Pola Negri stars in a high melodrama!
US / 77 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir: Mauritz Stiller Pr: Erich Pommer Scr: Jules Furthmann, Edwin Justus Mayer Story: Hotel Imperial (1917 play) by Lajos Biró Cine: Bert Glennon Cast: Pola Negri, James Hall, George Siegmann, Mickael Vavitch, Max Davidson, Otto Fries, Josef Swickard, Nicholas Soussanin.
The opening title of this intriguing silent movie sets the time and place:
“Somewhere in Galicia, March, 1915—when Austrian fought Russian on Austrian ground.”
This is worth remembering because, according to the Turner Classic Movies online database, the movie is set in Hungary. The same site shows a capsule review by Leonard Maltin, which summarizes the plot thus:
“As WW1 floods over the map of Europe, a squad of Austrian soldiers seeks sanctuary in a small village inn, only to find it occupied by enemy Russians. Chambermaid Negri holds the key to their survival.”
This is less worth remembering because, while it does bear some similarities to the movie’s plot, they’re no more than similarities. Also less worth remembering is that IMDB renames Vavitch’s character—calling him Tabakowitsch rather than Petroff—with the result that TCMDB and Wikipedia call him Tabakowitsch as well. I suspect he may have been Tabakowitsch in the original stage play, and I also suspect this is the source of the surnames that IMDB (and, obediently, the rest) grafted onto the characters of Anna, Elias and Anton; the forename of our hero Lt. Almasy; and the name given to the Russian general’s adjutant. (The Russian general himself is named Juschkiewitsch on a document within the movie, which is why I call him thus here.) There are further errors in IMDB’s cast listing, but let’s leave it at that.
All in all, the movie’s various listings offer a lesson in what happens when online sources copy each other. I did think of going to check AllMovie but found the idea too depressing that the least accurate of online movie sources—by a long chalk—might for once get something right.
Okay, so we’re in Austria, not Hungary. In the night, a party of Austrian cossacks accidentally ride into Russian lines. The Russians pursue and presumably kill the riders—all except one, Lieutenant Almasy (Hall), who’s thrown off his horse, breaks into a nearby building, the Hotel Imperial, and falls asleep.
An exhausted Almasy (James Hall) finds sanctuary.
Much later we witness how well Almasy (James Hall) cleans up in his role as waiter.
Next day the maid, Anna (Negri), discovers him and, with the help of Elias (Davidson), the porter, and Anton (Fries), who seems to be the cook, gets him up the stairs and into the bed of the hotel’s waiter, who has fled the arrival of the Russian forces.
Anton in fact is all for handing over the still slumbering fugitive to the Russkies, but is essentially outvoted by the other two. There’s some tension throughout the movie that Anton might nevertheless betray Almasy, especially since, unsurprisingly, he fancies Anna something rotten. The tension over this might be higher were it not for the fact that the screenplay seems to forget about the character for longish stretches, so that you begin to wonder if he’s gone the way of the waiter.
Elias (Max Davidson), Anton (Otto Fries) and Anna (Pola Negri) discuss what to do about Almasy.
Anna has an idea. Almasy’s about the right size for the waiter’s clothes, so why doesn’t he just assume the role of the missing man! And it works. Not only do the Russians assume that Almasy is genuinely the hotel’s waiter, their leader, Juschkiewitsch (Siegmann), Commanding General of the Third Imperial Russian Army, decides to make the Hotel Imperial his HQ. Complicating matters is that, the moment he claps eyes on Anna he’s captivated by her. Again unsurprisingly.
The general (George Siegmann) really does fancy Anna.
As the general tries to shower her with gifts and attentions, Anna at first treats him with pithy resolve:
“You soldiers are all alike. I believe you started this war just because you were tired of your own women.”
In fact, the general fancies her quite a lot.
But then a party of soldiers arrives to check everyone’s papers, and Almasy of course doesn’t have any. He’s just about to be led away when Anna runs to Juschkiewitsch and argues, “How can we serve you—if they take away our only waiter?” More to the point, with her eyes and her smiling lips she leads him to believe that there’s a good time being lined up for him later, oh yes, if he only plays his cards right, ho ho. She even accepts the snazzy dress that he’s been trying to give her all this time—her acceptance of the dress quite clearly indicating the promise of its later removal.
