The hotel con

(Mostly about movies and tv, rather than language.)

In the Spring 2015 issue of The American Scholar, the piece “Looking for Mister Gustave: Who is the inspiration for the Grand Budapest’s concierge?” by Elena S. Danielson:

The central figure in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, winner of this year’s Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy and the recipient of nine Academy Award nominations, is the hotel’s concierge, Monsieur Gustave H. Played with great aplomb by Ralph Fiennes, Gustave is a genuinely appealing, the epitome of Middle European charm and style. He recites syrupy Rilke-esque poetry while seeing to the needs of the hotel’s well-heeled guests — the men as well as the aging women who seek him out for certain discreet and salacious entertainments — who, in return, bestow extravagant gifts upon him.

But then one of these women, Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoff und Taxis [wonderful name!] — the aristocratic Madame D — is found dead under suspicious circumstances. At the reading of her will, Gustave is awarded possession of a rare and valuable painting

The question is then whether Gustave is a con man, a swindler.

Danielson seeks a hotel con man in the writings of Stefan Zweig (whose work was an inspiration for Anderson’s film), but she “did not find any conniving concierges in Zweig’s mesmerizing short stories and novellas”. Then she looks at two more promising candidates, in Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel and Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man.

From The Grand Hotel Budapest:


Tilda Swinton as Madame D on the left, Ralth Fiennes on the right.

On Fiennes, from Wikipedia:

Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes (/ˈreɪf ˈfaɪnz/ [note the pronunciation, like Rafe Fines]; born 22 December 1962), is an English actor. A noted Shakespeare interpreter, he first achieved success onstage at the Royal National Theatre.

His notable roles: Nazi war criminal Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (1993); Count Almásy in The English Patient (1996); Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter film series; M in the James Bond film series, starting with Skyfall (2012).

Felix Krull. From Wikipedia:

Confessions of Felix Krull is an unfinished 1954 novel by the German author Thomas Mann. It is a parody of Goethe’s autobiography Poetry and Truth, particularly in its pompous tone. The original title is Bekenntnisse des Hochstaplers Felix Krull. Der Memoiren, erster Teil, translated a year later in English as Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years.

Then in 1957 came the German movie, starring Horst Buchholz (as a young man, touted as the German James Dean) as “the morally flexible and irresistible conman” Felix:


I saw, and greatly enjoyed, the movie in connection with one of my German classes at Princeton.

Grand Hotel. One of my favorite movies of all time. From Wikipedia:

Grand Hotel is a 1932 American drama film directed by Edmund Goulding. The screenplay by William A. Drake is based on the 1930 play of the same title by Drake, who had adapted it from the 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum.

Today Grand Hotel is regarded as an influential film. The line “I want to be alone,” famously delivered by Greta Garbo, placed #30 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes. Also, the phrase “Grand Hotel theme” has come to be used for any dramatic movie following the activities of various people in a large busy place, with some of the characters’ lives overlapping in odd ways and some of them remaining unaware of one another’s existence. Such “grand hotel” films have been set at airports, aboard ocean liners, in large department stores, etc., as well as in hotels. Neil Simon used the format in both play and film versions of Plaza Suite, California Suite, and London Suite.

(More on “Grand Hotel” films in a moment.)


The crucial character in connection with The Grand Budapest Hotel is John Barrymore‘s: Baron Felix von Geigern, who squandered his fortune and now supports himself as a card player and occasional jewel thief. The hotel con man par excellence.

The “Grand Hotel” format. The format eventually worked its way into television, in the series Hotel. From Wikipedia:

Hotel is an American prime time drama series which aired on ABC from September 21, 1983, to May 5, 1988, in the timeslot following Dynasty.

Based on Arthur Hailey’s 1965 novel of the same name (which had also inspired a 1967 feature film), the series was produced by Aaron Spelling and set in the elegant and fictitious St. Gregory Hotel in San Francisco (changed from the New Orleans setting of the novel and film). Establishing shots of the hotel were filmed in front of The Fairmont San Francisco atop the Nob Hill neighborhood. Episodes followed the activities of passing guests, as well as the personal and professional lives of the hotel staff.


The principal actors (left to right, above):

Connie Sellecca, notable for The Greatest American Hero on television

James Brolin, notable for (among other things) Marcus Welby, M.D. on television

Anne Baxter, notable for (among other things) the films The Razor’s Edge and All About Eve

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