“Grand Hotel. People coming, going, nothing ever happens.”
So says Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone) with icy introspection, sitting alone, away from the others, in the lobby of this plush Berlin establishment. His keen observation caps an opening medley of fast-cut telephone conversations from much of the principal cast, which introduces them as well as their individual story lines. It’s an effective way to begin this marvelously shadowy, world-weary ensemble piece with an ironic critique of “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
The cinematography is outstanding from the get-go, most notably in an indelible overhead shot that looks down on the outer spiraling stairs, straight over the lobby’s circular front desk, far below, giving the impression of a beehive or perhaps an ant farm crawling with activity but reduced in size to reflect its proportional worth. It’s a stunning visual supporting Otternschlag’s classic quote, establishing the perspective that all of this “drama” we are about to see will add up to nothing more than an average day inside these decadent, swanky walls. Everything happens, and nothing happens. It celebrates and trivializes at the same time.
Unlike previous Best Picture -winners where the story is king, Grand Hotel is the first ensemble movie to take the award, relying more on memorable characters than any individual plot line. It was also MGM’s first all-star dramatic vehicle, and they loaded it to the brim with several of its top stars: peerless Greta Garbo, two Barrymores (Lionel and John), Wallace Beery, and a young and sizzling Joan Crawford, with able support from two stalwart character actors Stone and Jean Hersholt (of the Academy’s own Humanitarian Award fame). Any of the stars could have carried a movie like this by themselves and proved that point in previous releases, but the studio opted for an “eggs in one basket” approach, a novel idea back then that paid off big-time. Grand Hotel was the biggest money-maker of 1932.
The people do come and go, as Otternschlag says, a doctor by trade, disfigured with dark scarring over half of his face from the Great War when he was “dropped off” at this hotel and forgotten. John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern. Despite the title and charm and an adorable dog, he has no financial means to sustain his life even on a basic level. This congenial aristocrat is on the brink of disaster. Wallace Beery is General Director Preysing, a corrupt and wealthy mogul, desperate to seal an underhanded business merger that would save his financial interests. Joan Crawford plays Flaemmchen, an ambitious stenographer hired by Preysing as a temp who knows the worth of her looks and youth and isn’t afraid to parlay them into a better life. Lionel Barrymore as Otto Kringelein, a humble accountant working for the same corporation Beery owns, checks into the Grand Hotel for one final, celebratory fling before he dies of a terminal illness. And Greta Garbo as Grusinskaya, a famous ballerina who yearns to give everything up and escape from her glamorous life, if only she could find someone who would love her for herself.
At times this movie feels like a stage play, because it was. Irving Thalberg purchased the rights to Vicki Baum’s novel for MGM, but produced it to great success on Broadway first, before lining up his all-star film cast. Only one holdover from that stage production re-created her role on film: the ballerina’s devoted maid Suzette, played by Rafaela Ottiano.There are two real standouts for me in this movie. First, there’s Joan Crawford, who manages to outshine even Garbo. Joan was an established star by then, but to see her command the screen with those expressive eyes and a knowing smile sets her apart from the rest. Her visual pictures paint thousands of words, as the saying goes. She was at the height of her screen beauty here, and the camera loves her. Lionel Barrymore is the other standout and, for me, the heart of the picture. It’s when Joan and Lionel share the screen that the movie packs a resonating punch. Both characters are caught up in the immediacy of life. Barrymore’s accountant hasn’t long to live, but he’s decided to make the most of his remaining time while he can. Crawford’s stenographer knows her looks and youth won’t last forever, so she too is making the most it. That’s why they work so well together. They are caught up in a specific moment, sharing it for all its worth, knowing full-well that it won’t last. There is a beauty and sadness in their scenes.
Garbo’s iconic line is spoken in this film more than once: “I want to be alone.” Her earlier, somewhat archaic romantic scenes opposite John Barrymore serve well as a setup for the final scenes where she exits the hotel and steps into a taxi, deliriously happy and in love while the audience knows her impending rendezvous with the baron will never happen. It’s that moment and the scene just before when the telephone rings inside the baron’s suite with no answer, as his sweet dog looks up from the bed and waits for a master who will never return. I admit it was this shot that got the tears flowing for me.
In the end, Grand Hotel is grand soap opera, complete with intertwining plots, romantic and confronting characters, life, death, and even birth when the porter Senf (Hersholt) learns over the telephone of his new baby’s arrival. It’s a broad slice of life in a transient location, and a worthy choice for the Academy’s favorite of the year.
|Primary Cast||Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt|
|Familiar Faces||none (no repeat performers from the previous winning films)|
|Firsts||First and only film to win Best Picture without any other nominations|
|Total Wins||1 (Picture)|
|Total Nominations||1 (Picture)|
|Viewing Format||Blu-ray Disc|