The greatest thing about my job, aside from constantly being inspiring, changing the lives of the young people all day long, and being so universally respected, is that I do get the summer “off.” It’s not all candy and foot baths, as any teacher can tell you — I am currently prepping to teach a class I was assigned for next year, and am woefully behind already — but it’s better than 9 to 5 all year ’round.
One of the things I do to wallow in my freedom is watch old, bad movies. In part, this is a nostalgia thing. These were the movies my parents were entertained by, and they bring back glimpses of the days before the divorce, when we all lived in one house and the ‘rents watched these on broadcast television while we pretended to go to sleep; sometimes we even piled into the car and watched them in our pajamas at the drive-in.
When I saw that Hotel was scheduled to run on TCM, I was really excited. This particular genre of movie — movie stars after their prime, portraying the tropes of modern society brought together in crisis — is one of my favorites. There is the nostalgia, but there is also a little snapshot of history. In this movie, a graying Michael Rennie and puffy-faced Merle Oberon play a diplomat and his wife, who, it turns out, have killed a small child with their car and are trying to cover it up so he can still have a chance at that Washington DC appointment he is longing for. Rod Taylor is The Bachelor, the savvy guy whose life is taken up with the management of the hotel, who visits the bar several times in a work day, whose duet with the black jazz singer implies his loneliness, and who is bedded by The Ingenue — but does she really love him, or is she only spying for the evil Kevin McCarthy, who wants to buy the hotel, then destroy everything it stands for (with automation and cost savings, and, and … gifts shops)? Melvyn Douglas, the great Melvyn Douglas, plays the aging and crippled owner of the hotel, representative of old-fashioned Quality and Personal Attention. Hotels were really something, back then.
Unfortunately, Douglas’ character is also the one who upholds the hotel’s old-fashioned policy of not allowing black people to check in, inciting an incident that in the end, undoes Rod Taylor’s plan to save the hotel. Bad publicity, don’t ya know. Rod is on the side of right; he even tries to track down the nice doctor and his wife and bring them back to the hotel in a limo. Turns out they work for the competing hotel (in menial jobs) in Philadelphia, and at their boss’ behest have played a part in a publicity stunt. How conveeeeenient.
Also, the hotel is located in New Orleans, and yet the touristy shots of Rod Taylor and Unknown Actress seeing the sights are strangely devoid of people of African heritage on the streets. A fascinating hint at How the World Was, or rather, How the World Appeared to the Powers that Were.
In Good Neighbor Sam, Jack Lemmon and his wife Dorothy Provine live in a cool but homey, contemporary suburb of San Francisco, where he works as an ad man. Yes, Don Draper with no self-possession whatsoever. The zany plot is that Dorothy’s European friend, Romy Schneider, moves in next door and finds that she will soon inherit $15 million dollars — and those are 1964 dollars, folks — but, alas, only if she can prove she is married! What will she do? Enter a list of fine character actors portraying private detectives, disinherited cousins, ad clients with high standards of traditional morals, and confused across-the-street neighbors, as Jack traverses the conjoined lawn of both houses (strangely reminiscent of the set of Big Love). Add Mike Connors as Romy’s estranged ex-husband and the hijinks could not be better. Here’s a sample of an exchange between Jack and Dorothy:
Didn’t you take a shower at Janet’s?
No, I didn’t take a shower at Jan… What do you think I am? Some kind of a sex maniac?
There you have a little piece of the past. 1964, when exiting the wrong door on your way to work was a scandal of million-dollar proportions, and 1967, when black people were not just knocking on doors but kicking them down. Or about to.
In one scene of Good Neighbor Sam, as I’m sure you can guess, Romy has to attend a dinner party as Jack’s wife, at his moralistic client’s house. Jack is seated next to the client’s haughty, Margaret Dumont-chested wife, who explains that she and her husband are concerned about certain works of literature, “which litter our libraries and our newsstands. I’d love to have Mrs. Bissell join us next Thursday for our weekly book-burning if she’s free.” “Gee,” Jack answers, “I’m sure she’d just love it, Mrs. Nurdlinger, but Thursday, I think, is her church bingo committee.”
I love that. No outrage, though clearly the audience is meant to know how outrageous it actually is.
Shock at black people showing up. Secret sex.