Cinema ’67 Revisited: Hotel
In my 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution, I approached the dramatic changes in movie culture in the 1960s through the development, production, and reception of each of the five nominees for 1967’s Best Picture Academy Award: Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and Doctor Dolittle. In this biweekly column, I’m revisiting 1967 from a different angle. As the masterpieces, pathbreakers, and oddities of that landmark year reach their golden anniversaries, I’ll try to offer a sense of what it might have felt like to be an avid moviegoer 50 years ago, discovering these films as they opened.
Not everything that opened in 1967 was a gem, a classic, or a future entry in somebody’s canon. Yes, in January of that year, the options were rich; you could go to a theater in New York and see Blow-Up, or Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels, or Sergio Leone’s 1964 A Fistful of Dollars, which had just made its way to American screens for the first time. You could view the result of Roger Vadim directing his wife Jane Fonda in The Game Is Over, or the first film from Mike Nichols (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) or the latest from Billy Wilder (The Fortune Cookie).
But what if you weren’t that kind of moviegoer? What if you were that kind of moviegoer’s mom and dad, who mournfully said, “They don’t make ’em like they used to” and fretted that movies were becoming “pornographic” (a word that was then being thrown around to describe anything with even fleeting nudity)? What if you didn’t see a movie revolution coming, or even want one, and were just looking for a Friday night out?
In that case, you might very well have ended up at a film like Hotel, which Warner Brothers opened on January 19, 1967 and which was as prototypical an example as can be found of the meat-and-potatoes, something-for-everyone entertainment that Hollywood’s old guard still thought people wanted.
Hotel is junk, but it is fascinating, revealing junk, heavy with an anxious, dawning knowledge that its era is about to end; the nominally opulent production values hang on the film like a slightly stale cologne that’s been slapped on to mask something worse. The sheen of flop sweat is palpable right from the poster, with the effortful, mostly incomprehensible slogan, “You straightened out the room in broad daylight…but some things still breathed and pulsed with what had happened the night before—“ (It ends like that, with a dash, because even it has no idea where it means to go from there.) The roster of actors—Rod Taylor, Catherine Spaak, Karl Malden, Richard Conte, “and Merle Oberon as ‘The Duchess’”—suggest not an all-star cast but the choices one would make after being turned down by an all-star cast.
And the plot structure, which involves little more than the anecdotal comings and goings of a motley group of strangers thrown together in a single location—in this case they’re the guests and staff of a venerable New Orleans hotel—reaches all the way back to Grand Hotel, but not quite forward to the profitable place where the genre was shortly headed. The movie is based on a 1965 bestseller by Arthur Hailey, who would, with his next novel, inadvertently reinvent a movie category. That book, Airport (1968), would be swiftly adapted into a blockbuster that essentially created the all-star disaster movie, a staple of the 1970s. Hotel, though, is something else, and something less—a disaster movie that forgets to include the disaster. Other than a stuck elevator that briefly threatens the lives of its passengers, nothing is at stake here, except a way of making movies that was close to reaching its expiration date.
Fifty years later, that tension on screen manifests itself in ways that would not have been apparent in, say, 1947 or 1957. The format is ancient, but there is a wary, obligatory nod to the reality that the times, they are a-changin’. An impeccably dressed doctor and his wife show up with a confirmed reservation…but they’re black! “There doesn’t seem to be a room for you,” says the concierge, after calling owner Melvyn Douglas about the “colored couple.” “You know I don’t understand things like unions, civil rights, indoor ball games…I don’t understand the whole damn world anymore,” he grumbles to the younger and more progressive Rod Taylor. This plotline, about “de-segging,” devolves into a question about whether the couple was planted by the NAACP to jeopardize a pending deal between the hotel and its union by spurring a boycott or controversy. It can be tempting to exonerate a quaint race-based storyline in a Hollywood movie from the 1950s or 1960s as daring for its time. This one, however, was not; it was a weak feint at relevance that would have felt topical only to an older generation worried about “outside agitators” and things turning violent. It’s one of many ways in which Hotel was already out of date the moment it arrived—by the end of 1967, portrayals of African-Americans in The Dirty Dozen and In the Heat of the Night would make this look like even more of an antique than it already did.
Hotel was written by Wendell Mayes, a skilled Hollywood hand who did much better work on the Otto Preminger movies Anatomy of a Murder, Advise & Consent, and In Harm’s Way and would nail this format a few years later when he got another chance with The Poseidon Adventure; it was directed by Richard Quine, a reliable journeyman (How to Murder Your Wife, Strangers When We Meet) who would finish his career in television. The movie was made for middle-aged audiences who wanted to go have a nice evening at Radio City Music Hall, with credits (“Karl Malden as The Key Thief”) that explained everything in advance and some nice Edith Head–supervised “gowns.” But, as one character puts it, “It’s the middle of the 20th century! Old-style hospitality doesn’t count anymore.”
His calendar was a little behind, but he was right. The “old-style hospitality” a movie like Hotel offered its audiences was already becoming the territory of television; within a few years, this kind of benign, low-stakes, multi-stranded plot would become the calling card of Aaron Spelling, who retailed it in shows like The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and eventually (and perhaps inevitably) an adaptation of this very movie. It turned out that Hotel, a box office flop, was not even a film for 1967’s moms and dads; they were much more interested in watching Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor fight it out in Virginia Woolf than in seeing a movie Variety called “lush” and “plush” with “strong femme appeal.” Today, it stands as an oddly mesmerizing marker of its moment—a time when lush-and-plush was starting to look threadbare, and the studios hadn’t quite figured out how big the renovation was going to need to be.
How to see it: Hotel is available on DVD via Warner Archives and shows up occasionally on TCM.
Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (2008) and Five Came Back (2014).