Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: Grand Hotel (1932)
- Standing: Winner of Best Picture 1931/1932 Academy Awards
- Type: Drama, Pre-Code
- Other AA Nominations: 0
- Other AA Wins: 0
- Director: Edmund Goulding
- Studio/Producer: MGM / Irving Thalberg
- Cast: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt
- Production Notes: The screenplay was based on the play of the same name both by William A. Drake, which was in turn based on the book Menschen im Hotel by German author Vicki Baum, Cinematography by William Daniels, Art Direction by Cedric Gibbons, Costumes by Adrian
- Viewing Order: 18 / 270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
The film opens in the bustling lobby of the swanky Grand Hotel in Berlin. The camera jumps from one character to the next as they bump into each other and cross each other’s paths, each with their own agenda. Terminally ill factory bookeeper Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) fights with the front desk to give him a posh room, despite being a relative nobody unlike some of the other guests. He is flattered by the attention of the broke but innately glamorous Baron Felix von Gaigern ((John Barrymore) who moonlights as a jewel thief and befriends the sick man.
Also in the hotel is Kringelein’s loathed former employer General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), there on business with Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), the stenographer he’s hired. She is a cynically realistic aspiring actress who’s not shocked at the sight of a man exercising in only a bath towel.
Famed but fading Russian ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) senses her career is nearly over and can’t bring herself to perform, though she hauls herself to the theatre anyway under pressure from her entourage.
As in real life, John Barrymore’s Baron is like catnip for the women in this film. After they meet in the hallway, the streetwise Flaemmchen goes from coldly rebuffing his advances to falling all over him after he turns on the charm. In the same evening, Grusinskaya returns from bailing on her ballet performance to find him hiding in her room in a failed attempt to rob her of her jewels. He manages to sweet talk his way out of the situation WAY too easily considering he’s a man she’s never met who was moments earlier lurking in the darkness watching her change. Even though he’s already made a date with Flaemmchen, he’s smitten with the moody ballerina and she with him. They spend the whole night in her room talking after which he declares his love for her and then pulls her pearls from his pocket and confesses to his side hustle. She forgives him and convinces him to join her on her upcoming trip abroad. If this is the weekend, I can’t imagine what the rest of his week was like!
The mix of Garbo and John Barrymore’s overly theatrical romance is juxtaposed quite nicely with Beery and Crawford’s more gritty, streetwise characters. Lionel Barrymore’s highly sympathetic turn as a the critically ill everyman who just wants to live it up for once adds an extra layer to the complexity of the drama.
Barrymore’s Baron is at the same time strangely likable and extremely irritating. He has no problem stealing people’s jewels out of their room to pay off his own gambling debts, yet refuses multiple times to take money from people honestly when they offer it…only to steal it later. Crawford’s Flaemmchen remarks as he walks by that he’s a “gentleman”…even though he ignored her “save me” look and left her to the unwanted attentions of Preysing AFTER flirting with her furiously only to throw her over for Grusinskaya. Some gentleman.
Though Garbo does a depressed yet ethereal goddess transformed by love quite well, Joan Crawford’s youthful but jaded stenographer is the one who steals scenes. Garbo and Crawford’s characters actually never meet and it’s probably just as well – it’s hard imagining them sharing the same space. Flammchen dreams of romance with a gentleman like the baron, instead of a boorish bully like Preysing, but after the baron makes it clear he prefers the ballerina to her she comes crashing back to reality. Becoming Preysing’s mistress is clearly not her first choice, but she agrees to it anyway. Why? “Money” she simply explains to a sympathetic Kringelein, though she’s too kind to dismiss as a mere golddigger or opportunist. Flammchen is just a girl without many good choices.
However, perhaps the best acting is done by Wallace Beery, notably the only actor who attempts a German accent, who manages to make a character full of unexpected layers out of the industrial tycoon Preysing. This is especially noticeable in his romantic pursuit of Flammchen. Typically, this type of character would be played as more predatory, the wolf after the lamb, but their relationship almost seems as if it’s a business arrangement, something not especially desired by either, but both feeling like this is what they should do.
