#217) Grand Hotel (1932)

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#217) Grand Hotel (1932)

OR “Irving’s Berlin”

Directed by Edmund Goulding

Written by William A. Drake. Based on his play and the novel “Menschen im Hotel” by Vicki Baum.

Class of 2007

The Plot: Berlin’s luxurious Grand Hotel oversees the intersecting lives of five guests over two days. There’s the bankrupt Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) whose attempt to rob the reclusive ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) finds the two falling in love. There’s Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), the model/aspiring actress who has to avoid passes by her temporary boss Preysing (Wallace Beery). And there’s Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), Preysing’s former employee, whose dying wish is to truly live. The hotel’s resident doctor, war veteran Otternschlag (Lewis Stone) sums up the Grand Hotel with, “people coming, people going, nothing ever happens”. Clearly he’s not paying attention.

Why It Matters: The NFR cites “Grand Hotel” as “arguably the first use of the all-star formula”, singles out Garbo’s iconic line, and praises Edmund Goulding for handling the egos off his all-star cast.

But Does It Really?: It’s definitely on the historical side of significance, but I had a good time at “Grand Hotel”. The combined star power of the five principals helps move things along, and Goulding keeps them all in check without any one star walking away with the picture. On top of being a well-crafted film, there’s an aura of star quality that radiates from the screen. “Grand Hotel” is a perfect example of the kind of all-star affair that could only be made in the studio system.

Everybody Gets One: This being a studio film, most of the creatives will be back in other entries. The only major holdout is screenwriter/playwright William A. Drake. On a more technical scale, this is Edmund Goulding’s only film as a director on the list, and Wallace Beery’s only sound film to make the cut.

Wow, That’s Dated: There’s a lot of sexual harassment aimed at Joan Crawford through the whole film. Heck, she meets Preysing in his hotel room while he’s in a towel. Run, Joan, Run!

Seriously, Oscars?: A blockbuster hit in 1932, “Grand Hotel” won the Oscar for Best Picture and…that’s it. Not only did “Grand Hotel” not win any other Oscars, it wasn’t nominated in any other categories. The Academy was still working out the kinks in its fifth ceremony, and there were fewer categories and fewer nominees than there are now. Had the Supporting categories existed back then, surely the likes of Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford would have been nominated. Wallace Beery didn’t get nominated either, but he did win Best Actor that year for “The Champ”.

Other notes

  • “Grand Hotel” was produced by MGM’s boy-wonder Irving Thalberg. Studio policy of the time dictated that only one or two of your stars could appear in the same film, but Thalberg had the revolutionary idea to put five of MGM’s stars in one film, bringing in five fanbases to one picture. His gamble paid off handsomely.
  • The opening sequence is a fun setup, plus it’s a precursor to “The Telephone Hour”.
  • Brothers John & Lionel Barrymore share the screen in “Grand Hotel”. This is one of five films the brothers did together while under contract at MGM. In addition to sister Ethel Barrymore, you are probably familiar with John’s granddaughter Drew.
  • For those of you who only know Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, his performance as Kringelein is a delightful 180. It’s as if Lionel is channeling Burgess Meredith in “Time Enough at Last”.
  • I’m enjoying what I’ve dubbed the “French braid shots”: characters from one scene walking past the characters in the next scene. It helps with the ensemble atmosphere.
  • “You’re a little stenographess.” Oy.
  • It’s nice to see Joan Crawford in a performance before the “Mommie Dearest” persona overshadowed everything.
  • Garbo’s continuity is way off in this film. And it looks like she was the only one allowed to have movie star close-ups.
  • Was a movie about an elegant hotel in Europe’s cultural capital escapism or insulting for a Depression-era audience?
  • It’s really saying something when Greta Garbo and John Barrymore share a scene together and he’s the subtle one.
  • Wallace Beery gets the weakest plotline. Beery was worried his character was too unsympathetic, and he was right. That being said, his eyebrow raise is quite impressive.
  • Shoutout to Lewis Stone, Judge Hardy himself, for his dramatic turn as Harvey Dent.
  • Nice lighting effect for the elevators.
  • I love that Garbo is a world-famous ballerina that we never actually see dance. I was hoping for at least a body double.
  • Here’s how good this ensemble is: It wasn’t until after the movie was over that I realized there is no scene with all five stars.

Legacy

  • Five words: “I vant to be alone”. Garbo hated when the line was applied to her intensely private life, but if the shoe fits…
  • MGM followed this film up with the first all-star comedy: 1933’s “Dinner at Eight”, also starring Wallace Beery and the Barrymores!
  • “Grand Hotel” was remade as 1945’s “Week-End at the Waldorf”. [Footage not available]
  • Speaking of remakes, MGM released a musical short in 1933 called “Nothing Ever Happens”, that condenses the film down to 18 minutes, and I’m pretty sure uses the same sets. It’s weird, but it’s proof that “Grand Hotel” lends itself naturally to the musical genre.
  • Composers Robert Wright and George Forrest attempted to musicalize the material in 1958 as “At the Grand”. The show closed out-of-town, but was resurrected 30 years later with new songs by Maury Yeston and direction/choreography by Tommy Tune. The renamed “Grand Hotel: The Musical” was a hit on Broadway, launching the careers of Jane Krakowski and the late great Michael Jeter.

Bonus Clip: The Forbidden Broadway parody of “Grand Hotel”. People come, people go, people move chairs.

3 thoughts on “#217) Grand Hotel (1932)”

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