Grand Hotel (1932)
“Thank The Stars For A Great Entertainment!”
Director: Edmund Goulding
Cast: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford
Synopsis: A group of very different individuals staying at a luxurious hotel in Berlin deal with each of their respective dramas.
MGM’s 1932 movie Grand Hotel was the first all-star ensemble piece, boasting five actors from its’ top tier of movie stars in a hectic drama that takes place in a high-class hotel in Berlin. The city had been a hotbed of depravity in the late 1920s, and Vicki Baum’s play was inspired by events she had witnessed while working as a chambermaid in a similar hotel. Grand Hotel’s multi-stranded format is familiar today, but was quite revolutionary back in 1932, and the film was a massive draw at the box office thanks to MGM’s prolonged and expensive publicity campaign. Of course, bringing all those major stars together meant the collision of some gigantic egos, and while John Barrymore and Garbo got on unexpectedly well, the Swedish actress’s relationship with rising star Joan Crawford was not so warm. And the younger actress must have been both gratified and aggrieved that additional scenes featuring Garbo had to be filmed to prevent Crawford from stealing the movie. Unfortunately, these scenes do serve to hamper the film’s pace at times.
The story opens with a series of expository telephone calls which concisely set the scene for the intertwining dramas that are about to unfold. Serif, the porter (Jean Hersholt — Greed, Flesh) is anxiously enquiring after the health of his wife, who is in hospital about to go into labour, Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore — The Bells, It’s a Wonderful Life — in a role originally earmarked for Buster Keaton) has just learned that he has only weeks to live and has decided to blow what savings he has on a playboy lifestyle, The Baron (John Barrymore — Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Sea Beast) a sophisticated jewel thief, is staying at the hotel as he makes plans to steal jewels belonging to prima donna ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo — The Mysterious Lady), while the future of the business empire of industrialist Preysing (Wallace Beery — Flesh, The Bowery) depends on the success of a meeting to conclude the merger of his company with another that is to take place in the hotel the following morning.
These various strands are tied together with admirable efficiency by screenwriter William A. Drake (adapting his own American version of Baum’s stage play). The Baron befriends the ailing but still feisty Preysing employee Kringelein, as well as Miss Flaemchenn (Joan Crawford — Rain, Dancing Lady), a young stenographer temporarily employed by the German businessman. When The Baron sneaks into Grusinskaya’s room to steal the ballerina’s jewels he is forced to reveal himself when she returns unexpectedly with the intention of taking her own life, and his success in dissuading her from committing suicide marks the beginning of an intense – and somewhat unconvincing — love affair. Meanwhile, the breakdown of the beleaguered Preysing’s business negotiations require him to visit England, and he makes a decidedly un-business-like proposition to Miss Flaemchenn which she is tempted to accept.
There’s no denying that Grand Hotel is old-school Hollywood film-making of the highest order. Drake’s pithy script wastes little time on superfluous details, concentrating instead on creating an assortment of mostly well-rounded and believable characters. It’s true that some of them have become screen stereotypes in the years since Grand Hotel was made, but rarely were they given such insightful detail as they are here. Only Garbo’s Grusinskaya fails to ring true, and it’s difficult to tell whether that’s because of Garbo’s overwrought performance, or whether the problems of her character arise from her interpretation of it. Her reputation seems to buy her a lot of latitude from critics and reviewers, but her performance in Grand Hotel really does stand out as being a notch or two below those of her co-stars. John Barrymore is the epitome of the gentleman thief (even though he does appear to be a little the worse for wear in the first confrontation scene with his chauffeur), while his older brother, Lionel, demonstrates admirable restraint in preventing his downtrodden, terminally ill clerk from becoming cloyingly so. Crawford makes a likeably sympathetic character, and Wallace Beery too, manages to somehow make sympathetic an unlikable man who hides his arrogance behind a surfeit of ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’.
A perfect example of polished Hollywood professionalism, Grand Hotel amounts to little more than a glossy soap opera, but it’s so well-written and directed (by Edmund Goulding) that it transcends the familiarity of its plot to serve as a timeless reminder of just how good Hollywood movies used to be.
(Reviewed 22nd August 2014)