Judge Ian Visser usually spends his hotel stays without a continental breakfast or a light-hearted tête-à-tête with Joan Crawford.
"To life! To the magnificent, dangerous, brief, brief, wonderful life…and the courage to live it!"—Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) to Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore)
A ruined aristocrat. A dying clerk. An ambitious stenographer. A fading ballerina. A desperate industrialist. These are the characters that make up Grand Hotel, winner of the 1931-32 Best Picture Oscar. A breath-taking combination of casting and glamour, Grand Hotel is a showcase of all that Hollywood had to offer at the time. Grand Hotel was released as a stand-alone disc in 2004, and subsequently reviewed by DVDVerdict. It is now available as part of the Greta Garbo—The Signature Collection but unfortunately remains a flawed effort on the technical side.
The Grand Hotel in Berlin is swanky, sophisticated, and expensive. Following the First World War, Berlin found itself in a boom, becoming one of the world's cultural centers. With this distinction came the wealthy and elite, carrying their money with them. The residents and guests of the Grand Hotel live their lives in comfort and splendor, spending their days in the bar or on the dance floor.
Enter into this scene our cast of characters:
• Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore, Moby Dick), a bankrupt aristocrat
taken to hotel theft
For those unaccustomed to the acting styles of the era, some of the performances may appear over-the-top or outright hammy. It's important to remember that the film was made in the period that saw the end of the silent era and the dawn of sound. Many actors from the silent period were unable to make the transition to "talkies" and found themselves on uneven footing. The over-emoting necessary to carry the intention of characters in silent films was hard to shrug off, and the dramatic style of acting present in Grand Hotel is a result.
That being said, there are no bad apples in this bunch. The casting by MGM of stars Lionel and John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, and Wallace Beery was revolutionary for its time. It would be today's equivalent of putting Tom Cruise, Mel Gibson, and Tom Hanks in a single film, with a little Kevin Spacey and Julia Roberts thrown in for good measure. Each star was a fine performer, and Garbo delivers a performance that many consider one of her best, featuring her immortal line, "I want to be alone." Joan Crawford's role of an ambitious stenographer would propel the actress to her own stardom, and the Barrymore brothers demonstrate why both were at the top of their ranks.
The video presentation appears to be the same as offered in the stand-alone version of the film. The print is not in good shape, sporting constant flecks and spots, and vertical scratches throughout. There is also a great deal of flickering and an overall softness to the image. This is probably the best that Warner Brothers could find in the vaults, but for a classic Oscar winner, a little more effort for some restoration would have been appreciated.
The audio on the feature suffers a similar fate. Although the dialogue is listenable, there is still a presence of hiss throughout, and quite a bit of background noise. A French audio track is offered, as well as subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
The special features on Grand Hotel are a welcome selection. We get a recent 10-minute documentary outlining the history of the production and a premiere newsreel that demonstrates how big this film really was at the time of its release. A short musical adaptation of the story is included, as well as a trailer for the film and its 1945 remake, Weekend at the Waldorf. Compared to the bare-bones treatment many films of the era receive, the inclusion of these archival features is a real treat.
Grand Hotel proves that Hollywood once knew how to make the kind of glamorous features that have become a thing of the past. It's disappointing that Warner Bros. couldn't see fit to improve on the video and audio of the original release for the new Garbo boxed set, but the sheer star-power and great atmosphere of the film makes it more than worthwhile.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Making-Of Documentary: Checking Out: Grand Hotel
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