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.
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?(spoilers)
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? 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 elaborate spoof.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Grand Hotel rates: