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Near the beginning of Billy Wilder's The Apartment, Jack Lemmon settles in to see Grand Hotel on an old-movie TV program. The gag is that the big-star cast takes so long recite that it's interrupted by two TV commercials, and Lemmon loses interest. To us the joke should be different: in 1960 Grand Hotel was only 28 years old, yet was labeled a creaky fossil of a movie. Although the Best Picture Oscar winner of 1932 is now 81, we no longer consider it moldy or irrelevant -- it's a classic from the Pre-code era.
When digital resources are properly used to polish new film restorations, the result can be a veritable cinematic face-lift. Grand Hotel is one title vastly improved by the jump to Blu-ray. The best picture-winner of 1932, it is acknowledged as the granddaddy of the glossy multi-plot all-star 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: audiences felt they were watching four good movies rolled into one.
Today Grand Hotel creaks and lumbers and much of its ham-fisted drama will come across to some viewers as kitsch or camp. But considering the state of movie dramatics now, the film is nothing to be ashamed of. Its entertainment quotient hasn't diminished, especially with Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and John Barrymore in showoff roles.
A number of dynamic personalities in crisis converge on the Grand Hotel in Berlin. Ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) fears that her career has come to an end. Frustrated industrialist Preysing (Wallace Beery) considers lying to secure a needed business merger, and is distracted by sexy stenographer Flaemmchen (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 the celebrity dancer's priceless pearls. He hides in Gusinskaya's room during the burglary -- and falls in love with her.
The show-biz spirit of Grand Hotel has never died -- moviemakers have returned continually to its audience-pleasing formula. It's remembered by name: when the nervous passengers of 1954's The High and the Mighty found scandal or heartbreak in and endless series of flashbacks, it was immediately dubbed 'Grand Hotel in the Air.' Multiple plotlines held the interest of jaded audiences, as the variety masked any individual story's lack of originality or inspiration. There are surely dozens of good examples. MGM's Weekend at the Waldorf (1945) is a credited reworking of Grand Hotel, but not 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. A 'star studded' cast lists could always be padded with more out-of-work celebrities fishing for a best-supporting nomination.
If nothing in Grand Hotel is particularly fresh, the highly polished production makes the difference. MGM's technical advantages create an illusion of greatness that spells success in Hollywood -- better sets, bigger stars, snappier direction. The uncredited script moves quickly from good material (Crawford and John B's dalliance) to awful (Crawford consoling Lionel B.) to hiss-able (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 despite Garbo's limited dramatic contact with her amorous co-star John Barrymore. Managing Garbo's moods and foibles appears to have been one of studio czar Irving Thalberg's main jobs, 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 the two actresses 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?(spoilers)
The serviceable dialogue script gives the actors what they need. 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, some subplots 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. The direction 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. 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 character 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, as miserable depression-era audiences couldn't get enough of this kind of luxurious fantasy.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of Grand Hotel leaves the old DVD edition from 2003 far, far behind. The film's rock-stable surface is clean of dirt and the fluctuating density of older transfers. WB's transfer people have retained the lower contrast and slightly diffuse look of MGM's studio style of the era. When set alongside the improved audio track, this is a much better way to experience what in 1932 was considered the height of Hollywood glamour.
The disc contains all the extras from the earlier DVD plus an informative new commentary by the keenly interested Jeffrey Vance and Mark A. Vieira. Repeating are a twelve-minute featurette on the picture, Checking Out: Grand Hotel; a nice 'see it before it leaves' teaser for the film that posts Grauman's Chinese's 1932 ticket prices; original trailers in fine shape for Grand Hotel and Weekend at the Waldorf, and a newsreel of the premiere that gives us a look at MGM's roster of stars on their best behavior, including great shots of Mayer, Thalberg, Shearer, Crawford, Fairbanks Jr., etc.. Director Goulding speaks on camera and up 'n' coming Clark Gable steals some publicity exposure.
Proof that this show was a genuine media sensation comes 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 -- the Grand Hotel characters are given joke names and played 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 elaborate spoof.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Grand Hotel Blu-ray rates:
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! - 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 be 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 Tonys 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." -- Best, Hank
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