27 August 2017

Replacing Greta Garbo With Van Johnson: Week-End At the Waldorf

This is my contribution to the Great Van Johnson Blogathon!
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Okay, Van Johnson isn't really a substitute for Greta Garbo in Week-End at the Waldorf, a charming re-working of 1932's all-star Grand Hotel, wittily redone by writers Sam and Bella Spewack. But he provides the emotional core of the story, as the hopeless romance between John Barrymore and Garbo did in the original. And he does it extremely well. I've always found it a very entertaining movie, with the plot intelligently adapted to wartime Manhattan, and some sly little references to the original, including the recognition by some of the characters that the scene they're enacting mirrors the original film!



But the wrenching drama and tragic deaths, the lives ruined by war and poverty, are not present here; in 1932, seeing a collection of people coping with painful realities and foreseeing little but more pain in the future was a social comment. The 1944 characters are not quite as grand, perhaps, but there was a war on, and sending classy people to a romantic doom was not what the times demanded. Walter Pidgeon is dashing as a war correspondent in the stead of the Baron, Ginger Rodgers is glamorous as a tired movie star taking the place of Grusinskaya, the ballerina, Edward Arnold is menacing as Mr. Edley, a war profiteer, in place of Wallace Beery's industrialist. But the characters that really lift the film out of the ordinary are the ones who are least like the original story. The terminally ill Kringelein and the world-weary typist of Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford are replaced by Van Johnson as Captain Jimmy Hollis, a young soldier passing through New York on his way to an operation that could save his life -- or kill him, and Lana Turner as Bunny, the hotel's on-call stenographer and notary. 

Jimmy is the one character in this version of the story who faces, and has faced, some sort of doom. It is Jimmy's emotions that propel this movie, and Johnson is entirely up to that task. This film is yet another example of his intelligent, sensitive acting being generally overlooked. It's as if critics just couldn't believe that a tall, broad-shouldered, blue-eyed, sandy-haired, freckle-faced all-American boy could give an expressive and heartfelt performance -- despite the fact that he did so over and over again (not to mention his skills at singing and dancing). 

Johnson's Jimmy is seen visiting Bunny's office for professional reasons. He wants to make a will before undergoing the serious surgical procedure he's headed for in Washington. Turner is delightful and the fluffy name particularly suits her; her hair is very blond, and she looks warm, soft, and cuddly -- although her character aims to be sophisticated and hard. She's a working girl who's very tired of working, and is close to accepting an offer from a crooked businessman (Arnold) to be his mistress/private secretary. But as Jimmy tells his story her heart almost visibly goes out to him. 

Jimmy's is an orphan, who has never known a family. His closest friend was killed in the same action that injured him, so he's more alone than ever; his chances of surviving the surgery he's facing are about 50-50. He tells all this to Bunny with no trace of self-pity. But despite his open face and bright smile, throughout the entire film Johnson reveals a core of aching loneliness to which the warm-hearted Bunny -- and the audience -- can't help responding. 

Jimmy's friend wrote a song, and Jimmy wants to arrange to have Xavier Cugat's Orchestra (naturally -- who else would it be?) that broadcasts from the night club in the hotel play it, and Bunny vows to help him with that. They make a date for dinner that night. Jimmy asks her almost wistfully, and when she accepts he can hardly believe it. 

But after making the date, Bunny is asked by Edley to help him host a dinner party at the restaurant -- with the clear implication that this will be her first step to joining the payroll in any capacity he desires. This is what she's been waiting for, and despite feeling badly about letting Jimmy down she accepts and breaks the date. 

Later that evening, Jimmy sits alone at a table he had reserved to share with Bunny; he sees her, dressed to the nines and looking very beautiful -- and she has come in with Edley's party. He tries to conceal his hurt, but she sees how he feels, They have one dance, and she tries to convince him -- and herself -- that it won't matter how she gets money, it's security that matters. Jimmy doesn't argue with her or call her names; he's not angry, but melancholy. It seems as if his motivation for surviving his treatment is fading away. 

The plot lines all tie up by the next morning (it is a week-end, after all); the other stories are cute and satisfying, but Jimmy and Bunny's story is the one that touches heartstrings. Because, of course, Bunny tosses aside the prospect of being a "lady they talk about," and rushes to tell Jimmy she'll go with him to Washington and help him get well. Jimmy's loneliness is finally at an end.

I think this role was probably written with Johnson in mind, as he was one of MGM's most valuable stars at this point. But it's really difficult to imagine anyone else playing the part so effectively without obviously playing for sympathy or overdoing his sudden love for Bunny. Despite his youth and cornfed looks, Johnson could be warmly romantic, or subtle, incisive, and astringent -- a really underrated actor.