actors from the Golden Age was in this: Melvyn Douglas.  He's the man who had the enviable job of trying to make Garbo smile with a joke about a man ordering coffee in the classic Ninotchka.  Douglas, by the time he did Hotel, was much older, and had recently won an Academy Award for his performance in Hud.  In Hotel, he plays the aging owner of a New Orleans hotel who just can't keep up with the changes the world is throwing at him.
  There are many supporting roles in this film.  A real stand-out performance is given by Karl Malden, as a professional thief.  His role is mostly comic relief, but it eventually turns dramatic as he is involved in an elevator accident that is done quite well for an older movie.  Fun to see Malden complain about guests using credit cards a few years before his American Express commercials.  Merle Oberon, Hollywood Royalty, plays a Duchess with a dark secret.  Her shady dealings are with Richard Conte, an old Film Noir veteran who is always fun to watch.  The rumor from the production was that she was wearing about half a million dollars in diamonds during the filming, and they were her personal jewels.  She is a class act, and still beautiful in her late fifties.  She only made one more picture after this.
  The lead role is played by Rod Taylor, the tough talking, man's man from Australia.  Here, he is the slick Hotel Manager, handling crisis after crisis without batting an eye--until he sees Catherine Spaak, that is.  She shows up on Kevin McCarthy's arm.  He's an oddball praying-on-his-knees wheeler-dealer who wants to buy the hotel.  Rod Taylor plans to stop him, and Spaak gets in the middle.  Now, we weren't impressed with Spaak.  She was a bit milquetoast in her role.  But that might have just been the writing.  The best scenes with her were filmed in Pirates Alley and the French Quarter, but they were much too brief.
  There is much to enjoy about this picture.  The story is actually pretty compelling, if you like grand hotels and hate to see the modern world ruin them.  I was impressed with the smaller roles--the hotel staff--many of whom were more than just window dressing.  They interacted well with Taylor as he roamed the hotel, joking with them and keeping them on their toes.  The best one, of course, was the lounge singer, played by the amazing Carmen McRae.  A big name stage act, she sings several songs in this, and her character is always there to help Taylor through his moments of despair.  She always has just the right song for his mood.
Oberon and Rennie.
  There is an appearance by Michael Rennie, better known as Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still.  He here is overshadowed by Oberon, playing his wife.  But it is nice to see him getting screen time.  You will also get to see a real shocking scene in a New Orleans Strip Club.  Well, it's not that shocking.  In fact, it's pretty tame.  But hey, it was 1967, and it was more of a family movie.
  If you like these big productions, then you won't be disappointed by Hotel.  About the only thing that I found disappointing were the obvious backlot shoots for what was supposed to be a few scenes in the French Quarter.  But the hotel sets make up for that with their impressive design.  I certainly wanted to be able to stay in such a beautiful hotel.
So if you get a chance to book a room at the St. Gregory Hotel, make sure you take it.

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