Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The best picture-winner of 1932, Grand Hotel is acknowledged as the granddaddy of the glossy
multi-plot soap opera. MGM stumbled upon this perennial formula while trying out a showbiz gambit
designed to prove that Leo the Lion ruled over the most prestigious studio in Hollywood. Louis B.
Mayer and Irving Thalberg put a long string of its biggest stars into one super-production, with
glamorous, scenery-chewing parts for all. The idea paid off big-time, as reasonably good dialogue
and excellent acting made audiences feel they were watching four good movies rolled into one.
Today Grand Hotel creaks and lumbers, and much of its ham-fisted drama comes across as
kitsch or camp. But its entertainment quotient hasn't diminished, with the opportunity to see
Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and John Barrymore in showoff roles.
A group of personalities in crisis converges on the Grand Hotel in Berlin.
Ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) fears that her dancing career has come to an end. Frustrated
industrialist Preysing (Wallace Beery) considers lying to secure a needed business merger, and is
distracted by sexy stenographess Fleammchen (Joan Crawford). Terminal patient Otto Kringelein
(Lionel Barrymore), one of Preysing's employees, checks into the hotel for a final fling and
meets the Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore). The penniless Baron befriends
Kringelein and Flaemmchen, but his real purpose is to steal some priceless pearls from the celebrity
dancer. He hides in Gusinskaya's room during the burglary - and falls in love with her.
Grand Hotel has never died - moviemakers have returned continually to its audience-pleasing
formula. It's remembered by name: When 1954's The High and the Mighty collected a
plane-ful of nervous passengers, each with a scandal or a heartbreak to relate in endless flashbacks,
it was immediately dubbed 'Grand Hotel in the Air.' Running multiple plotlines held the interest of
jaded audiences, and the variety masked any individual story's lack of originality or inspiration.
There are surely dozens of good examples, but MGM's Weekend at the Waldorf (1945) seems a
wartime reworking of Grand Hotel, as does Warner's 1967 variation called just plain
Hotel. It centers on manager Rod Taylor but has Karl Malden as a hotel thief somewhat
similar to John Barrymore's original. Strictly speaking, one could even make a case for American
Graffiti as a teen-flick variant on the Grand Hotel format. The laziest but most prolific
format copycats are the disaster movies like Earthquake and The Towering Inferno.
The 'star studded' cast lists could always be padded with more out-of-work celebrities fishing for
a best-supporting nomination for their individual bit parts.
If nothing in Grand Hotel is particularly fresh, the unusually well-polished production makes
the difference. It uses MGM's technical advantages to create the illusion of greatness that spells success
in Hollywood - better sets, bigger stars, snappier direction. The uncredited script moves very
quickly from good material (Crawford and John B's dalliance) to awful (Crawford consoling Lionel B.)
to hissable (villainous Wallace Beery, the only one trying to act German) and on to the stuff of
romantic melodrama (Greta Garbo's glorious manic-depressive diva act). The stories interconnect well
even though Garbo's dramatic contact is limited to her amorous co-star John Barrymore. Managing
Garbo's moods and foibles appears to have been a big part of studio czar Irving Thalberg's job, and
the picture benefits greatly from their apparent romantic compatibility. Viewers nostalgic for
Garbo's swooning silent-movie love stories got their fill.
Topic number two for Grand Hotel has always been Joan Crawford, with critics and fans getting
excited about the ambitious star earning respect by 'upstaging' the Swedish legend. Thalberg was
wise to keep the women completely separate. The difference in their acting styles makes
comparisons pointless - Garbo is all poetry and grand gestures, while Crawford is a Berlin edition
of her standard 'working girl willing to put out' persona. John Barrymore woos both of them. The
idea of them sharing the same frame doesn't seem at all practical. When Garbo pouts about wanting
to be alone, what would Joan do - roll her eyes and make wisecracks?
The good writing helps all the actors. Garbo and John B's purple-prose love talk is surprisingly
effective, as is the completely different hallway banter between John and Joan. When the story
finally develops, things
don't sustain as well - Lionel's whining 'little man' becomes tiresome, not adorable. We have to
think that Flaemmchen is going to Paris to mother him, even though their relationship can be
interpreted to make her out as an equal-opportunity tramp. Beery's bad-guy businessman actually
becomes more sympathetic when the story emphasizes that he's a dope making bad decisions under
pressure, and not Simon Legree with an umlaut.
The only really dated (or legendarily corny) aspect is Lewis Stone's phlegmatic doctor, who stands
around making weighty statements on the proceedings, including the twice-spoken chestnut, "Grand
Hotel. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens."
The trimmings aren't very exotic when compared to the lush atmospheres over at Paramount on Von
Sternberg's Dietrich pictures - Shanghai Express is just as corny but twice as affecting.