Preysing initially begins all business, his interest in her seemingly non-existent until she shows him sexy modeling photos of herself which arouse his interest. Still, he doesn’t actually pursue an affair with her until his deal falls through and he decides that he would like to cut loose and have some fun. However, an affair is something he apparently has never done during his marriage and he admits he doesn’t know where to start. He’s irritated and confused at having to fight the Baron and Kringelein for Flammchen’s attention and lashes out at them, assuming it’s their interference and not her actual reluctance at being alone with him that has kept them from having a private conversation. The two awkwardly amble their way into the beginnings of an affair…until disaster puts the kibosh on that.
The cinematography experiments with shots from above, pans following one character until it focuses on another, and lighting techniques. Garbo is the beneficiary of the latter treatment and is frequently backlit to give her hair an angelic halo effect. In the scene where she returns early to her room in the middle of the Baron’s jewel heist, she sits in the darkness, bathed in a single spotlight as if on stage, donning a ballerina like pose while the Baron watches from his hiding place while she undresses, until she finally ducks back into the darkness to preserve the final bits of her modesty.
The film (in addition to the novel and play it was based on) was an experiment in characterization. Though common today, the concept of 5 equally important characters steering the events without one main protagonist was unusual in 1932.
The Grand Hotel is a slice of life film. The scenes all take place within the hotel and are set to create a busy atmosphere with loads of background hustle and bustle. Telephone operators frantically connect their lines into the appropriate jacks and the front desk staff never gets a moment to sit down. The in-house doctor, Dr. Otternschlag, (Lewis Stone), “stone image of Loneliness and Death” who experiences the comings and goings of countless people day in and out remarks on the fact that hundreds of people stay within close proximity of each other, but never speak, and then when they leave, others take their place…
Behind the Scenes:
Grand Hotel began as a novel by Vicki Baum and was then a successful stage play (it ran for over a year) before MGM tried their hand at it.
Garbo’s “I want to be alone” line from the film probably wouldn’t have become famous, making AFI’s 100 100 Years…Best Movie Quotes list, had Garbo not been the one saying it. As a line on its own, its not extraordinary, but because it fit her reclusive and mysterious offscreen persona so perfectly, it became forever entwined with her legacy.
This was the first film to feature both famous Barrymore brothers, Lionel and John.
Strangely, despite being a character driven film and all of the leads hailed as giving excellent performances, none of them were nominated for Best Actor/Actress Academy Awards. Perhaps it’s because of them all being so good that none were nominated – who would you choose? In fact, Grand Hotel is the only film in history of the Academy Awards that won Best Picture and was nominated in no other categories.
Why did it win Best Picture?
While several critics were initially wary to hand out rave reviews and stubbornly held on to “the play was better” mentality, most agreed with the public or at the very least acknowledged their opinion that the film was a triumph.
The cast, upon which the success of the film centered, were hailed as brilliant. All 5 of the main players received rave reviews. Viewers also marveled at MGM’s golden touch when it came to the set design. Cedric Gibbons and his art department paid attention to every detail, especially the lobby’s front desk, rounded so that the characters could all gather around it and the camera could pan back and forth to catch every action. This was a feat in set design that would be adopted in later films.
How does it hold up today?
Remarkably well. Though the full length fur coats and top hats evoke the past, the overall themes of class difference, money woes, and new love do not. The characters remain easy to identify with despite their day gloves. It’s also fast paced enough for modern audiences and has enough action to keep any dubious classic-wary moviegoer’s attention.
- IMDb rating = 7.4 out of 10 (with 16,309 ratings)
- Rotten Tomatoes rating = 88% fresh by critics (35 votes fresh vs 5 rotten) and 77% fresh user ratings (out of 6,986 ratings)
Would this be my pick for 1931/1932 Best Picture?
I hadn’t seen this one in about 15 years and I really enjoyed watching it again. I’m not sure if I would go so far as to label it the Best Picture of the 1931/1932 season, but it was certainly enjoyable…
*UPDATE: See my full 1931/1932 ranking here