Culture

From Help to Hilarity: 9 Great Silly Servants of Book and Film

Ralph Fiennes in ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’/Image © Fox Searchlight

Between them, Anna Drezen and Todd Dakotah Briscoe have manned the desks of more than fifty hotels in the Times Square area of New York City. And now, in the tell-all tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’s The Nanny Diaries, they’ve decided to spill the funny-filthy secrets of the hotel service trade in How May We Hate You?: Notes From the Concierge Desk. Since the book is a humorous (and scandalous) peek into the harried lives of professional hotel employees, it got us thinking about some of the funnier depictions of hotel personnel and other personal help in books, TV, and film. While the beleaguered African American maids of “The Help,” the scheming staff of “Downtown Abbey,” the Sternwoods’ dutiful valet Norris in “The Big Sleep,” and the sinister butler Grady in “The Shining” are all notable portrayals of the service-oriented character (with definitions of “service” that can be quite elastic), we’ve decided to focus on the more amusing scenarios. Seven of our favorites are below, but feel free to tell us yours in the comments. Gandhi apparently declared, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” We’re guessing no one ever summoned him to Room 1602 at three in the morning to dispose of an inconveniently dead body.

Gustave H, “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014)
Writer-director Wes Anderson drew inspiration for much of the spirit of this hyper-stylized 1930s-set caper from the work of Stefan Zweig, an Austrian writer (Beware of Pity, Letter From an Unknown Woman) hugely popular in between the World Wars. Ralph Fiennes, made up to look similar to Zweig, portrays the exacting, dandyish, verbose, poetry-loving concierge of a high-end hotel in a fictional central European country menaced by off-screen atrocities. Throughout the madcap story, which involves a fight over a family fortune and a scramble to find a missing painting, Gustave comports himself with equal parts dignity and ridiculousness, while being sure to make time for the sexual satisfaction of clients as needed.

Godfrey, “My Man Godfrey” (1936)
Screwball comedy doesn’t get any more screwball than this Oscar-nominated Depression Era classic directed by Gregory La Cava and adapted by Morrie Ryskind from Eric Hatch’s novel 1101 Park Avenue. Carole Lombard plays a delightfully daffy socialite who wins a scavenger hunt by finding a homeless man “forgotten” by society, offers him a job as her family’s butler, and then falls in love with him, much to his chagrin. That the guy, played with a superb mix of empathy and contempt by William Powell, has more class and patience than the rest of her spoiled, rich, batty family combined is just one aspect of the class commentary at play. An extra bonus is Jean Dixon’s portrayal of the thick-skinned, too-wise maid Molly, who, naturally, also falls for Godfrey. (Extra extra bonus! Charlie Kaufman slipped a re-created scene from “Godfrey” — done with puppets! — into “Anomalisa,” which takes place in a hotel.)

Mr. Hammer and Jamison, “The Cocoanuts” (1929)
Nobody does zany quite like the Marx Brothers, and this first feature from the iconic comedy crew puts Groucho and Zeppo in charge of a Florida hotel while cons (involving Harpo and Chico, natch), romances, musical numbers, and endless misunderstandings swirl through and around them. Ryskind adapted George S. Kaufman’s Broadway musical for a classically loopy film that broke new ground by using live audio recording during the big song-and-dance numbers. At its heart, however, is Groucho’s fruitless, halfhearted, devious effort to alternately orchestrate and appease all the circling lunacy.

Jeeves, “Jeeves & Wooster” (1990-93)
Arguably the most highly regarded manservant of literature, P. G. Wodehouse’s drily resourceful Jeeves, played by Stephen Fry in this very British series, manages to be both a perfect enabler of upper crust indulgence and a frequent check on its more ludicrous excesses. Other men have inhabited Jeeves on the big screen (notably Arthur Treacher in the 1930s films “Thank You, Jeeves!” and “Step Lively, Jeeves!”), but Fry’s version of the iconic valet in these twenty-three TV episodes, in perfect sync with Hugh Laurie’s take on the incorrigibly irresponsible Bertie Wooster, is the definitive one.

Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna Romanov and Prince Mikail Alexandrovitch Ouratieff, “Tovarich” (1937)
Built around a situation similar to the one in “Godfrey,” this classic comedy stars Charles Boyer and the peerless Claudette Colbert as Russian royals forced to flee the Revolution who take jobs as butler and maid to a wealthy French banker and his family rather than spend the mother country’s money. While political tensions mount and a Soviet dinner guest threatens to reveal their true identities, the pair inevitably charms the household with their wit and sacrifice. Casey Robinson wrote the film, which is based on a 1933 French play by Jacques Deval that was adapted for Broadway in 1936.

Ted, “Four Rooms” (1995)
Tim Roth has a lot of frantic dodging and scrambling to do as an overwhelmed bellhop pulled into a quartet of catastrophes-in-the-making that are brewing on New Year’s Eve in the same faded L.A. hotel on his first night on the job (he’s the only one staffed). Whether it’s the arguing couple that draws him into their hostage kink, the Latino gangster who forces him to watch his bratty (and possibly deadly) kids, the coven of witches who suddenly need something very personal from him, or the gang of self-impressed Hollywood creeps who want him to wield a cleaver for their macabre parlor game, Roth’s poor Ted manages to stammer, mug, and tap dance his way through to an unexpectedly satisfying (and lucrative!) conclusion, even as the movie itself manages neither.

Stanley, “The Bellboy” (1960)
The Marx Bros.’ spiritual heir, Jerry Lewis made his directing debut with this ludicrous, episodic comedy that he filmed in between live shows while on tour at a Miami hotel. In a set-up that both broke new filmmaking ground and honored his silent-film predecessors, Lewis wrote, produced, directed, and starred as a mute bellboy stumbling through a series of ridiculous, slapstick encounters whose utter plotlessness did not prevent the film from being hugely successful at the box office. Not every gag is a hit, but the movie includes some amusing cameos (including one by Lewis as himself) and goes to great lengths to exploit all the potential that the setting and job supply.