Grand Hotel (1932)
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
This review was originally written for The Film Magazine: https://www.thefilmagazine.com/grand-hotel-movie-review-gretagarbo-barrymore-goulding/
In 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer enlisted director Edmund Goulding and five of Hollywood’s biggest names to produce what would be that year’s second highest grossing film and winner of the Academy Award for best picture, Grand Hotel. The capability of all involved is something that can still be felt close to a century later in the airtight script, spectacular performances, and air of professionalism that pulsates through the screen. At the time of its release it was a success, but in the contemporary era the film has been misremembered by critics, historians and film lovers as nothing more than a “star vehicle”, as if the all-star cast is a detriment rather than an asset. In fact, Grand Hotel is a jewel of the pre-code era, featuring engaging human conflict without going past the point of believable melodrama.
The William A. Drake written feature follows several characters as they navigate human conflict over two nights
in a Berlin hotel. In many ways, Grand Hotel is a film of transition. As the title would have you assume, it takes place entirely inside a hotel, a locale of brevity and travel in which the population changes on the daily. The year of the film’s release, 1932, was similarly as transitional,
both in film and world history - it came after the few years during which Hollywood struggled to come to terms with sound technology, for example. Films made just after the arrival of sound, until around 1931, were often awkward and unsure of themselves, as if unfinished. This period would see countless giants of the silent era lose their careers, such as John Gilbert, Clara Bow, and Mae Murray. Conversely, a few years after Grand Hotel, the Hayes Code would introduce a mandatory list of requirements and prohibitions that would force films to be upstanding, clean, and non-offensive. In 1932, they could still get away with such lines as “I don’t suppose you’d take some dictation from me sometime, would you?”. Unlike films of later years, Grand Hotel acknowledges that sex exists, and is not punitive in its treatment of the matter. In addition to only touching taboo subjects with a ten foot pole, later films would often be flooded with excessive music cues and closeups to ensure that audiences knew exactly how to feel. Grand Hotel, while having a lovely melodic score, trusts its audiences to think for itself and avoids saccharine earnestness. Such frank treatment of human behaviour allows the film to remain timeless and familiar, the sweet spot of 1932 therefore essential to the film’s essence.
Grand Hotel takes place during the Great Depression, a toll that can be felt as many of the characters sit just on the precipice of financial destitution. Its setting in Berlin comes a year before Adolf Hitler rose to power as the German Chancellor. Despite this, the film feels as if it could take place in any city in any year, as outside politics and society are left unmentioned. This hotel is purgatorial, where, as repeatedly uttered by actor Lewis Stone playing a grizzled WWI veteran doctor, “People coming, going…nothing ever happens”.
The film’s status as a “star vehicle” existed before its release. In a feature by Photoplay, the leading film magazine of the time, it was triumphantly heralded as “the mightiest array of stars ever corralled in Hollywood’s history!”. Charming footage of the film’s premiere at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre can be found on YouTube, attended by the likes of Norma Shearer, Constance Bennett, Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich, and studio heads Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. It is perhaps this enthusiasm with which the film was promoted that has retrospectively made it unappealing to film snobs. It is more fulfilling to cheer for the underdog, the film that didn’t win Best Picture, the indie that was overshadowed by a blockbuster. Would we feel the same way about Citizen Kane had it won Best Picture as it deserved?
The all-star cast consists of a wide range of Hollywood legends who fit perfectly within their respective roles, as if they are playing parodies of themselves based on their images as presented in the media. John Barrymore, whose Baron von Gaigern serves as the film’s central pillar, was a legend of the stage and prominent in the silent era, but had a tumultuous career following the arrival of sound and struggled with substance abuse. Baron von Gaigern similarly possesses the air of a once great man who has fallen on hard times and is desperate to climb back up. He strikes up a sweet friendship with the terminally ill bookkeeper Mr. Kringelein, who is at the Grand Hotel to live his last few weeks of life in luxury. Kringelein is played by Lionel Barrymore, older brother to John. The elder Barrymore’s performance is the most touching of the film, as he plays his character with unbridled optimism mixed with exhaustion brought on by a lifetime of under-appreciation - much like how Lionel’s career would only grow more notable after Grand Hotel compared to John’s decline, Kringelein ends the film in a considerably better position compared to von Gaigern. Coincidentally, Kringelein is staying at the same hotel as his boss, Mr. Preysing, played by the imposing, barrel-chested Wallace Beery. His tyrannical disposition is easily believed as Beery was noted to be quite aggressive and difficult in real life. Even as the film’s only true “villain”, the audience is given time to know him as an individual with reasonable internal conflict, thus contributing to the film’s tension and believability.
