Today is Saturday, so it’s time for the second 100 New Code Films article of the week. These articles are reviews of American Breen Era (1934-1954) films which I have recently seen for the first time. I usually watch these films earlier in the week in which I plan to review them. However, during August, #AMonthWithoutTheCode2020, I have been reviewing new Code films which I watched during July, since I am trying to avoid watching Breen Code films during August.
Today’s topic is Week-End at the Waldorf from 1945. I first heard about this film when I visited New York City for the first time at age ten. My family stayed at the Waldorf Astoria, a classic Big Apple hotel which we loved so much that we have stayed there on our two subsequent visits to the city. The day we checked out, we walked around the Art Deco lobby, and we saw this film being played on a small screen. We had never heard of the film before, but it fascinated us. Somehow, we never purchased the DVD when we got back home. When I recently found out that this is a Code remake of the Oscar-winning, pre-Code Grand Hotel from 1932, I was determined to see it. Thus, I decided to get the DVD and watch and review it for the Van Johnson Blogathon.
A lonely movie star, a tired war correspondent, a young wounded war hero who lacks a reason to live, a stenographer aiming for Park Avenue, and a crooked businessman with his eye on the stenographer. All these lives cross paths during one weekend at the Waldorf. When the movie star mistakes the correspondent for a burglar intent on stealing her jewels, he plays along, since she has stolen his heart. Meanwhile, the stenographer from 10th Avenue is heartbroken to discover that the charming young soldier who wants her to notarize his will may not survive an upcoming heart surgery. However, her weekend is monopolized by the crooked businessman who employs her and offers her the wealth she craves. What will happen after the wartime weekend at the Waldorf?
This film stars Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, and Edward Arnold. Supporting actors include Keenan Wynn, Robert Benchley, and Phyllis Thaxter.
This movie was directed by Robert Z. Leonard. It was produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr. The production company was MGM. The screenplay was written by Sam and Bella Spewack. The novel on which is was based, Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum, was adapted for the stage by Guy Bolton. This play was the basis for the 1932 MGM film as well as this movie.
This is a good Code film. I was delighted to see that all the objectionable elements of the pre-Code film were removed. This was easier than in other cases of remakes because the story was heavily altered and the setting was changed. Instead of a chic Berlin hotel filled with aristocratic Europeans, this movie’s setting of a New York hotel filled with Americans automatically raises the wholesomeness. While Greta Garbo’s ballerina is suicidal, Ginger Rogers’s movie star is just depressed and frustrated. While John Barrymore’s baron is a thief who supports himself with crime, Walter Pidgeon’s correspondent accidentally sneaks into the movie stars room and thus pretends that he is a thieving baron. While Lionel Barrymore’s dying clerk goes to the hotel to make his last days a wild fling of wine, women, and song, Van Johnson’s much younger soldier wants to spend his perhaps last weekend wholesomely enjoying the companionship of one young lady. While Joan Crawford’s stenographer is a golddigger who will flirt unashamedly with any man and compromise her morals for a buck, Lana Turner’s stenographer has obviously never compromised herself yet but is tempted by the offer to be a wealthy businessman’s private secretary. While Wallace Beery’s businessman is an honest, upstanding family man who compromises all his morals when his business fails, Edward Arnold is a crooked wheeler-deeler who is out for himself from the beginning but is more subtle about his interest in the stenographer. Because of these changes and the general feeling of Code compliance, such as decent costumes, proper dialogue, and a lack of violence, this is an excellent movie Code-wise as well as artistically.
I highly recommend this film. I think that everyone who enjoys Grand Hotel should see it. I can’t wait to watch it again myself. Instead of being a poor imitation of the original film, it is vital, alive, and exciting in its own right. It is very different, so you don’t have to pick a favorite. The main similarity between the films is that both are built around all-star casts. This movie indeed showcases some of MGM’s finest actors, allowing them to showcase their talent in the confines of one of America’s most glamorous hotels. Why would anyone need to leave the hotel, since it contains stores, barber shops, salons, a secretarial pool including a notary, multiple restaurants and nightclubs which feature live entertainment and dancing, and excellent room service. One can see how enjoyable spending a weekend at the Waldorf could be. I thought the rearrangement of characters was really fascinating. An added attraction in this film is great music, such as the songs played by Xavier Cugat’s band. Add to this the uplifting World War II theme of Americanism and hope and you have a very unique film.
For the Blogathon
This is my first article for The Fourth Annual Van Johnson Blogathon, which is being hosted August 23-25 by Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood in honor of Van Johnson’s 104th birthday. I am happy to join this celebration with a review of Week-End at the Waldorf. Although Van doesn’t get top billing, he is one of the most important characters in the story. His role, Capt. James Hollis, is the equivalent of Otto Kringelein, who was played by Lionel Barrymore in Grand Hotel. It is funny to think of handsome bobbysoxer hero Van Johnson, at the time twenty-nine, playing a role which was previously embodied by the fifty-four-year-old Lionel Barrymore, who was never a matinee idol like his brother, John. However, the role was admirably changed to fit Van. Instead of being a middle-aged man dying of a serious disease, most likely cancer, he is a young war hero with shrapnel in his heart. His only chance for survival is a complex new heart surgery. However, the surgery will only succeed if he has a strong will to live. Like Otto, James is alone in the world, so he is looking for friends at the hotel. However, he is not as pathetic a figure. He has, at least, the distinction of being a soldier, which gives him an identity. Perhaps because he is less pathetic, he makes fewer friends. While Otto befriends Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone) and the baron, who becomes his best friend, the only friend James makes at the hotel is Bunny (Lana Turner). He is not just concerned about enjoying himself with all the money he has in the world. Instead, he makes a will, bequeathing his assets to people who have been kind to him over the years. He is very dismayed when he misplaces the sheet music his deceased war buddy wrote, since he wants to send it to the fallen soldier’s mother. When Xavier Cugat learns about this, he is touched by the young man’s sincerity. Van Johnson creates a wonderful character in this role. Everyone who encounters him is touched by his generosity, as is the audience. If you are a fan of Van Johnson, you will love him in this role. Although the role is very different, his performance is just as compelling and emotional as Lionel Barrymore’s.
Click here to join our month-long abstinence from American Breen Era (1934-1954) movies to create greater appreciation for the Code, #AMonthWithoutTheCode2020!
Follow us to bring back the Code and save the arts in America!