US (1932) Dir. Edmund Goulding
Of all the famous films I have only recently seen for the first time Grand Hotel serves as a double inaugural experience being the first time I’ve ever viewed the legendary Greta Garbo in action! But Garbo was not alone in this Oscar winning film, as producer Irving Thalberg decided this adaptation of Vicki Blaum’s novel Menschen im Hotel deserved an all star cast, making this the first true ensemble drama in Hollywood history.
The hotel setting allows for a number of individual plots that eventually converge in the end with typical dramatic flair, yet this is an easy enough to follow. Introduced to us in an ingenious, exposition heavy, single take shot are our male principals – business tycoon Preysing (Wallace Beery) who is holding out on a crucial business deal to save his company; one of Preysing’s bottom rung workers, the terminally ill Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) wanting to end his days in style; and Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore), a con artist hoping to make some money from the other guests belongings!
One guest The Baron has his eye on is the neurotic dancer Grusinskaya (Garbo), aware of the expensive pearls with which she is often seen adorned. With Grusinskaya performing that night, The Baron takes his chance to strike but Grusinskaya returned earlier than expected and catches The Baron in the act. However the smooth talking charlatan not only wins the dancer over but falls for her in the process; and Grusinskaya was not the only heart The Baron stole – ambitious stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), hired by Preysing, also succumbs to his charms but her interest in him are more likely financially based.
The script, adapted by William A. Drake from his own play version of Baum’s novel, cleverly runs all the stories parallel to each other until the final act, with only minimal cross over outside of the communal setting of the dance hall/bar where the men all fight over Flaemmchen. Grusinskaya isn’t there because she wants to be alone – yes, this is the film where Garbo utters this immortal line! Aside from John Barrymore, Garbo doesn’t appear with any of her other co-stars on screen, just one of the many logistical headaches for Drake, director Edmund Goulding and producers Thalberg and Paul Bern.
As expected from a film from this period when Hollywood studios owned their actors but pampered the bigger names, the behind the scenes stories are just as just as legendary as the film itself – from arguments over top billing to concessions over who gets to use a German accent (it is set in Berlin), it is just as well that M&Ms hadn’t been invented yet! The only person who was happy was John Barrymore as he got to smooch Garbo!
Book ending the film is drunken doctor Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), who spuriously observes that nothing ever happens at the hotel, and poor head porter Senf (Jean Hersholt) who is waiting for news of his wife currently in labour, both serving as the purest members of the cast in what appears to be a breeding ground for immorality and corruption. In many ways this is a cynical tale, with everyone’s ultimate misfortune caused by, either the possession of or the lack of, money. The Baron needs some so he steals; Grusinskaya has loads but is too uptight to care; Preysing has plenty but could lose it all; Flaemmchen wants some and fame to go with it while Kringelein has enough but won’t need it where he is going.
They may seem like clichéd tropes to modern audiences but for the time this is quite a unique spectrum of personalities under the microscope here, and they way they interact and come together is based less on contrivance than you may think, a sign of clever writing for the time. The fallout of their individual circumstances is rather functional on the creative front but contextually and credibly valid.
Aside from boasting an all star cast the film also showcases some interesting camerawork courtesy of cinematography William H. Daniels, who utilises the circular reception desk to great use with innovative over head shots for ease of tracking the individual interactions with the desk clerks in one smooth tracking movement. Similarly the earlier mentioned introductory shot of the male leads, in which they are all in separate phone booths, is equally well constructed and impactful.
With such pressure to deliver in lieu of their collective reputations, the cast all step up accordingly to make their roles work. Lionel Barrymore is sympathetic without being pitiful as Kringelein while brother John somehow manages to pull of being the suave thief despite being fifty years-old at the time. Using his stature to its advantage, Wallace Beery is suitably gruff as the bullying Preysing, the affected German accent suggesting a proto-Hollywood Nazi general if you will.
Having been given top billing it seemed the few scenes Garbo was initially given would be enough to justify her superior ranking. Indeed she delivers the sultry, subtle histrionics she was known for in her silent days and looks sensual and beguiling as she does – but Joan Crawford as the (by then standards) raunchier counterpart Flaemmchen stole the film from under Garbo’s nose, resulting in Thalberg ordering additional scenes for Garbo to shoot. It was fruitless however as Crawford’s knockout performance is a definite highlight; Garbo would get a pyrrhic victory of sorts however, as many prudish states would cut Crawford’s more suggestive scenes. Boo!
My initial reservations were quickly assuaged once Grand Hotel started to gather momentum and it is quite remarkable how well this film holds up 83 years later, coming from a period where Hollywood was often churning out flaccid star vehicle after flaccid star vehicle. The ensemble cast gamble not only paid off but the right story was used to exploit this, earning this film the right to be called a triumph.