Hotels are a natural location for a film, they offer the opportunity to throw together a variety of people for a limited amount of time in an artificially beautiful background. Heck, the same thing could be said of working on a film, only working on a movie there is a much more artificial background and much more beautiful people! There have been many famous hotels in film, from Grand Hotel to Best Exotic Marigold to, as of this week, Grand Budapest. There are so many hotel films that there is no objective way to pick between them (Oscar winners? Most popular? Oldest? Most exotic?), so I went ahead and picked the two that are my favorites.
Hotel Louis (run by Louis Louis) is the location, the motivation, the solution and the problem in this fluffy screwball classic. From a script by Preston Sturges and Vera Caspary (author of Laura, the novel and the screenplay, but not the song), it was directed by Mitchell Leisen who never met a luxury travel script he didn’t love, from an airplane to Mexico (Masquarade in Mexico (1945)) to a “radio powered” ocean liner (The Big Broadcast of 1938, which introduced the Oscar winning song “Thanks For the Memories”) to another grand hotel in Budapest, the Ritz (Midnight (1939)). Easy Living may now be best known for the jazz standard originally written as its leitmotif, but it was one of the most successful film of its year and is a lifelong favorite of mine.
Travel is about the spaces between destinations, the gaps that allow for amazing experiences. In Easy Living, the only travel is the bus ride that opens it, but that bus ride gives Mary Smith (Jean Arthur) the one chance she has to change her life. When a fur coat thrown by plutocrat J. B. Ball (Edward Arnold) lands on her head, she is thrown into the middle of the tug of war going on between Ball and everyone else in his life, from his wife to his son to the hotel owner who he is threatening to destroy, Louis Louis (Louis Alberni).
Louis Louis and his hotel are the first to claim her, offering her a free luxury suite in return for her (supposed) ability to sway J.B. Ball. The connection is obvious, as an (presumed) unacknowledged mistress of J.B. Ball she exists in an impermanent but comfortable position, the very definition of hotel living. Next to move in is John Ball, Jr. (Ray Milland), the rich man’s son thrown out on his own with nothing but the sophistication and charm of, well, a Ray Milland-but without the skills necessary even to work as a waiter at an automat. No wonder Mary Smith takes pity on him and brings him back to her new home to help her figure out the taps in the bathtub.
In one way, Easy Living is classic fluff, a slamming door farce that ends with a humorous marriage proposal and an embrace. But in another, it uses the hotel setting to highlight the impermanence and fragility of everything that appears secure, from the roof over your head to the money in your pocket. Mary Smith goes from a put upon office worker to a fur coat wearing hotel dweller in the space of a few hours, but she still has to steal from an automate to get a square meal. John Ball, Jr. goes from storming out of a Park Avenue mansion to working at an automat to being a kept man in a hotel, to taking over his father’s business in the space to two days. Even Jenny Ball (Mary Nash) goes from a shrill harpy spending her husband’s money to a crushed wife begging to scrub floors to support him within two days and barely 90 minutes of screen time.
In this way, Easy Living was perfect for its audience, crushed by years of economic depression. To see how the mighty could fall, the weak could triumph, and your whole situation could change as simply as checking into a hotel was a perfect encapsulation of the time.
Hrishikish Mukherjee’s classic mistaken identity comedy Chupke Chupke begins at a remote Hill Station, a place so far off the beaten track that, once there, you can become anything and anyone you want and, at the same time, become more yourself than you ever will be. The whole film is an exercise in humanism, showing how, ultimately, we are all the same whether we are a botany professor, a driver, a English professor, or merely a pompous older brother pretending to be the most intelligent person in the room.
Mukherjee’s films are tales of the middle-class, but not because this class is better, worthier, or more important than any other; just because he knows them best in all their insecurities, inanities, and kindness. The first charade of Chupke Chupke is a gesture of kindness. Professor Tripathi (Dharmendra) offers to pretend to be the caretaker for the guest house out of kindness, so an old man can go visit his sick relative. Tripathi has no embarrassment over changing personalities from a respected professor to a humble caretaker, just as he later has no compunction about pretending to be a lowly driver (and allowing his wife to pretend to the lover of a lowly driver). More than that, Mukherjee makes sure the audience is in on the joke. The funny one isn’t the professor pretending to be a driver, or the middle-class wife pretending to have an affair, it is the uppity older brother who buys into these class divides.
But to return to the hotel that sets it all in motion: Professor Tripathi is at a remote Hill Station enjoying his annual vacation when the caretaker is called away and he offers to replace him. Schoolgirl Sulekha Chaturvedi (Sharmila Tagore) along with a bus full of her classmates arrives to stay at the station. Sulekha enjoys a charade as well, that of a clever femme fatale, as she sees through Tripathi’s facade and punctures it, using her knowledge of his disguise to bring them closer. Chaturvedi is enjoying something of a vacation as well, becoming the kind of forward girl who flirts with caretakers and leaves her address in a tip instead of the obedient and worshiping sister we see later. While the rest of the film, with its commentaries on gossip, knowledge, society, and language, is firmly placed within Indian communities, the first 15 minutes are set apart, as removed from the everyday as the mountain peak on which the Hill Station is located is removed from the plain.
I haven’t seen The Grand Budapest Hotel yet, but I suspect it will contain some of these same themes, the hotel as a place of transition, as a place where you can be whoever you want to be, as a place removed from all the petty rules and judgements of society. No wonder there have been so many films set at hotels- isn’t that what we want from the movies? A chance to live in a fantasy world where we can pretend to be someone else, somewhere else, and somewhere anything can happen.
Margaret Redlich is a Masters student in Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University with a focus on Indian film. She has been published on the website Racialicious.com and is the Midwest Popular Culture Association’s Area Chair for Indian film.