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26 May 2017

Wartime Romance and Glamor: Weekend at the Waldorf

Weekend at the Waldorf, 1945, deserves more praise than it usually gets. (It will be on TCM June 3, 2017, at 6:15 a.m.) Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, it stars Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, Lana Turner, Phyllis Thaxter, Edward Arnold, Keenan Wynn, and the always welcome Robert Benchley. It's a rather cute reworking of Grand Hotel; one of the cute things about it is that the script actually mentions that the events mirror those in Grand Hotel.
Since the story is now set during wartime, the plot naturally had to change somewhat. Ginger Rogers, looking very lovely and polished, plays a disillusioned movie star, Irene Malvern, based on Greta Garbo's ballerina in the original; but the hidden admirer who turns her life around is not a down-on-his-luck aristocrat but a dashing war correspondent, played by Walter Pidgeon. Edward Arnold, as a slimy war profiteer, replaces Wallace Beery's thuggish industrialist, and the "little stenographer" originally played by Joan Crawford, who is tempted by the businessman's wealth, is played by Lana Turner, as Bunny Smith. And the biggest twist is that, instead of a sickly and dying middle aged worker, like Lionel Barrymore's Kringelein, the man who touches Bunny's heart is a soldier on sick leave awaiting serious, life-or-death surgery, Jimmie Hollis, played by Van Johnson.

Bunny and Jimmy

The setting, of course, is the world famous high-end hotel, the Waldorf, in New York City. which was lush and luxurious even during wartime. But what's appealing about this movie isn't the grand people and the elegant surroundings -- it's the two young people, Bunny and Jimmy. And that's entirely due to two lovely performances. Lana was a much underrated actress; perhaps she wouldn't have been at home playng Shakespeare at the Old Vic, but she is very good indeed showing the hard-working stenographer's weariness and dreams of leisure and money, and also her ready sympathy when Jimmy hires her to make his will before his operation. Because he actually has no one to leave anything to; his parents are dead, he had no siblings, and his best friend was killed in combat. He's all alone.

Chip and Irene

Johnson is extremely good in this part. It's far more difficult than is generally realized to portray a good-hearted, boy next door type without looking stupid, especially if you're tall, blond, and freckled. But Johnson was an actor of intelligence and sensitivity.  Jimmy is affable and outwardly cheerful; but you see the haunting loneliness behind that open face. He looks forward to his medical treatment without self-pity, but without much motivation to stay alive, either.
The celebrity romance is also appealing, though played more for humor than angst. Irene Malvern, like Garbo's Grusinskaya, is tired of her career and sick of being pursued by seekers of fame and fortune. She's in town to attend her brother's wedding, but stays alone in her room the night before to brood. Walter Pidgeon, as Chip Collyer, the war correspondent, is hiding out in her room merely to avoid being recognized by the subject of one of his investigative pieces. But instead being a jewel thief pretending to be an admirer, he pretends rather whimsically to be a jewel thief. However, she finally recognizes this as part of the plot of Grand Hotel, and figures out he's not who he says he is. He can't help noticing that he is very attractive, however.
Sure, it's not high art, but Bunny and Jimmy, who are strongly drawn to each other from the first, but who must both struggle with some melancholy realities, provide a touching romance.

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