The Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. And nothing ever happens.
One of the earliest recipients of the Best Picture Oscar™, MGM's Grand Hotel remains a ravishingly entertaining multi-star soap opera, the kind of melodrama that the golden-era studios excelled at but has been all but forgotten in today's special-effects-driven marketplace. Arguments can be made that the film has dated, and these arguments would undoubtedly hold water, but I would argue that it has dated in glorious, extravagant ways, most of which hinge on the very fact that Hollywood just doesn't make these kinds of movies any more. Though it would spawn a host of imitators (and at least one remake), make no mistake—the original, now on DVD from Warner Bros., is the one to see.
Facts of the Case
The film is set in the early 1930s at MGM's posh Grand Hotel in Berlin, where the rich and famous come to mingle, dine, close big business deals, and live in luxury for however long they may be staying. Among them are people like Mr. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a dying industrial worker determined to live out his last days in blissful comfort. There's also a thieving Baron (John Barrymore) with a good heart and empty pockets, who schemes to burglarize a tempestuous ballerina, Grusinskya (Greta Garbo), but ends up romancing her instead. Preysing (Wallace Beery) is an industrial magnate who won't let a bungled merger get in the way of his visions for the future, and Miss Flaemmschen (Joan Crawford) is his ambitious stenographer. Every one of them thrown together by fate under the same roof, unaware that as soon as they depart, another diverse group of guests will take their place, sleep in their beds and, for a few days, live the life of luxury afforded them in the Grand Hotel.
In the years between the World Wars, Berlin became one of Europe's largest cultural hubs, and through it passed some of the greatest artists, businessmen and aristocrats the world has ever known. It was from this fact that writer Vicki Baum took the idea for her novel, Menschen Im Hotel, about an eclectic group of guests passing through one of the city's most lavish hotels. The book became hugely successful and was optioned into a stage play, Grand Hotel, by film studio MGM, which they then sought to adapt to the screen. Instead of making it a vehicle for one or two of their brightest stars, producer Irving Thalberg decided to use virtually all of the studio's major stars in an ensemble cast, seeing the film as an opportunity to capitalize on MGM's stranglehold on the film industry. The gamble paid off, and the film was an enormous hit, eventually winning the 1932 Academy Award™ for Best Picture.
Now, more than seventy years later, Grand Hotel plays as a marvelous example of old-style Hollywood at its most opulent and grandiose, an all-star soap opera that, though obviously somewhat antiquated in its storytelling, still has the power to enthrall by the sheer chemistry displayed by its eclectic mix of stars. Dated? Sure. Self-important? You bet. Magnificently staged and entertaining as hell? Better believe it.
As stated previously, it's the stars that make the movie, and you simply could not find a better collection of actors in 1932 than the one assembled here. The best performance comes from Lionel Barrymore as the dying Kringelein—he finds the absolute right note of pathos and humanity in a role that could have dive-bombed right over the edge of credibility. There's real emotion in Barrymore's work, as he sidles dangerously close to overacting but never gives in, and his relationships to the other characters, especially his brother John's Baron Felix von Geigern, maintain the emotional weight in what could have easily become a superficial ensemble piece. John Barrymore, on the other hand, finds the morality in an immoral man, as his hotel thief is desperate for money but refuses to take it from an oblivious good soul like Kringelein. The friendship formed by these two men is touching, as both are weak-willed but fundamentally decent, and both performances come from two of the biggest male stars of the '30s at the top of their respective games.
The female leads, played by Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford, are more than up to the standard of quality initiated by the men. At first Garbo appears to be playing way over the top as the temperamental ballerina, but we soon realize that this theatricality is intrinsic to the character, who is over the hill but still thinks she's on top of the world. Crawford is earthier and less flighty as the ingénue stenographer to the overbearing Preysing, the tempestuous industrial boss played by Wallace Beery. Crawford, coming off a minor but successful start in silent pictures, is perfectly in tune with the earthy charms of Miss Flaemmschen. This would be a role that would help her successfully make the transition to the sound era, when so many other silent stars simply couldn't cut it.
I recently took a look at Stanley Kramer's Ship of Fools, a 1960s soap opera clearly cut from the same cloth as Grand Hotel, and I noted that a good portion of that later film felt overstuffed, and contained too many minor subplots that just didn't pay off. Grand Hotel, by comparison, keeps the focus on its group of five leads, and never wanders far from their interlocking story threads, despite featuring a number of peripheral characters (including Lewis Stone as a war-scarred doctor). Whereas Ship was overlong and meandering, Grand Hotel is tight and compact, wrapping itself up in under two hours and paying off each of the story threads in satisfying ways. It's not perfect, and flaws can be found if one is inclined to look for them, but if you're looking for glitz and glamour contained in a time when those two words actually stood for something, you needn't look any further than Grand Hotel. Because although Stone's Dr. Otternschlag intones at one point that "nothing ever happens" here, once you've visited this hotel, you'll be inclined to disagree.
Warner Bros. DVD of Grand Hotel is a bit of a disappointment in the video department, sporting only an adequate full-frame transfer. The black-and-white source print doesn't appear to have undergone any kind of restoration work, and ends up looking its age. Dirt and debris are significantly apparent throughout most of the print, and there are vertical scratches in a good number of shots. These are probably the best film elements the folks at Warner could have come up with, and for what it is, the transfer is certainly watchable and never downright awful, but when compared to similar Warner releases, it doesn't quite measure up.
The audio portion of the disc is similar to the video in that it doesn't appear to have been restored in any sense. It's a mono track, and dialogue is clear and understandable, but there's a good amount of background noise on the track, as well as some noticeable hissing. Again, it's not bad, just not quite what I would have expected from Warner. An alternate French track is included, and subtitles are offered in English, French and Spanish.
Thankfully, the average video and audio on the disc are partially remedied by a very decent array of supplements, most of which are included to place the film in its historical context, something that Warner Bros. has been known to do just about as well as anyone in the business. There's a 10-minute making-of featurette, entitled Checking Out: Grand Hotel, that does a nice job of briefly outlining the time from the project's genesis until its eventual release and Oscar success. There are some interesting facts to be gleaned from the doc, most notably Greta Garbo and John Barrymore's initial hesitancy to work with each other, each not thinking themselves worthy to be acting onscreen with the other.
The rest of the extras are all archival in nature, and serve to give the viewer a sense of the film's history. There's a newsreel on the film's premiere, which was, up to that point, one of the biggest in Hollywood history. There's also a musical short, Nothing Ever Happens, which has a different cast of actors shrinking the film's plot into short musical form. It's a silly little piece, but for historical curiosity's sake, it's well worth inclusion on the disc. Finally, we get a theatrical announcement signaling the end of the film's theatrical run, as well as trailers for both Grand Hotel and its 1945 remake, Weekend at the Waldorf.
If Grand Hotel has dated, the reasoning for this stems from the fact that Hollywood just doesn't know how to do glamour like this anymore. It's the kind of movie that offers style over substance in the best possible way, and it cranks up the star wattage to operatic heights. For a list price of only $19.99, meaning that it can be found in most stores for under $15, fans of old-style Hollywood moviemaking will find this a hotel well worth checking into.
Not guilty on all counts. While I would have hoped for this to get the two-disc Warner treatment, it remains a must for classic movie buffs, and I'm just thankful that the film is finally on disc where it belongs. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Making-Of Documentary: Checking Out: Grand Hotel
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