A Russian spy called Petroff (Vavitch) arrives at the hotel to report on the Austrian troops’ positions, which he has been scouting out. Almasy’s hackles immediately rise, but there’s nothing much he can do. The second time Petroff appears, however, while there’s a major binge going on in the ballroom, and Juschkiewitsch is finally trying to insist upon having his wicked way with Anna, Almasy shoots the spy in his bath.
Petroff (Mickael Vavitch) faces his nemesis.
Juschkiewitsch, amid some amazingly phallic imagery, falls drunkenly asleep while waiting for Anna to change into something more comfortable. Saved by the booze, so to speak, she runs into Almasy in the corridor and discovers to her horror what he’s done. Cunningly, she rigs it so that it looks as if Petroff’s door was locked from the inside (I wasn’t able to discern how she was able to manage this locked-room setup), and sure enough the general’s adjutant (Soussanin) announces that the only possibility is that the spy committed suicide. Juschkiewitsch, awoken, hungover and surly, is having none of it:
“He risks his life—brings important information—and kills himself before telling me? Nonsense!”
Anna (Pola Negri) is coquettish for the general.
The obvious suspect for the murder is the waiter, Almasy, but Anna stoutly declares that he was in her room with her at the time. This maddens Juschkiewitsch, natch: he humiliates Anna in front of all the party guests, has Almasy thrown out of the building, and generally busts the place up with a rock-star like zeal.
Oddly, it never seems to occur to him that she might simply be lying to protect her countryman, the man she loves. That’s part of a litany of plotting curios. I’ve mentioned the enigma concerning how the spy’s room is left locked from the inside. Then there’s the fact that the boozy shindig keeps going even though there’s no waiter to bring the guests their drinks. Yet more puzzling is that the hotel doesn’t seem to have a proprietor, or even a manager . . .
On the other hand, this is a silent movie, so we’d hardly expect the plotting to be its strong point. Audiences were, I assume, expected just to marvel at the tale being played out before their very eyes rather than to think too hard about the logistical details.
It’s no real spoiler to say that there’s a happy ending: the Austrians retake the region, the lovers are reunited, and the victorious Austrian general (Swickard), to whom Almasy presents Anna, declares:
“It is my privilege to salute our bravest and most beautiful soldier!”
The direction and cinematography are workmanlike, the influence of German expressionism being clear in places. Pola Negri is luminously alluring, which is what she was best at; she was marvelous at using the language of facial expression and gaze to convey meaning. The other turn of note in Hotel Imperial is arguably that of Mickael Vavitch (born Mikhail Vavich and more customarily credited as Michael Vavitch) as the spy Petroff; it’s not a large role, but he brings conviction to it. Siegmann looks like a recruit from a Charlie Chaplin slapstick short and here acts very much in accordance with that; I haven’t seen his performance in Pursued (1925), where he plays John Grant, but I should probably check it for verisimilitude sometime.
Pola Negri as Anna.
This is one of four movies that have been made based on Biró’s play—well, four and a half, really, because there was a 1936 production that fell apart halfway through amid much rancor on and off the set. Here’s the list:
- Hotel Imperial (1918) dir Jenö Janovics, a movie that, as far as I can establish, is now alas lost to us
- I Loved a Soldier (1936) dir Henry Hathaway, with Charles Boyer, Marlene Dietrich, Margaret Sullavan and Akim Tamiroff—this is the production that was abandoned
- Hotel Imperial (1939) dir Robert Florey, with Isa Miranda, Ray Milland, Reginald Owen, Gene Lockhart, J. Carrol Naish and Curt Bois, effectively the same production as the abandoned 1936 one, but with a change of director and an almost complete change of cast
- Five Graves to Cairo (1943) dir Billy Wilder, with Franchot Tone, Anne Baxter, Akim Tamiroff, Erich von Stroheim, Peter van Eyck and Fortunio Bonanova, relocating the action to WWII and northern Africa—a movie that I hope to cover here in the none too distant future
There are some quite interesting plot similarities between this movie and the much better Hotel Berlin (1945).