Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Funny, Terrible, Scary. And That's Just the Films

Channel OneThe Hotel Kosmos featuring in a promotional ad for the 2005 sequel "Dnevnoi Dozor," in which the hotel is blown to smithereens by a frustrated vampire.
The next time you have trouble with a hotel employee, just think of what Clark Gable would do.

Gable never actually made it to the Soviet Union, but as American reporter McKinley "Mac" Thompson in the 1940 comedy, "Comrade X," he takes on -- and prevails against -- scheming hotel staff who are not just incompetent, but are bent on stopping him sending honest news reports out of Stalin-era Moscow.

"Well, there's some good news and some bad news," says Vanya, the hotel valet, at one point in the film. "Last week all the towels were stolen. But on the other hand the water wasn't running, so nobody needed the towels. Everything balances."

The stereotypical Soviet or Russian hotel, whether by chance or design, has featured in numerous films over the years, Western and domestic, and has been a source of endless fun for filmmakers and even unsuccessful sitcom makers. Given the traits and quirks that crop up over and again in such films, it would be no surprise if Russian hoteliers tried to sue over such unflattering portrayals.

To paraphrase, or rather, completely misquote Anton Chekhov, if a hotel comes into sight in the first part of a film, you know a grumpy hotel clerk or a prostitute will appear pretty soon.

In the 1980s French comedy "Twist Again a Moscou," Phillipe Noiret plays Igor, a hotel manager who makes his money out of various illegal dealings and has to deal with the problems that customarily plague Soviet hotels, such as how to get rid of unwanted barrels of rotten herring.

"Hotels in Soviet films fall into the categories of 'smart' hotels in Moscow and Leningrad, where foreigners stay, and drab provincial hotels which Russians stay at when they are 'na komandirovke,'" said Julian Graffy, who teaches Russian and Soviet film at the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at University College London. "[Where] the food is awful, the rooms are depressing, and you are cast by fate into the company of strangers."

In such films, fartsovshchiki, black market traders in search of Western goods to sell on, go to hotels in search of foreigners, as in the 1961 film "Insotrantsy" all about foreigners in a hotel, Graffy said by e-mail.

Hotels were also known as a place for covert prostitution in the late Soviet period, and not-so-covert prostitution in the post-Soviet period. Russian cinema's most famous hotel prostitute is Yelena Yakovleva in Pyotr Todorovsky's perestroika-era film "Interdevochka."

A more heartwarming sight of a hotel can be seen in Georgy Daneliya's much-loved comedy "Mimino," in which the late, but not so dearly departed Rossiya features heavily.

In one section of the movie, a Georgian pilot and an Armenian truck driver manage to inveigle their way into the hotel under the guise of belonging to a visiting delegation of surgeons. After their ruse is uncovered, they are thrown out of the glamorously depicted hotel onto the harsh city streets.

Although Soviet hotels could be a source of amusement, this did not always make them funny. In the 1970s, someone at the U.S. network ABC had the idea of creating a comedy sitcom around a Soviet hotel. Called "Ivan the Terrible," presumably as in "Ivan, he's not bad, he's terrible," it was supposed to tell the high-jinx tales of a head waiter at a Moscow hotel, and his wife, three children and a Cuban exchange student who all share a one-room apartment. Jokes about the KGB flopped miserably and the series only survived five brief episodes.

A more successful case was the hotel in Greta Garbo's "Ninotchka," possibly the only screwball comedy ever to have jokes about the Five-Year Plan in it.

Released in 1939 with the tagline "Don't pronounce it. ... See it," the movie stars Garbo as an icy Soviet agent who goes to Paris and slowly melts into a sentimental Western woman. Her three Soviet companions are transformed, too, and although they are in a Paris hotel, the dialogue reflects the West's views about Soviet life and Soviet hotels.

"We can say whatever we want. We can shout, we can complain. Look! ... The service in this hotel is terrible! See? Nobody comes, nobody pays any attention! That's freedom," says one of the strangely named characters, Iranoff.

"That's bad management," quips his companion, Buljanoff.

Also in the film, an unnamed unidentified lady applies for a visa and asks: "I've heard so many rumors about laundry conditions in Russia. Is it advisable to take one's own towels?"

"Certainly not, Madam!" said the Russian visa official, who could for all intents and purposes have been a hotel clerk. "That is only capitalistic propaganda. We change the towel once a week. "

If "Ninotchka" is not enough sharp-tongued hotel abuse for you, then "Dnevnoi Dozor" may have the most exhilarating Moscow hotel movie experience, as the filmmakers take the Kosmos Hotel, that vast Brezhnev architectural behemoth, and blow the whole thing up.

Vampires don't mess about when they get bad hotel service, you see.