If Appellate Judge Tom Becker is reincarnated as an animal, he wants to be a roan.
People coming, going…nothing ever happens.
A milestone in American cinema, Grand Hotel was the baby of legendary MGM producer Irving Thalberg. The film was remarkable at its release for its "cast of all-stars," with top-billed players who were able to carry a film on their own all clustered together under one title—something that was pretty much unheard of at the time.
Based on a novel by Vicki Baum and directed by stalwart Edmund Goulding (Dark Victory), the lavish film was an instant hit, a prestige offering that was embraced by audiences and critics alike. It won the Academy Award for Best Film, even though it received no other nominations—the only film in the Academy history to do so. Catch phrases and moments from the film quickly entered cultural consciousness, including Greta Garbo's now-famous line, "I want to be alone."
Now, Grand Hotel, which has seen a couple of DVD releases, gets a spiffy Blu debut.
Facts of the Case
The Grand Hotel, the finest accommodation in Berlin, circa 1930. People come, people go, and of course, lives intersect.
• The Baron (John Barrymore, Twentieth Century) is a now-impoverished noble turned thief. To pay off a huge gambling debt, he intends to steal jewelry from a ballerina.
• Grusinskaya, the Ballerina (Greta Garbo, Camille), was once a great and in-demand dancer, but has been reduced to playing shows for half-empty houses. She is tired, fragile, empty, at her wits' end, and she wants "to be alone."
• Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore, It's a Wonderful Life) is a timid, simple man who has worked his whole life as a bookkeeper. He's just found out he only has a short while to live and has taken all his money to spend his last days "living it up"—at the finest hotel in Berlin.
• General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery, Dinner at Eight), who owns the company where Kringelein worked, is also at the hotel, but on business: his company is on the brink of collapse, and he is desperate to complete a merger with another company.
• Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford, Johnny Guitar) is an attractive young woman hired by Preysing as a stenographer. While Flaemmchen makes her money taking dictation, she's not above offering herself on a more personal level in exchange for gifts, trips, and a little cash.
Over the course of less than two days, in this grandest of hotels, Grusinskaya will find a reason to live, thanks to the Baron, who falls in love with her; Kringelein will learn what living is all about; Preysing will risk everything to try to save his company; and Flaemmchen will find herself interacting in very different ways with three very different men.
It's just another day at the Grand Hotel.
If you think all old movies are creaky, stodgy, and silly relics, then check out Grand Hotel. Still vibrant, innovatively directed, with complex characters and mature situations, this film not only holds up beautifully, it more than justifies its inclusion on many "best ever" lists.
As mentioned, Grand Hotel was the first "all-star epic," though unlike many all-star vehicles that were made later, the film doesn't have an event at its center—there was no war, murder, or transportation disaster pulling everything together. It's more interested in telling the human stories, observing life through this microcosm. Despite its grandiose trappings, the film remains an intimate drama.
I had seen Grand Hotel before, but not in a while. While I remembered the basic structure and through line, I'd forgotten how effective a film this is, how touching and wistful it all is. There's such an air of sadness hanging over all this, an unshakeable sense of impending tragedy. In this way, the film is strangely prescient: while there's little mention of politics in Grand Hotel, we know that Germany in the 1930s would go on to become the site of one of history's great tragedies, and somehow, this American production deftly captures a moment of opulence ahead of the ruin.
It's easy to dismiss Grand Hotel as a high-quality soap opera, but that sells short the film's very real accomplishments. The actors might have been trying to upstage each other, but the performances in Grand Hotel come across better than one might expect. These are deeply etched characterizations with rich inner lives and complex backstories. At times, they act as we expect they will; at other times, they surprise us, as do the overt references to sexuality in a film made at the dawn of the Hays Code. The stories fuse together beautifully, and Goulding's direction is clear and masterful, presenting this crowded place of dreams and emotions so clearly, and with a gentleness toward even the less heroic characters.
The Baron, Kringelein, and Flaemmchen become an odd and tender little group, a trio of outcasts whose interactions elevate their otherwise dreary lives. They really don't belong in this place: Flaemmchen and Kringelein don't have the social stature, and the Baron's lack of funds, initially dishonorable intentions, and cynical ability to clearly assess the world puts him at odds with the proper, self-important people around him. Flaemmchen has romantic feelings for the Baron; she's disappointed when he explains that he's fallen in love with Grusinskaya, but not bitter, and continues to be his friend. Both feel affection for the ill and sweet Kringelein, treating him with a dignity he's evidently never known. The Barrymores and Crawford turn in wonderful performances, with Crawford's portrait of a woman juggling sexual politics and sexual economics something of a revelation; this is among her greatest work.
I've seen Garbo's work here criticized as being too flamboyant—reportedly, the actress herself believed the performance to be a bit over the top—but it actually makes sense in terms of the character. Grusinskaya is a prima ballerina; her whole life is a performance, so it's fitting that the artiste in distress—and later, in love—would be dramatic, that her movements would be sweeping and elaborate. That Garbo is so exquisitely beautiful also makes it easier to forgive the occasional excess of grand gesture; while she might not be anyone's idea of a prima ballerina, she is every inch a star, and mesmerizing. Every emotion plays on her perfect, expressive face. Her scenes with John Barrymore—the only other star she appears with—are electric and moving.
It's impossible to talk about Grand Hotel without talking about the real star here, the Grand Hotel itself. An opulent art deco creation, it allows for dizzying and sometimes dazzling camerawork and perfectly represents the kind of bustling, busy place where lives and destinies intertwine. The orchestra plays Strauss waltzes that can be heard throughout the building, people dress in finery in the lobby and the bar (the Yellow Room), everything anchored by a huge, circular check-in station. It really is a marvel of art direction.
Grand Hotel (Blu-ray) offers an outstanding transfer for this 80-and-change-year-old film. There's a bit of softness here and there, particularly in some of the close-ups, and the grain is occasionally heavy, but overall, the image looks great. Contrast is excellent, blacks are deep and true, and print damage is virtually nonexistent. The audio is nearly as impressive, a solid DTS mono track that's free of distortion, hiss, and flaws.
Like many Blu-ray upgrades, the supplements consist largely of ports from previous releases, but Warner Bros. gets props for including something new: a fact-filled commentary with film historians Jeffrey Vance and Mark A. Veira that moves nicely and is well worth a listen thanks to the knowledge and enthusiasm of the contributors. Beyond that, we get a featurette, "Checking Out: Grand Hotel;" newsreel footage from the premiere; a Vitaphone musical short, "Nothing Ever Happens;" plus trailers and a teaser; all these were on an earlier release.
One of the greatest films of early talking cinema, Grand Hotel should have a place on everyone's "must see" list. This Blu-ray from Warner Bros. is about as good as it gets.
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