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The Forgotten: George Archainbaud's "Hotel Haywire" (1937)

A phony mystic throws two families onto chaos in the Preston Sturges-scripted 1937 comedy.
Really, I mean Preston Sturges' Hotel Haywire, because nobody's too interested in George Archainbaud, a Paramount contract director who had been directing for 20 years without helming a really memorable film (Thirteen Women, an uncomfortably racist pre-Code with Myrna Loy, is as exciting as it gets, and even that one is remembered chiefly for featuring the girl who threw herself off the Hollywood sign), He would continue for another 20, moving from B-westerns into TV westerns, without making anything else of particular note.
Sturges wrote the script as part of his plan to get a long-term contract at Paramount. To particularly appeal to the suits there, he filled the story with roles for Paramount stars such as Mary Boland, Charles Ruggles, Fred MacMurray and Burns & Allen, none of whom were necessarily famous enough to carry a movie, but whose combined star-power might make an attractive investment for studio or future ticket-buyers. But having achieved its aim of getting Sturges' foot in the door, the project sort of crumbled: Burns & Allen left Paramount, the script was rewritten by uncredited hands, and the project became a B-picture featuring talented but less starry character actors. The weirdest part of it is seeing recognizable Burns & Allen schtick (she with her "illogical logic," he with his slow-burn exasperation) performed by unknowns. Benny Baker, the sub-Burns, has little to do, but Collette Lyons is winning, her sprightly sexiness bringing a new, faintly disturbing aura to the character's brain-dead twitterings. Sturges joked that the experience of writing routines for the absentee double-act meant at least he might look forward to employment in radio.
The plot is complicated: Sturges wanted to try his hand at old-fashioned farce. Spring Byington (today a more celebrated thesp than Boland, whom she replaced) plays a superstitious housewife, addicted to the mystic outpourings of crooked swami Z. Zodiaz Zippe, played by Leo Carillo with all the stylings of a typical Sturges dialect comedian: he's identical in accent and malapropisms from Louis Louis of the Hotel Louis (Luis Alberni) in Easy Living, a better-known Sturges-scripted comedy released the same year (directed by the gifted Mitchell Leisen). In fact, Zippe wears a turban and may well be intended to be read as the same gentleman who pronounces the diagnosis in that film when a fur coat falls on Jean Arthur's head as both are riding an open-topped bus: "Kismet!" Another link in the Preston Sturges Universe, like the way McGinty and "the Boss" from The Great McGinty turn up again in The Miracle of Morgan's Creek.
Different actors, but maybe...?
Anyway, Byington comes to suspect, wrongly, that her husband, Lynne Overman, is cheating on her (due to a misfired prank: it's a long story). Her fake fakir inflames her suspicions and suggests she hire detectives, whom he will provide, to follow her husband (these prove to be the ersatz Burns & Allen, unemployed vaudevillians). Meanwhile, Overman & Byington's daughter, Wampas Baby Star Mary Carlisle (still with us at 103) wants to marry the boss's son but the boss (perennial grouch George Barbier) disapproves. It all comes to a head in the title hotel, where the parents seek to provide evidence of adultery to facilitate a divorce just as the kids are trying to elope next door.
Sturges would eventually work with a stock company of around 40 supporting players, variously grotesque, decrepit, explosive and versatile: he seems to have started collecting them before he lifted a megaphone. This movie sports Franklin Pangborn as a traveling salesman exploited by Byington in a misguided attempt to make hubbie jealous. Pangborn did not becomes a beloved character comedian playing the ladies' man, so he's hilariously miscast here—on purpose. And short, vehement Porter Hall (cigar-chomping movie exec in Sullivan's Travels) plays an increasingly irate neighbor who later turns out to be a judge, just as one is needed. Chester Conklin, who would do a couple of late Sturges films, also appears, but he was a famous silent comic and Sturges was fond of hiring those, so his brief performance here isn't conclusive.
Impossible to tell what damage the recasting and rewriting may have done. Archainbaud's directorial slackness (unimaginative coverage, draggy pace) is a more directly evident problem. But Sturges' construction shines through: apart from his mastery of comic dialogue and whiplash-inducing tonal shifts, he was always a genius at plot, blasting his climaxes with wildly implausible twists that always turn out to have been prepared from the start. I'm not sure if the desultory chase at the end of this one is down to Sturges' weakness for slapstick and Archainbaud's inability to accelerate the action, or if it's a studio-imposed addition, but I suspect the latter. Everything else seems properly Sturgesian, from the ridiculous names and plethora of colorful supporting players, to the escalating chaos and the abrupt solution.
Let's face it, everything Sturges had a hand in is worth looking at, as long as his hand is detectable. His fingerprints are all over Hotel Haywire.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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