GRAND HOTEL (Dir: Edmund Golding)(Screenplay: Bela Balazs & William A Drake, based on Drake's play, based on the novel and play "Menschen im Hotel" by Vicki Baum)
Formed in 1924, Metro Goldwyn Mayer quickly became the dominant film studio in Hollywood. Their claim was that the studio contained "more stars than there are in heaven"; in GRAND HOTEL, five of the biggest of those stars came together for a major production that was both a commercial and critical success. Not surprisingly, MGM would repeat the formula, with some of the same stars, a year later with George Cukor's DINNNER AT EIGHT, which I prefer to this film.
GRAND HOTEL began as Menschen im Hotel a 1929 novel by Vicki Baum, who had worked as a chambermaid in two hotels in Berlin. Rights to the novel were bought by Irving Thalberg, and it was first produced as a Broadway play before being given to director Edmund Golding, who managed to control the various egos at play in the making of the film, and he gets mostly good performances out of all of them. His ability to do this may have been why he was picked to direct the notoriously difficult Marx Brothers three years later in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA! Golding pulls off some some good tracking images of busy hotel phone operators, some lovely shots of the bustling hotel lobby, and some even better images of the cavernous hotel hallways overlooking the many levels of the building. Striking as these sights are, too often his camera retreats to individual rooms or the bar of the hotel, which seem like simple recreations of the original stage sets. As with many movies based on plays, there is not enough attempt to "open up" the story. Indeed, there are hardly any exterior shots in the entire film.
The Grand Hotel Lobby & Floors
I have not read the book, but the film seems to be presenting the Grand Hotel of Berlin, Germany as a microcosm of life; it even has a "circle of life" ending, with one character's body being carried away while a hotel worker hears of his wife giving birth. The film's main characters are a true cross section of society: an artist, an industrialist, two low level workers, and a member of royalty who is now a thief. Their actions are observed by the cynical Doctor Otternschlag(Lewis Stone), who's face is badly scarred from a war wound. He opens the film sitting in the hotel lobby, watching people pass by and wryly remarking: "Grand Hotel, always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." Over the course of the film, the characters will deal with issues like love, death, greed, and betrayal in dramatic fashion, which would seem to disprove his observation. Yet, at the end of the film, after so many big events, he delivers the exact same line; his pessemistic view seems to extend beyond the hotel into life itself, as he seems to wonder what is the point of it all. This almost nihilistic viewpoint seems to capture the anger and sense of betrayal that gripped Germany, and indeed much of the rest of the world, in the wake of WWI, and it is appropriately stated by a man who's face has been disfigured by the war.
But enough of portentous meanings, GRAND HOTEL is at heart a big star heavy drama that tells the different stories of five people who's lives criss cross with each other while visiting the hotel. They are: Grusinskaya, a great Russian ballerina (Greta Garbo), Baron Felix von Gaigern(John Barrymore), a once wealthy baron who has fallen on hard times, Flaemmchen, a sternographer (Joan Crawford)who's been hired by Preysing(Wallace Beery), a wealthy industrialist, and finally, Otto Kringelein(Lionel Barrymore) a book keeper who is dying of a terminal disease, and who has decided to live it up for the first time in his life. The best way to look at the film is to examine each star's performance in turn:
Garbo gets top billing, but shows up last, playing on the audience's anticipation. She plays a great star, not unlike herself, and she gets a classic star closeup of her glowing face the first time we see her. She epitomizes glamor here, but her acting is at times uneven. Overall, her performance works better as GARBO, the great star, giving the film goers what they want, than it does as a believable characterization. Although this was not her first sound film, she seems to still be trying many of the same broad gestures she used in silent films, (and she may still have been struggling with her newly learned English)and her line delivery often shows her trying to wring every ounce of emotion out of each word. Listen to her most famous line in the film, "I want to be alone",which she repeats three times, and tell me I'm wrong! (Her Swedish accent is also wrong for someone playing a Russian, but the accents in this film are almost all wrong, so that doesn't matter). Even for a prima ballerina, she is often too melodramatic, but in her defense, I don't see how any actress could believably pull off the scene where she considers suicide while talking out loud to herself in her hotel room. Her acting improves in her later scenes, when she has fallen in love and radiantly dances and spins around. So overall, it's fun to see her being the bright star that she was, but I prefer her in later films like QUEEN CHRISTINA and NINOTCHKA.