At the time of the film’s release, Joan Crawford had starred in several films that took advantage of her dancing skills and was married to Douglas Fairbanks Jr, son to Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and stepson to Mary Pickford, equivalent to Hollywood’s royal family. She was not quite at the same caliber of fame as her co-stars, but this film would put her over the edge of stardom. Her real-life ambition as an actress is mirrored by her character, a stenographer/occasional model named Flaemmchen, who appears to be more interested in climbing the social ladder through sexual trysts than scribing. As previously stated, her use of sex to get ahead is hardly a source of scandal, but rather treated matter-of-factly and with no sense of condemnation. She is both sexually liberated and shown to be a genuinely considerate, caring person, something not many female characters were permitted to be at the time or in later decades.
Part of the film’s promotion was used to speculate how the two female leads of the film, Garbo and Crawford, got along on-set. As the two women never share a scene together, it is possible that they never met at all. Garbo’s first talking picture, Anna Christie (1930), is a prime example of an early sound film that stumbles in its delivery. The film is objectively poor, containing awkward silences, subpar acting, and a laughable plot that is overly concerned with propriety. Garbo, despite her magnetism, was not quite ready to lead an English language film in a serious role. However, audiences clamoured to see the most famous actress in the world talk on screen for the first time, and her career continued to flourish, allowing her to be top-billed in Grand Hotel in the role of the fading Russian prima ballerina, Grusinkaya. In this film, rather than most of her filmography where she brooded around the screen in period-costumes, she gets to be funny. The few times when the androgynous beauty was allowed to make people laugh led to some of her greatest performances, such as in one of her last films, Ninotchka (1939). Just like those of her cast members, Garbo’s role is an exaggerated version of herself. Garbo was extremely private and reclusive, never attending parties, premieres, and rarely interviewed. Thus, she was assumed to be a diva that was difficult to work with, as is her character in this film. Her signature line, and what the film is perhaps best remembered for if at all, “I want to be alone.”, was in fact said by Garbo (with some variety) in several of her films before and after Grand Hotel. These five words encapsulated her, or at least, the image of her.
At the fifth Academy Awards ceremony, Grand Hotel accomplished a very specific feat, one that has yet to be repeated: it won the award for Best Picture without receiving a nomination in any other category. Not the director, not the adapted story, not the art direction, not the actors, not the cinematographer, nothing. The fact that the cast of the film was so largely promoted yet none were recognized for their wonderful performances is baffling. All perform with such grace and subtly (save Garbo, whose extravagance is essential to her memorable performance) that they could be considered masterful by today’s standards.
The climax of the film is the death of one of the main characters, one that is genuinely shocking and heartbreaking. It happens so quickly, so unceremoniously, it almost feels like a trick. Did that just happen? It was by no means unusual for a main character to die at the end of a film in 1932, but typically this occurred in a dramatic fashion, with a character succumbing to a disease, or dying bravely on the battlefield. Death was an event, its own scene, with fluttering eyelids, a clutch of the heart, and prophetic last words. In Grand Hotel, much like the matter-of-fact manner in which sex is treated, death is portrayed with a degree of maturity not often seen in classic era cinema. Just as the Doctor says, “People coming, going…nothing ever happens”. Of course, something does happen, but our other characters will keep living, will make new friends, will forget each other. And tomorrow, someone else will fill their rooms.
From its costumes to its set to its performances, Grand Hotel exudes sophistication and understands itself. Why it has been ignored by the modern film community is perhaps unanswerable, but hopefully its reputation will be restored in the near future, especially if this reviewer has anything to say about it.