“Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”
That famous line from the Greta Garbo film Grand Hotel is only half right. Hundreds of movies have used hotels as a backdrop for the action because people come, people go, but despite the quote’s assertion, there’s always something happening.
This weekend’s The Grand Budapest Hotel is a case in point. Starring Ralph Fiennes as a concierge at a European hotel between the world wars, it features an all-star cast, including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Harvey Keitel and Edward Norton. They are all part of the fabric of the hotel’s history, which includes assassins, murder, riches and a mysterious painting.
Hollywood has always recognized that the transient nature of hotels makes for great drama.
New York City’s Plaza Hotel has played host to many famous movie scenes. Everything from Barefoot in the Park to Funny Girl to The Great Gatsby has used the iconic hotel as a backdrop, but it is probably best known as a location for North by Northwest. In the Alfred Hitchcock film Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for a government agent and kidnapped from the ornate lobby.
The opening shot of Goldfinger features a stunning aerial view of Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel, which at the time was the most luxurious guesthouse on Miami Beach. Later in the film Bond Girl Jill Masterson (Shirley Eaton) dies of skin asphyxiation inside the hotel after henchman Oddjob (Harold Sakata) coats her whole body in gold paint.
In the 1920’s the Hotel del Coronado was a famous weekend getaway for Hollywood stars like Mae West, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Errol Flynn but the Victorian wooden beach resort found fame as the setting for several scenes in Some Like it Hot. Located on San Diego Bay across from San Diego, the beachfront location was the scene of one of the film’s most famous lines. When Jerry (Jack Lemmon) first spies Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) sashaying through the sand he says, “Look how she moves! It’s like Jell-O on springs.”
Stephen King was inspired to write The Shining after staying at the 140-room Stanley Hotel in Colorado. “I think a lot of things happened right here in this particular hotel over the years,” says Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) in the film version. “And not all of ’em was good.”
The Stanley has been used as a location for Dumb and Dumber and other films, but Stanley Kubrick chose not to showcase the place in his 1980 adaptation of the novel. Instead, much to King’s disappointment, he used Oregon’s Timberline Lodge as a stand-in for the film’s fictional Overlook Hotel.
Ben Affleck did it. So did Eddie Murphy and Charlie Chaplin. Heck, Alec Guinness did it eight times, including once as a woman.
This weekend in Jack and Jill, Adam Sandler adds his name to the list of actors who have played multiple roles in the same film.
“In Jack and Jill I play me,” says Sandler, “and I play my twin sister. The man version of me is doing OK; he has a family out in L.A. The twin-sister version of me lives out in the Bronx and comes out to L.A. for Thanksgiving and then refuses to leave.”
The idea of playing more than one role in a movie dates back to the Mary Pickford 1918 weepy Stella Maris.
In it she plays the wealthy title character and the uneducated orphan Unity Blake. The studio balked at her insistence on playing both roles, but Pickford insisted.
As Stella she was photographed like a glamorous movie star, but as Unity she wore unflattering makeup and was shot from her right, less photogenic, side. Scenes where the two characters shared the screen were achieved through double exposure.
Since then everyone from Mel Brooks (he was President Skroob and Yogurt in Spaceballs), to David Carradine (remember him in Circle of Iron as The Blind Man, Monkeyman, Death, and Changsha?) to Peter Sellers (who played as Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) have taken on multi-roles.
Perhaps because of their sketch comedy backgrounds, Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers often take on various roles in their films, but Alec Guinness, the actor best known in North America as Jedi knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, must hold the record for character changes in one feature-length movie. In Kind Hearts and Coronets he plays no less than eight characters. In an acting tour de force he’s easily recognizable in each part, but doesn’t repeat himself from character to character. Instead he carefully constructs each, from the happy-go-lucky young photographer to the window-smashing suffragette Lady Agatha.
Rivaling Guinness’s achievement is Buster Keaton who played every part — including a stagehand, a dance troupe, a full band and every member in the audience — in the 1921 short film The Play House.
To top it off he also took credit for every crew job including editor, director, writer and cameraman.
Q: What do Charlie Chaplin, Rachel Welch and Brendan Fraser have in common?
A: They’ve all played cavemen (or should that be cavepeople?) on film.
Like Heinz products, movie Neanderthals come in many varieties. This weekend’s Year One sees odd couple Michael Cera and Jack Black as the latest big screen hunter-gatherers, but they aren’t the first. Not by a long shot. Ever since film was first threaded through cameras the prehistoric world and its inhabitants have been a popular topic.
Silent film comedians started the furry pelt fashion trend. In His Prehistoric Past Charlie Chaplin falls asleep on a park bench and dreams he is a caveman dressed in skins and a brown derby hat. It’s a simple story that amused audiences in 1914 but can’t be considered essential viewing today, even for Chaplin fans.
Flying Elephants, a silent Laurel and Hardy comedy about prehistoric courtship, gets its name from a sequence showing three animated airborne pachyderms (drawn by Walter ‘Woody Woodpecker’ Lantz.)
More elaborate, and much funnier, is Three Ages, the Buster Keaton funny which sees him as a suitor in three historic eras beginning with the Stone Age. In one memorable scene Keaton bare backs a brontosaurus, introducing the Alley Oop movie fiction of cavemen and dinosaurs existing together.
The most famous caveman-dinosaur movie has to be One Million Years BC. According to science the last dinosaurs became extinct roughly 65 million years BC, and homo sapiens didn’t exist until about 200,000 years BC, but it wasn’t the history aspect of the film that drew in the teenage boys. They lined up to see the cool special effects and Rachel Welch, who, in her skimpy fur bikini had a special effect on many in the audience.
Another popular troglodyte sub genre is the Unfrozen Caveman Movie. Eegah! The Name Written in Blood is a cheesy but charming b-movie starring the 7’2” Richard Kiel (better known as Jaws from Live and Let Die) as a love sick Neanderthal in love with a modern woman. More popular but less charming is Encino Man, a 1992 comedy about two geeky teenagers from Encino, California who discover a caveman (Brendan Fraser) preserved in a giant ice cube. Even less enticing was the TV sequel, 1996’s Encino Woman.
Caveman movies may not always be cinematic masterpieces—Robert Vaughn called Teenage Caveman, his 1958 flick, the “worst movie ever made”—but have remained a popular genre with audiences and filmmakers alike.