Until Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932) the conventional wisdom in Hollywood had always been to star a featured player in a single movie surrounded by a roster of solid performers in supporting roles. But MGM’s wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg knew better – or perhaps didn’t, but was nevertheless willing to take a gamble. The gamble paid off handsomely, in fact, making Grand Hotel MGM’s first certifiable smash hit of the sound era. Apart from breaking the mold, the film also served to celebrate MGM’s supremacy in the industry as publicist Howard Dietz once proclaimed, in being the studio with ‘more stars than there are in heaven.’ Of the top ten box office draws back then MGM had five under contract – all of them, except Clark Gable, present and accounted for in Grand Hotel.
Based on a book by Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel is essentially a soap opera long before the phrase had ever been coined; an ensemble piece with various archetypes brought together under one roof to coalesce and converge in sometimes humorous and dramatic ways – always with the express purpose to titillate and entertain. Baum had based her original work ‘Menschen im Hotel’ on her own experiences as a chambermaid and a real life incident involving a stenographer and corporate magnate. MGM paid $35,000 for the film rights to produce it, a tidy sum then, marginally offset when the play Grand Hotel, slightly rewritten by William A. Drake (that also served as the framework for the film) opened on Broadway.
Thalberg wisely elected to retain the intercontinental flavor in the original, setting the action primarily in a palatial art deco hotel, presumably in Berlin (actually photographed entirely on soundstages at MGM). In retrospect, Grand Hotel is a microcosm for all of MGM’s departments functioning at the zenith of their creative output. Apart from the casting of Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Wallace Beery, John and Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt as its central protagonists, the film is a high fashion potpourri for designer Adrian’s stunning costumes and a spectacle of fanciful art direction under Cedric Gibbons’ watchful eye.
This amalgam of European characters set against their obviously American design chic is not entirely successful. The deco is just a tad too pronounced, the glibness of the repartee between these various hoods, harlots and haughtily rich inhabiting the same spacious suites hints more at raw Tin Pan Alley than the uber-wanton déclassé escapades of the Bohemian wealthy in gay ol’ Berlin. Nevertheless, Grand Hotel clings together primarily because the interaction between its stars is richly satisfying; particularly the razor-backed exchanges between John Barrymore’s faux Baron and Joan Crawford’s sassy stenographer, Flaemschen. These crackle with a tawdry allure that is sinfully engaging.
Reportedly, neither Greta Garbo nor Wallace Beery wanted to be in the film. Perhaps Garbo wisely deduced that her particular brand of unnatural theatrics was ill suited to the more naturalistic elements in Crawford and Barrymore’s acting prowess. Indeed, she and Crawford had no scenes together – something Crawford, who greatly admired Garbo, always regretted. Yet Garbo, whose own popularity skyrocketed as MGM’s exotic bird of paradise during the silent era, and had made the successful transition to sound with Anna Christie (1931), continued to suffer from crippling anxiety. She feared her love scenes with John Barrymore would fail to generate the necessary spark to ignite the silver screen – not because she believed Barrymore an inferior talent to her own, but because she obsessed over what she deemed his infinitely more in tune ability to emote using ‘sound’ in his screen acting.
When the production first began to shoot Garbo’s awkwardness persisted until finally one day between takes, in an uncharacteristically giddy moment of nervousness she suddenly broke down and confided to Barrymore “You have no idea what working with such a great artist means to me.” From that moment on Barrymore, who had first believed Garbo’s aloofness toward him was predicated on personal vanity, became utterly devoted to her as a fellow performer. The two became lifelong friends – a rarity for Garbo who, in later years, became compulsively reclusive.
Wallace Beery, on the other hand, eventually chose to accept his assignment by investing himself in a thoroughly campy, if boorishly scene stealing performance; the only actor to adopt an affected Germanic accent as the waning industrialist, Preysing, for whom a wandering eye and laggard’s black heart spell imminent disaster. Crawford was not amused by Beery’s attempts to dominate every scene they were in together, but went along for the sake of keeping the peace. His more risqué scenes with her, one involving their mutual toying with one of Flaemschen’s garters, eventually fell to the cutting room floor, thereby blunting what was undeniably the one documented and presumably very adulterous affair taking place inside the hotel.
