Grand Hotel (1932)
Director: Edmund Goulding
Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt
After the heavy All Quiet on the Western Front and the thorny racial issues found in Cimarron, it was nice to kick back and watch a relatively light melodrama carried by an all-star cast. In the 1930’s, films were the brainchildren of the studio system that had tried and true formulas for delivering entertainment to the masses. No studio perfected their system better than MGM—led by the legendary producer Irving G. Thalberg. (You know that boring segment where a lifetime achievement award that is sometimes given out during the Oscar telecast? They named it after this guy.) Where Grand Hotel broke the mold is the sheer star power represented in the cast.
Usually, a film was built around a star (be it leading man or lady), a pairing that proved to have exceptional chemistry (like William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles), or a group of performers like the Marx Brothers. It was also seen as highly cost-prohibitive to have more than two stars headlining a film. Not to mention the stars themselves often had massive egos that required some sensitive wrangling (which becomes more understandable considering that a movie star was under contract to a studio—and the competition to be the most favorite star of a studio often had the actors at odds with one another). So when MGM lined up five big stars—the exotic Greta Garbo, the Oscar-winning heavyweight Wallace Beery, brothers John and Lionel Barrymore, part of what was essentially the royal acting family in Hollywood (and Lionel himself also being a Best Actor winner), and ingénue Joan Crawford—the success of the picture was indeed a gamble.
In fact, the producers did take certain precautions to ensure the production sailed smoothly. Garbo and Crawford never share a scene; for there was great fear that one actress would continually be upstaging the other. The attitude was certainly sexist—but there are conflicting stories of Crawford’s immense jealousy of the Swedish star. One story from the set tells that Crawford knew of Garbo’s hatred of Marlene Dietrich, and she would play Dietrich’s records when Garbo was in earshot. However, another story has Crawford being very respectful to her female co-star, addressing her as “Miss Garbo” and having her feelings hurt when Garbo did not reciprocate her friendliness. Garbo and John Barrymore were also very wary of working together, but eventually became dear friends. Beery didn’t like his part at first, and demanded that he be the only actor to speak in a German accent in the film (Grand Hotel is set in Berlin).
Ultimately though, the film ended up being MGM’s biggest success yet. This is largely due to the strength of the script—adapted from the novel by Vicki Baum—which gives each character a complete arc, plenty of substantial scenes, and a sophisticated plot that nicely threads each story line together.
The Dramatis Personae:
Grusinskaya (Garbo): Is a temperamental ballerina whose shows have been victimized by declining audiences. While the word “depression” is never used to describe Grusinskaya, the character is obviously suffering from some sort of mental breakdown (these sorts of things were never outright mentioned in films from the 1930’s). She has a whole team of handlers that ensure her moods never sway too far out of control; her maid, Suzette, and her manager try their best to keep her happy. Ultimately though, Grusinskaya says: “I want to be alone.” (This line would come to encapsulate Garbo’s image, as the star actually did live alone and was reclusive.) However, she changes after she meets and falls in love with—
Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore): Von Geigern has lost his fortune due to a gambling addiction (again, the word “addiction” is never used and the extent of his problem is only implied). He is living on the last of his fortune when he and his dachshund come to reside at the Grand Hotel. Initially, he intends to steal a string of pearls from Grusinskaya, but upon seeing her, he is enchanted by her beauty. Von Geigern has several other opportunities to steal substantial amounts of money from residents of the hotel, but he ends up passing several opportunities and he befriends who should be his easiest target—
Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore): Kringelein is dying of a never-named but terminal disease which will kill him in a few months. He has wisely saved his wages, and intends to live out the remainder of his days in the opulence of the Grand Hotel. Despite being meek in nature, Kringelein manages to befriend several residents, including the Baron. He is a former employee of—
General Director Preysing (Beery): Is an industrialist intent on closing a large business deal while at the Grand Hotel. Preysing is revealed to be crooked. In one scene, Kringelein confronts his former employer and publicly reveals his swindling. Preysing is so detached he does not even recognize his former employee. He hires—
Flaemmchen (Crawford): A stenographer. Preysing intends on making Flaemmchen his mistress, but her affections are misguidedly directed towards the Baron. She will be a witness to a crime committed in the final act of the film.
Other characters include Senf, the head porter (played by Hersholt, who also has an honorary Oscar—given to those who engage in humanitarian efforts—named after him), who is anxiously waiting for the birth of his first child, and Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), an alcoholic permanent resident of the hotel who was injured in WWI. It is the doctor who says, ironically, that the Grand Hotel is a place where “people come, people go, and nothing ever happens.” Of course, things do indeed happen, and the story is wrapped up in a very satisfying manner.
Aside from the excellent acting and script, Grand Hotel, is a triumph of production design. Fans of Art Deco architecture will thrill at the design for the hotel. The lobby is especially awesome, with a front desk that makes a full 360-degree revolution, allowing director Edmund Goulding to set up several shots allowing different characters smooth and realistic transitions in and out of the action. Unlike the staging in Wings or The Broadway Melody—films that essentially were staged in what is obviously a set (save for the spectacular aerial photography in Wings, of course)—Grand Hotel is a film that incorporates the organic movement of what its setting would actually be like. There are also several scenes showing the porters and switchboard operators at work (the phones become significant in the third act). This is crucial for the audience; watching the picture, one feels as if they were a fly buzzing about in the hotel.
Unfortunately, the film is overlooked when discussing great Best Picture winners. Notably, Grand Hotel is the only film to be nominated—and win—the Best Picture Oscar without being nominated in any other category. The film doesn’t have the impact or the message of the historically based All Quiet on the Western Front, and its use of star power would be eclipsed by far more famous films. In a way, Dr. Otternschlag is right in assessing Grand Hotel—nothing much happens, and certainly nothing as monumental as WWI, the Civil War, a chariot race, the consolidation of power in a mafia family, the Vietnam War, the sinking of the Titanic, or a battle pitting good against evil in a fantasy world. Nor does the film profile some of history’s most famous people. There are no Gandhi’s, T.E. Lawrence’s, Pu Yi's, or anyone of that nature.
What the film does do well is present well-rounded, articulate, adult characters, each of whom has a dilemma that is overcome within a two-hour time frame. Not every film needs to be monumental to be great, and I certainly do think that Grand Hotel paved the way for films that use multiple main characters. Robert Altman’s films—though to a far more complex degree—are the offspring of Grand Hotel. And look at Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 remake—it is centered around three main characters, has a strong supporting cast, and is crucially set at the Bellagio at Las Vegas, a grand hotel if there ever was one. Take away the caper element of the plot and what we have is Grand Hotel remade for modern audiences. The 1932 picture may be a bit forgotten, but the formula proved to be a winner.