But the picture is sleek and efficient in its own way. Playwright Vicki Baum's thesis that her
hotel is a microcosm of life in
general is tackily addressed with desk clerk Jean Hersholt's impending news of a baby on the way.
More hotshot millionaires arrive hourly in their classy convertible touring cars, as if the
business of life were coddling the rich. The movie retains the odd detail of having Lewis Stone's
chararacter grossly disfigured; was Thalberg channeling Tod Browning or Lon Chaney? 1
Typical of the
film's shrewd dramatic reasoning is to have Kringelein keep his ratty suit so that we'll be reminded
how poor he really is. In classic Hollywood, people are exactly how they dress. Grand
Hotel's post- Wall Street Crash advice to the deserving poor is to win lots of money gambling, so
they can go to Paris with Joan Crawford and her bags of new lingerie. MGM read the times correctly -
miserable depression audiences couldn't get enough of this kind of luxurious fantasy.
Warners' DVD of Grand Hotel is a tidy package of surprises. The transfer is clean and smooth,
understandably washed with a slight graininess that's to be expected of a film of this age and
popularity. The cleaned-up soundtrack is much clearer than old 16mm prints - the music is still a
bit tinny, but the dialogue is crystal clear. Garbo's "I want to be alone" line no longer swims
under a carpet of hiss.
The extras are fun and informative. Peter Fitzgerald's short featurette-docu tells the tale of the
film from the background of the play (20s Germany) to the efforts of uncredited producers Thalberg
and Paul Bern to keep their roster of finicky stars happy. It rightly downplays the publicist-fueled
non-feud between the two female stars and keeps a level head when faced with a movie that's 90%
tinseltown myth. The featurette has an English-accented narrator that reminds us of a Kevin Brownlow
production, but the tight montages of music and images are recognizably this producer's work.
There are trailers for Grand Hotel and Weekend at the Waldorf in fine shape, and a
nice 'see it before it leaves' teaser for the film that posts Grauman's Chinese's 1932 ticket prices.
A newsreel short subject shows the premiere festivities and gives us a great look at MGM's roster of
stars on their best behavior, including great shots of Mayer, Thalberg, Shearer, Crawford,
Fairbanks Jr., etc. that I've never seen before. Director Goulding speaks on camera, equally rare, and
up-'n coming Clark Gable steals some publicity exposure - his big break is still a year or two away.
Finally, the media sensation that Grand Hotel was in 1932 is given hard proof with the inclusion
of a Vitaphone (Warners) musical short subject, Nothing Ever Happens. It's a full two-reel
comedy take-off of Grand Hotel with some impressive production values - all the characters
are given joke names and lampooned by (unfamiliar) actors. Some of the imitations are good, unlike
the pitiful jokes. MGM must have been flabbergasted by the inter-studio envy implied by this
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Grand Hotel rates:
Movie: Very good
Video: Very good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Featurette, trailers, exhibitor's announcement, premiere newsreel, Vitaphone
short subject Nothing Ever Happens.
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 29, 2003
1. A helpful background
note from Hank Graham, 2.2.04 (Happy Groundhog day!):
Glenn: Well, I'm just full of comments for you today, aren't I?
The point to the disfigured doctor is that the book and play were famous
in their initial time for--wait for it!--a hard-edged realism. Really.
Set and written in 1929, the economy of Germany had already tumbled into
what would become the Great Depression (they'd had the Great Inflation a
few years before, in 1923). The Berlin Grand Hotel, because people paid in
hard (i.e., non-German) currencies there, was an oasis of ostentatious
wealth in a sea of poverty and chaos. The writer, Vicki Baum, emphasized
that contrast. If it had been filmed as it was written, it would have had
to have been pre-code, done by Warner Brothers.
The doctor also represented something not uncommon in Germany at that
time, a disfigured survivor of the Great War. In the 1920's, there were a
LOT of maimed survivors around--remember the number of handicapped beggars
in "M"? Additionally, to control the pain of his wounds, the doctor has
become a heroin addict in the book and the play, though not, if I remember
rightly, in the MGM movie. That was one of the aspects of his complete
detachment from everything that happens around him.
MGM dropped the social realism stuff entirely, of course.
When Tommy Tune revived the show as a musical in 1989, he went back to the
source and put it all back in. Tune also went for a German Expressionist
look, with stark backgrounds and no sets--the actors in the show moved rows
of chairs on- and off-stage to represent walls. The musical was a huge
success, winning the Tony's for best musical and best score, and the Tony
for best supporting actor (for Michael Jeter), while Jane Krakowski was
nominated for best supporting actress.
This also leads to one of the best jokes about Grand Hotel I know of. In
Gerard Allesandrini's Forbidden Broadway spoof of then-current Broadway
hits, he had a number, Grim Hotel, with the memorable line: "It's always
the same here at Grim Hotel. People come. People go. People move chairs."
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson