A blast from the past — the movie of Arthur Hailey’s “Hotel”

I can still remember the kick I got as a teen reading the first big Arthur Hailey novel, “Hotel,” in the summer of 1966.

Hailey would go on to have a very lucrative career as a formula novelist exploring such American institutions as banks (“The Money Changers”) and the automobile industry (“Wheels”), but what made “Hotel” so much fun to read was its novelty at the time.

Instead of a human protagonist, the book was about a building and the people in it — the venerable St. Gregory Hotel in New Orleans and its staff and guests — and Hailey told us just about everything you might want to know about how a hotel operated in the 1960s, from security to elevator safety to how hookers get up to clients’ rooms.

Since I had never stayed in a hotel at that time — we were a middle-class motel family — everything about the book was exotic and interesting.

A movie version came out in 1967, but for reasons that aren’t clear to me now, I never had a chance to see it — even on television — until I looked at the Warner Archive DVD version released two years ago.

The movie came and went without making anywhere near the impact that the film of Hailey’s “Airport” did three years later, and that’s probably because Warner Bros. decided to pinch pennies and go for a B-list ensemble headed by Rod Taylor as the manager.

Taylor was a perfectly capable 1960s film actor — best known for supporting Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds” — but the role of the hotel manager is so thin that it desperately needs a big star to jazz it up.

The cast backing up Taylor was probably more suited to a 1960s TV movie than a feature film — Karl Malden as a hotel thief, Michael Rennie as a visiting Lord from England, Kevin McCarthy as a hotel chain owner who wants to buy the St. Gregory, and a long forgotten ’60s European starlet Catherine Spaak as McCarthy’s mistress (who falls for Taylor at first sight).

The best actor in the cast — Melvyn Douglas — is wasted on the small, totally undeveloped role of the owner of the St. Gregory, who occupies the penthouse and who fails to convince us that his fight to keep McCarthy from taking over is worth winning.

The inferior casting means that “Hotel” doesn’t exactly scintillate in terms of charisma, but it is fun to watch as a glimpse back at hotel life before the chains took over and began standardizing the experience.

The movie takes us back to a time when keys were still used to get into rooms — so that the thief character could steal a few and have total access to guest rooms — and people didn’t show up in classy hotels in sneakers and sweatsuits, dragging their own suitcases around on little wheels to save a few bucks on bellboy tips.

The movie was made right on the cusp of the style and content revolutions that were about to change Hollywood movies forever. “Hotel” appeared just a few months before “Bonnie & Clyde” and “The Graduate,” but it looks as square as anything made in Hollywood a decade earlier.

The time capsule value of this forgotten adaptation of a forgotten novel makes it worth a look.

Joe Meyers

One Response

  1. artfrankmiami says:

    I’m actually surprised you called Rod Taylor a “B” list actor. At the time this movie was made, he was very much a rising star and made a bigger hit with MGM, I think the following year, in DARK OF THE SUN. Yes, by 1972, he was doing the 13 wk adventure show BEARCATS but he was more suited to rugged action roles that were becoming passé by the 70s.

    Catherine Spaak was also a rising international star having been a LIFE magazine cover girl.

    Karl Malden was a character actor. He switch frequently from Movies and TV in the 60s. If you knew him like I did mostly from THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO, then I could see your point. You did say you read the book but never saw the movie even on TV, where I first saw it on its Network premiere.

    I did see Michael Rennie on TV before I saw this, I think it was LOST IN SPACE, but I already knew him from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL and I remember him as a ship’s captain in some movie, I want to say it was a movie about the Titanic but can’t recall and I don’t want to do any research at 4 am. Merle Oberon of course was a great actress in semi retirement after a severe car accident ruined her face years earlier. They both added a lot of class to the production.

    I always liked the movie and just watched it again on TCM. Seemed fine to me, but it also causes one to have a certain mindset of expectation–a corollary to “Suspension of disbelief” one has when accepting old studio movies. The movie obviously was intended to be a first class production, but I’ll agree with maybe Richard Quine’s direction may be a bit flat.

    Also, I didn’t even realize this was a Warner’s film until I saw your post–even though I recognized the hotel lobby set in their Charlton Heston productionm, THE OMEGA MAN.