Grand Hotel opens with the emotionally embittered and physically scarred Doctor Ottenschlag (Lewis Stone) declaring that this is a place where people come and go, but where nothing ever happens. The next 112 minutes will prove him severely mistaken. For soon we are introduced to Russian prima ballerina, Gruskinskaya (Garbo), accompanied by her private maid, Suzette (Rafaela Ottiano), ballet master Pimenov (Ferdinand Gottschalk) and the director of the Berlin ballet, Meierheim (Robert McQuade). The claustrophobia Gruskinskaya experiences in her private life, surrounded by these fair weather sycophants is matched by her debilitating angst over each performance that she gives. Despite being letter perfect each and every night she belabors each nuance to the point of nervous exhaustion.
Meanwhile Baron Felix von Geighern is staking his claim on Gruskinskaya. It seems the Baron is a penniless fop who works for a consortium of crooks in order to pay off his gambling debts and afford him his fashionable lifestyle inside the Grand Hotel amongst the elegant rich. His title is just that, perhaps not even his own but bought and paid for like everything else to suggest a refinement his life would otherwise wholly lack. The Baron encounters Senf (Jean Hersholt), the careworn night porter whose wife is in hospital having their first baby. The Baron inquires about Gruskinskaya’s availability, but then takes a romantic side trip to pursue Flaemschen (Joan Crawford); the brassy stenographer who has been hired by Preysing to cover a presumed merger between his own company and another industrial powerhouse operating out of Manchester, England. One problem: Preysing’s company is about to self-destruct. He desperately needs this merger to go through.
In the meantime, Otto von Kringelein, a meager worker toiling in one of Preysing’s factories has learned that he is dying. Having quit his job and sold virtually everything he owns to live like an aristocrat for whatever time he has left, Kringelein challenges Preysing’s boorish supremacy as a self-appointed master of the world. After one particularly nasty confrontation inside the hotel’s bar, the Baron intervenes to stop Preysing from seriously injuring Kringelein. The Baron’s chivalry infuriates Preysing but impresses Flaemschen, who has tired of allowing herself to be pawed by rich men like Preysing without the prospect of marriage, simply to survive.
The Baron’s flirtations with Flaemschen are genuine, even as he pursues Gruskinskaya in order to get closer to her fabulous jewels. But then a strange thing happens. The Baron falls in love – not with the stenographer, but with the ballerina he is trying to defraud. If Grand Hotel is remembered today for any one scene it remains the heartfelt confrontation between the Baron and Gruskinskaya after he sheepishly returns with the jewels he has stolen from her and a repentant apology and declaration of his love. Sensing the sincerity in his emotional pain, she cannot chide the Baron – whom she has nicknamed ‘Flix’ but declares instead “I just want to be alone.” Throughout the 1930s this one line would turn up with increased frequency in other Garbo movies, leaving audiences to distinguish it expressly with Garbo herself and the actress’ career in totem.
Having failed in his attempt to satisfy the crime syndicate he serves, the Baron is threatened with bodily harm by another member of its crew, posing as a chauffeur (Morgan Wallace). Gruskinskaya already knows what the Baron is. But his love for her will not permit him to have others know the truth and thus embarrass her. To maintain his secrecy the Baron makes a fatal error in judgment. He breaks into Preysing’s suite on the eve that an even more desperate Flaemschen has decided to go to bed with the industrialist under the promise that he will ‘look after her needs’ with his money in trade for the seduction.
About to make his move, Preysing’s eyes are drawn to the slight movement of his bedroom door. He leaves Flaemschen confused to confront the Baron who is already in possession of Preysing’s wallet. Determined to expose the Baron as a fraud and thus humiliate him in front of Flaemschen and the rest of the guests, the two men struggle in Preysing’s suite with Preysing violently bludgeoning the Baron to death with a telephone before realizing that he has, in fact, committed murder. An impatient Flaemschen wanders into the room and seeing the Baron’s body lying on the floor runs from Preysing’s suite in terror.