John Barrymore and Greta Garbo
John Barrymore as Baron Felix von Gaigern gives the film's best performance which is fortunate because his character is the link between all five of them. He is instantly charming and likable, even when he's planning a robbery, and Barrymore is smart and subtle in the role. Without ever raising his voice he commands every scene he's in through sheer charisma; we can still why most people take an immediate shine to him, and why the two women in the film fall for him so quickly! A key moment for him is when he sneaks into Garbo's room to steal her pearl necklace; he is forced to hide when she returns earlier than expected. She is sad because the audiences for her dancing are getting smaller, and alone in her room, she considers suicide out loud to herself, causing Barrymore to reveal himself to her. When he asks him who he is, he responds "Someone who could love you, that's all. Someone who's forgotten everything else but you. " This scene is faintly ridiculous in the way that the two strangers fall deeply in love at the drop of a hat, but Barrymore manages to sell it (Garbo's image as the most desirable woman in the world certainly helps!). After spending the night together, he returns her pearls and refuses her offer of money that he needs to pay off his criminal accomplices (the baron is broke, but still noble). This leads to Barrymore's best scene when the baron, now desperate for money, could easy steal a fat bank roll from a drunk. The way Barrymore shows the emotions playing out on his face, weighing the pain of the crime he has committed on the drunk with the possibility that his own life depends on getting the money, is great, understated acting.
Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen, the sternographer and sometimes model, doesn't really have a lot to do here, but, in high contrast to Garbo, she gives a relaxed and natural performance that is winning. It's probably for the best that she and Garbo never have a scene together (indeed, at no point in the film does Golding get all five of his stars together in the same shot) because their different acting styles probably wouldn't mesh well. Crawford is at her best when she's flirts with her boss, Preysing; clearly, she's not attracted to the man, but she knows that she can get an all expenses paid trip from him (and possibly much more)if she plays her cards right, so she leads him on without actually saying too much, accepting his advances without quite promising to return them.
John's brother, Lionel Barrymore, plays Otto Kringelein, and if I didn't know for a fact that they were brothers, I certainly wouldn't have guessed it! Lionel may have only been four years older than John, but he looks and acts much older, and he lacks John's leading man looks (John was famously know for his great profile). Not only do they not look alike, but their voices and style of acting are also different; Lionel's high pitched voice gets a workout here as he spews out dialogue at a brisk pace (his character is often drunk, so there's some excuse for his energy here). Lionel certainly seems to be having a grand time with this role, as his terminally ill character gets to drink, dance and gamble for the first time in his life. His big scene comes when he gets to tell off his boss, Preysing, with a rush of glee and drunken bravado. While such a broad character can become tiresome (I get particularly annoyed by him when he complains about his room early in the film), Lionel's zest and joy for the role eventually won me over.
Finally, there is Wallace Beery as the corrupt industrialist Preysing, and I simply think he is utterly miscast. With his gruff demeanor and physical size, I find Beery much more believable in roles such his washed up boxer in THE CHAMP, or his hardened criminal in THE BIG HOUSE, than here. He seems ill at ease in his fancy clothes, and when he speaks of big business wheeling and dealing with his associates, he's seems to have no idea what he's talking about. (These scenes are among the film's worst, with a lot of yelling about some kind of big business deal that's never explained to the audience.) Oddly, Beery is the only actor in the film to try a German accent, but it never really works, and one wonders why he bothered. The best thing to say about his performance is that it doesn't sink the film, and he usually is interacting with one of the other stars, who are all doing better work than him.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
GRAND HOTEL is often considered a classic, perhaps more for its gathering of great stars than for its quality; still, it certainly is ambitous, and mostly effective, with Beery's performance being the only glaring weakness. Personally, I prefer Howard Hawks's fast moving gangster film, SCARFACE:THE SHAME OF A NATION, but there was no way that the Academy would honor a gangster movie at that time; they were often attacked for glamorizing criminals. I also perfer Josef von Streberg's SHANGHAI EXPRESS. Still, it's no surprise that a movie as big budgeted and star driven as GRAND HOTEL won, and I certainly don't think it's a bad choice.