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In 1967 the days of the moguls were closing fast. Warners released only 22 movies in that year, and the majority of its films were not keeping up with the times. The somewhat formulaic soap-opera thriller Hotel was made by old-school professionals, with the kind of production values that Hollywood could no longer routinely afford. The celebrated director Richard Quine was just starting a serious career slide, and producer-screenwriter Wendell Mayes had only a few big hits left in his future. Although the well-made Hotel didn't catch the brass ring, author Arthur Hailey's creaky formula for best-sellers would pay off big just a few years later, when his very similar drama Airport became 1970's giant "silent majority" hit.
Like Airport, Hotel re-runs the old Grand Hotel setup: throw four or five separate personal dramas into a specific setting, intercut between the stories as they build in tension, and you've got a movie. The only limiting factor is the budget: is it big enough to sign on five or six interesting name actors?
The ancient but stately St. Gregory Hotel in New Orleans is not doing well. Its owner Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas) must sell, and he doesn't want to sell to developers who will tear it down. Aware that he's out of touch with current trends, Trent takes the advice of his general manager, Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor), a firm and fair employee who runs a tight ship and is more than loyal to Trent. Into the St. Gregory come a number of guests with dramatic problems. English notables The Duchess Caroline and Geoffrey, the Duke of Lanbourne (Merle Oberon & Michael Rennie) are terrified because they've just committed a hit and run felony, and don't know what to do. Potential buyer Curtis O'Keefe (Kevin McCarthy) breezes in with his entourage, including the beautiful Jeanne Rochefort (Catherine Spaak), his mistress. The conniving O'Keefe maneuvers to buy the hotel by buttering up Peter with promises of a promotion and a cash payout -- his plan is to submit St. Gregory's to crass changes, destroying its ambience to add to its commercial value. And a cheerful hotel "key thief" (Karl Malden) is on the prowl. He employs several schemes to obtain keys to guests' rooms, to steal money and valuables. While trying to find another buyer for the hotel, Peter must deal with a series of potential crises. One of the elevators is malfunctioning. A black doctor and his wife, turned away from the reservation desk because of their color, appear to be part of an organized scheme of some sort. And the police come to Peter to ask about The Duke's Jaguar. Nobody realizes that the Duchess has made a side deal with a blackmailer, the hotel detective Dupere (Richard Conte). Finally, the lovely Jeanne asks Peter to take her to lunch, a date that becomes a seduction. Does Jeanne have an ulterior motive for pulling Peter away from the hotel?
Although the cast members are fully up to their roles, it's possible that Hollywood wasn't all that impressed with the actors signed to play in Hotel. Rod Taylor is excellent in the film, but he wasn't considered a top star. Most of the other players had been removed from the front ranks for quite a few years. In 1967 even Richard Conte and Kevin McCarthy. Not so Catherine Spaak, who made more of an impression socially than she did as an actress. Just the same, Hotel isn't a gaudy parade of has-beens acting opposite young hopefuls. It doesn't verge on self-parody the way Airport would just a couple of years later.
Hotel moves as efficiently as Rod Taylor, as he zips around the lobby greeting guests, directing his staff and solving small problems. We soon discover that one of the bell captains is earning money on the side, procuring women for a stag party and serving as a spy for the Curtis O'Keefe suite. O'Keefe manages to get Peter out of the building to pull off his negative publicity scam with the black couple, who turn out to be his own employees from another town. Old Trent doesn't keep current and thinks that his old "no blacks" policy is still legal, and Peter has to do some fancy shuffling to avoid more trouble. The script takes a smart turn when Peter immediately calls in an NAACP representative to find out if the dirty trick was an association sting. 1
It's true that the hit-and-run subplot, with the Duchess trying to double deal with Richard Conte's hard-case blackmailer Dupere, is somewhat predictable; the noble Duke is only going to play along so far before doing the veddy proper thing. Frankly, that subplot has a few holes in it, what with an unsecured note on the Duchess'es stationery and Dupere trying to sneak the Jaguar out of town during a city-wide dragnet.
Lightening the mood is the subplot of Karl Malden's key thief. Malden plays him as a complete joker, an obsessive-compulsive who goes about his work with a delighted smile on his face. The thief takes a room in the hotel but manages to hide from bellboys as he skulks to and fro. He scams a desk clerk into giving him a spare key to one of the suites, and hires a stripper to con a key from a drunken nightclub patron. The thief then tiptoes about, sometimes in rooms where guests are sleeping. He becomes increasing frustrated when his take shrinks almost to nothingness ... a state of affairs he blames on the popularity of those infernal credit cards. Someone should show him the joys of identity theft! The clincher comes when the key thief accidentally purloins The Duchess'es stash of cash. His excitement is so real, we think he's going to have a heart attack. 2
Hotel manages a fairly exciting ending, with its own jeopardy-action scene: remember that faulty elevator? For every pat narrative solution there's another subplot that ends with a surprise. A romantic running gag builds up as Peter returns to the hotel bar, compliments his lounge singer and watches Jeanne in the mirror. Something always interrupts him before he can down the drink he's ordered.
Director Richard Quine builds a convincing hotel atmosphere, as the extras playing the guests never look like rental bodies milling around. As if advised that hip directors need to keep the camera in motion, Quine ends almost every scene by tilting up or to the ceiling or down to the floor, especially if the action is moving to an upper floor or to the car garage. These transitions become more arbitrary, until the final crane shot in the hotel lobby seems like a waste of effort. Although most of the filming takes place on excellent studio sets, it looks as if Taylor, Spaak, Malden and Conte may have gone on location to New Orleans. Hotel might not be the most prestigious picture ever made, but it's a smart story with character interest and an intriguing setting. It also hasn't dated, in that we still respond to the St. Gregory's old-fashioned graces as something that should be preserved. The show holds up as a serious drama, when almost everything in its genre corner has turned to pure camp. It's a good movie.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Hotel is a handsome enhanced transfer of this nicely photographed show (Charles Lang). Composer Johnny Keating contributed to only a few movies but most of his music is used well. The semi-jazz context adds a bit of flavor to all of those hotel bar scenes. No trailer is included.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Interestingly, the desk clerk who denies the black couple a room is played by Roy Roberts. If I'm not wrong, Roberts played the desk clerk in the socially conscious milestone film Gentleman's Agreement back in 1947, the unctious creep who turns away Gregory Peck's character, because he is "of the Jewish faith".
2. Actually, I was surprised at this screening of Hotel -- I thought I'd seen a TV airing where "the thief" finally gets his loot, but keels over and dies out of joy. Did I dream that or what? This makes me wonder how frequently I misquote events in the old movies I think I've memorized. It also makes me think what fun filmmakers could have if every other print of a movie had one radically different scene ... just so patrons would argue about what happened in the movie, and turn the picture into a conversation starter!
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T'was Ever Thus.