Preysing is arrested and taken to prison, his dreams of a merger scrapped. Gruskinskaya, who does not know that the Baron has been killed, departs the hotel with her entourage in tow, blissfully contented for the first time in her life because she and ‘Flix’ have previously arranged to meet at the train depot and depart on a whirlwind romance to Vienna. Senf receives a phone call informing him that his wife has given birth to a healthy son. In her grief, Flaemschen is propositioned by the ailing Kringelein – though not necessary for sexual favors – instead to be kind and look after him as his health continues to deteriorate. The two depart in haste after paying Kringelein’s hotel bill, Flaemschen declaring that she will take Kringelein to America where the doctors will undoubtedly cure him of his never fully disclosed illness. Doctor Otternschlag casually reclines in his chair reiterating the irony of Grand Hotel, a place where “people come and people go”, but where “nothing ever happens.”
Grand Hotel would not have been possible without Irving Thalberg – the fastidious VP in charge of all productions at MGM. Evidently the strain of such responsibility proved too much for the man. Thalberg suffered his first serious heart attack returning from Grand Hotel’s triumphant premiere. The husband of Norma Shearer, first considered to play the part of Flaemschen, Thalberg constantly tested the creative boundaries of film as the 20th century’s undisputed art form. A man of immense intellect and superior appreciation for talent, his personal stamp of approval on MGM’s output between 1924 and 1938 signified a level of quality that no other studio could rival.
Yet MGM’s raja, L.B. Mayer and Thalberg did not get on – their sensibilities as to what constituted ‘great entertainment’ a source of constant bickering. When Thalberg died of a heart attack at the age of 37 many blamed Mayer, who overcompensated for the loss by ordering the construction of MGM’s executive offices which he christened as the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Building.
It’s difficult to say who knew better. Surely no one rivaled Thalberg’s peerless track record for generating one magnificent success after the next during the 1930s. And Mayer, despite his objections, allowed Thalberg to make the kind of movies he wanted to throughout the decade with whatever lavishness Thalberg chose to invest. Although MGM’s product throughout the 1940s would become somewhat homogenized and certainly more streamlined, there is little to deny that Mayer also knew what he was doing. The 1940s were MGM’s most profitable decade. Viewed today, Grand Hotel stands as one of the first truly outstanding accomplishments made under Thalberg’s creative and Mayer’s executive aegis; a rare instance where both men’s cinematic tastes aligned to give birth to a lasting work of cinematic art.
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray of Grand Hotel is most welcome indeed. This movie has never had a satisfactory presentation on home video – until now. The 1080p image has been given due diligence and an ample restoration somewhere along the way and the results speak for themselves. The B&W image sparkles. Those expecting a clean crispness should look elsewhere. Film stocks being what they were, Grand Hotel’s contrast is darker – as it should be – and its grain denser and more pronounced – also, as it should be. What makes this transfer a revelation is the complete – or near complete – absence of age related artifacts, something all previous DVD transfers greatly suffered from, and the total eradication of edge effects and shimmering of fine details. In a word, Grand Hotel looks ‘fabulous’!
The audio is a different story. One cannot hold Warner responsible for the shortcomings of early sound recording. Background hiss is ever present – unavoidably so – and dialogue often sounds weak and thin – also unavoidable for a film over 80 years old. Warner has done everything possible to give us a clean element but it still sounds tinny, small and uninspiring. Still, nothing more could have been done. Extras are all hold overs from the DVD including an audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance and Mark Viera, a very brief 12 minute ‘making of’ and some short subjects. Bottom line: Grand Hotel looks grand and appealing on Blu-ray. It’s about time and on behalf of collector’s everywhere – Warner Home Video, I salute thee. Keep ‘em coming, will you?
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)