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It is just another weekend at the bustling New York City hotel, the 1893 Art Deco landmark Waldorf-Astoria, in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer omnibus Weekend at the Waldorf (1945). As the weekend begins, a honeymooning couple checks in, along with a war correspondent and an Air Corps Captain, James Hollis (Van Johnson), who's just lost his buddy in the war and will soon undergo risky surgery himself for war injuries.
Over the course of the film, an array of personalities are introduced and conflicts arise amid several musical interludes performed in the Waldorf's Starlight Room by Xavier Cugat, a bandleader dubbed the "Rhumba King" who did much to popularize Latin rhythms for American audiences.
Among the various stories, Captain Hollis falls in love with beautiful hotel stenographer Bunny Smith (Lana Turner). But the lowborn New York City girl would rather escape to Park Avenue with corrupt but wealthy businessman Martin X. Edley (Edward Arnold). Edley is in the process of brokering an oil deal with the Bey of Aribajan (George Zucco) who is staying at the hotel with a retinue of Middle Easterners -- and one goat. Meanwhile, war correspondent Chip Collyer (Walter Pidgeon), recovering from having seen too much killing during the war, finds himself drawn to the lonely Hollywood star Irene Malvern (Ginger Rogers).
At one point, neurotic bride-to-be Cynthia Drew (Phyllis Thaxter) also preparing for her wedding at the Waldorf becomes convinced that her fianc is in love with Malvern. To reassure her, Malvern concocts a story about being secretly married to Collyer, a tactic that quickly backfires into fodder for the gossip columns. The fake wedding is soon material for nosey newspaper reporter Randy Morton (Robert Benchley) who is decamped at the Waldorf-Astoria. Morton is played by actual journalist and critic Robert Benchley who was famous for his witty writing as a theater critic and editor at such esteemed publications as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
Director Robert Z. Leonard deftly packs a wealth of detail and incidents into this remake of Grand Hotel (1932), adapted from the Vicki Baum play by husband and wife reporters turned successful screenwriters Sam and Bella Spewack; they shared an Oscar® nomination in 1940 for My Favorite Wife. The Spewacks add a note of melancholy to the proceedings in continual references throughout the film to World War II. There are uniformed and battle-weary soldiers and correspondents included as characters, but also multiple references in dialogue to battlefield casualties and the war raging when the film was made.
Weekend at the Waldorf features a wealth of topnotch Hollywood talent including romantic leads Rogers and Pidgeon, both experiencing a new, potent phase of their careers in the Forties.
Rogers was convinced to star in Weekend at the Waldorf by producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr.'s promise that her gowns -- 12 in all -- would be designed by Irene and her ornate hairdos would be courtesy of Sydney Guilaroff. "This was the first time I had worked for the giant, MGM, and the studio really pulled out all the stops," Rogers recalled. But there were off days. When an Irene dress Rogers was meant to wear was held up in production, producer Hornblow asked if the star could use something of her own. "It must have been somewhat embarrassing for the producer to ask the star to dip into her own wardrobe to help costume the film," recalled Rogers in Ginger: My Story.
Second-hand costumes aside, Weekend at the Waldorf was by every measure a success. Variety called the film "a big, star-packed show that can't miss."
Coincidentally, there were two other films dedicated to Manhattan landmarks also released in 1945; The Stork Club and Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. Both Rose and Stork Club owner Sherman Billingsley asked for high fees from film studios to center their films on their clubs, but Lucius Bloomer of the Waldorf required no such payment beyond the exceptional publicity a film with the Waldorf at its center would guarantee.
Weekend at the Waldorf was the sixth largest grossing film of 1945 and also a huge hit for Lana Turner; by 1946 Turner had become one of the ten highest paid women in America. She would go on to even greater success with her next film, as the gorgeous white-clad femme fatale alongside John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946).
Lana's character of Bunny Smith in Weekend at the Waldorf found her way into popular culture by becoming the model for the cartoon creation of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera -- Toodles -- who made her debut in 1945 in the MGM cartoon "Springtime for Thomas."
Lana Turner's costar Van Johnson matched Turner's sultriness with his own famously boyish qualities which made the war-weary Hollis an even more vulnerable and poignant character. Johnson was so beloved by bobby-soxers of the day, he was called "the Voiceless Sinatra." His fan base was as formidable as his co-star who was often referred to as the "Sweater Girl" (reportedly Turner earned the nickname when she was discovered by an editor of The Hollywood Reporter in a tight sweater sipping a soda at Schwab's Drugstore). Turner would become one of the favorite pinup girls of WWII soldiers who came into her own as a glamorous MGM star in the Forties.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Screenplay: Sam Spewack, Bella Spewack, Guy Bolton based on the play "Grand Hotel" by Vicki Baum
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons, Daniel B. Cathcart
Music: Johnny Green
Cast: Ginger Rogers (Irene Malvern), Walter Pidgeon (Chip Collyer), Van Johnson (Capt. James Hollis), Lana Turner (Bunny Smith), Robert Benchley (Randy Morton), Edward Arnold (Martin X. Edley), Leon Ames (Henry Burton).
BW-130m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster