9 May 2015 | OldFilmLover
Atmospheric Half-A, Half-B 1939 Film Entertains but Doesn't Quite Work
The 1939 Paramount version of Hotel Imperial is an enjoyable film, but a flawed one.
Its greatest virtue is its atmosphere. You really feel you are in a little town in Eastern Europe during WW I, as the Russians and Austrians battle for possession of it. The limited battle scenes, the narrow streets, the muddy roads in the rain, the dark night scenes, the scenes in the inn (complete with Russians singing and dancing), are all very well-filmed.
The story is interesting: A woman whose sister committed suicide -- by delicate implication due to her sexual mistreatment by an unknown Austrian officer -- seeks revenge on the perpetrator and sticks around the Hotel (despite the risk of the imminent capture of the town by the Russians, with the likelihood of her own imprisonment or death) to find out who the cad was. I won't say what happens, as it would spoil the plot, but there are two or three twists or turns in her quest.
I don't think the final screenplay did justice to the plot, and so the execution of the film doesn't live up to the promise. I don't mean the story is incoherent; the events unfold quite logically; but it is not nearly as surprising or suspenseful or emotionally powerful story as it could have been, with more focused writing that was not in such a hurry to establish a romance and stuck more to developing the main plot ideas. (I believe this film had difficulties in production, with stars and directors in and out until the last minute, and that is probably why it ended up with a screenplay that was less than polished.)
Director Robert Florey had done one or two horror films for Universal; perhaps that is why the small-village Eastern European setting is so well done! Ray Milland is reasonably good as the Austrian officer, though I think the slightly stiff script cramps him. Isa Miranda, who appears to be offered as a Greta Garbo clone in the film, is good, and very attractive, and even does a musical number for the Russian officers. However, again the weak script makes her less effective than she should be; her romance with Milland isn't really built up to properly, and the emotional darkness of her quest for vengeance isn't played up enough in the writing, so she doesn't get a chance to shine as a serious dramatic actress (as opposed to a light romantic lead). Gene Lockhart is, as always, good in his humorous character-actor part. J. Carrol Naish is good in his non-humorous role as well, though again, an anemic script doesn't give him a chance to show his full range as an actor.
The main problem with this film, other than the weak script, is that it doesn't seem sure whether it wants to be a comedy or a drama. A drama can of course have lighter moments; they help to set off the serious parts. But there is fair bit of clownery with Lockhart and his assistant at the hotel, and the Russian general, a central character, is played largely for laughs (reminiscent of the father of the princess in Korda's Thief of Bagdad). Thus, there is a clash between the dark character of the basic plot (a tale of a woman's vengeance on a morally debased officer that she can't yet identify), and the generally grim wartime goings-on (Austrian prisoners being shot by the Russians and so on), and the attempt make several of the characters lovable buffoons. The movie lacks a consistency of mood and tone.
I certainly enjoyed watching the film, and probably will watch it again, to enjoy certain moments; but it remains stuck between the A-film aspirations of the plot and a B-film formulaic execution. The current rating of the film on the IMDb is 7.1 out of 10, and I have to admit that it doesn't deserve much higher than that. For photography, sets, and atmosphere, maybe an 8 would be justified, but in all other respects the film is a B-minus effort.
I add that while the IMDb and Leonard Maltin both list this film as 67 minutes -- a short length which would not be likely for a Paramount film of this type in 1939 -- it was in fact originally longer, and a nearly 80-minute version exists (Loving the Classics); my review here is based on that version. (If any shorter, 67-minute version actually exists, it would only exacerbate the problems of the longer version, since even at 80 minutes the story suffers from underdevelopment. Cutting out major scenes would add discontinuity to script weakness. So if you can, get the 80-minute version. And no, I'm not working for the vendor; I just hate shortened versions of films and like to let people know when fuller versions exist.)