Until Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932) conventional wisdom in Hollywood had always been to cast a single star in a movie, surrounded by a roster of solid performers in supporting roles. From a purely fiscal approach, this made sense. After all, there is a point where the negative pickup to an all-star extravaganza can literally eat away at any chance a picture has of making back its investment. Besides, MGM had had great success with their ‘single star/single movie’ formula. Perhaps, MGM’s wunderkind, producer, Irving Thalberg knew better – or didn’t, but was nevertheless unafraid to take a gamble. Leave it to Thalberg to do the unexpected and succeed. Grand Hotel would cast five of the studio’s then reigning box office titans in one lavishly appointed screen spectacle, based on an obscure novel and play by a German author. While studio raja L.B. Mayer was initially skeptical, Thalberg’s risk would ultimately pay off – and very handsomely too. The Grauman’s Chinese Theater premiere of Grand Hotel remains one of the iconic and ostentatious great moments of the early sound era. Even the stars rejected to partake in the film turned out to sign the oversized ‘hotel’ register in the theaters forecourt and hobnob with Master of Ceremonies, Conrad Nagel. Grand Hotel may not have been MGM’s first certifiable smash hit of the sound era, but it was arguably, its’ most elegant and refined. Apart from breaking the mold in conventional wisdom where casting was concerned, the movie also celebrates MGM’s supremacy in the industry; truly living up to publicist, Howard Dietz’s PR; about Metro possessing ‘more stars than there are in the heavens.’ Of the top ten box office draws back then, MGM had five under contract – all of them, except Clark Gable and Norma Shearer (arguably, Metro’s King and Queen of the lot), present and accounted for in Grand Hotel.
Viewed today, Grand Hotel is a huge thing; the granddaddy and template for all all-star pageants of movie-land spectacle come since. It changed the mentality of an entire industry; MGM embracing the legacy of its success with pictures like Dinner At Eight, Marie Antoinette, Romeo and Juliet and on and on; the zenith of Grand Hotel’s influence in picture-making resonating decades later with star-studded oddities and travelogues like Around the World in 80 Days, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and even mutating to affect other genres; chiefly, the disaster epics of the 1970s; Airplane, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno (nicknamed ‘Grand Hotel’ in flames) and Earthquake. Not surprising, Grand Hotel won the Best Picture Oscar for 1932-33. Curiously, it was not even nominated in any other category. If nothing else, both Garbo and Crawford ought to have seen the nomination, as each gives a superb and superior performance in their illustrious body of respective film work. Grand Hotel harks to a period in film-making when the star reigned supreme. It is a drama with dramatic highlights as riveting and undiluted as anything attempted on the stage, and light moments of sublime comedy that a few critics of their day found slightly distasteful. The Philadelphia censors actually hacked out the scene where an inebriated Otto Kringelein returns to his suite, bumbling and belching his way into bed.
Based on a book and little known play ‘Menschen im Hotel’ by Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel is essentially a soap opera, long before the phrase was coined; an enviable ensemble piece with various archetypes brought together under one roof – literally – to coalesce and converge in sometimes humorous, mostly dramatic, and on one occasion, very tragic ways – always with the express purpose to titillate and entertain. Baum had based the play on her experiences while working as a chambermaid in two hotels in Berlin, and a real-life affair involving a stenographer and corporate magnate. MGM paid $35,000 for the rights to produce it, a tidy sum then, marginally offset when the Americanized version of the play, rechristened as Grand Hotel and slightly rewritten by William A. Drake (which also served as the framework for the film), opened on Broadway, making Grand Hotel – the movie, the only picture to make money for the studio before a single frame had been shot. Thalberg wisely elected to retain the intercontinental flavor in Baum’s original, setting the action in a palatial art deco hotel, presumably in Berlin (actually photographed entirely on soundstages at MGM). In retrospect, Grand Hotel is a microcosm for MGM’s various departments functioning at the zenith of their creativity; Cedric Gibbon’s impressive production design, fluidly photographed by cinematographer, William H. Daniels, whose camera is constantly reframing the action in some very long and complex takes, eliciting impromptu applause from the preview audience.
Thalberg was determined the picture should celebrate and show off Metro’s cache of talent; Greta Garbo, as the high-strung and suicidal ballerina, Grusinskaya; John Barrymore in perhaps his best screen role as the empathetic Baron von Geighern; Wallace Beery, as boorish industrialist, General Director Preysing; Lionel Barrymore, his fatally-stricken bookkeeper, Otto Kringelein; Lewis Stone, a physically scarred diphtheria survivor, Dr. Otternschlag, and finally, Jean Hersholt, as the long suffering hotel porter, Senf. Of these, only Beery would sport a German accent; Thalberg’s way to convince Beery the part was worthy of his talents. Interestingly, Thalberg elected to cast Joan Crawford among these already ensconced luminaries as the street-savvy stenographer, Flaemmchen. Not that Crawford was a star in her own right. And equally, she had proven her mettle as popular box office. And yet, her movies were hardly considered high art. Yet, to Grand Hotel Crawford really upped her game and brought a more refined performance to the screen, every bit as noteworthy and capable to play off both Barrymores and Beery. Several reviews of the day were quick to cite hers as the outstanding performance in the picture. Alas, to Crawford’s everlasting regret, she shared no scenes with Garbo, whom she long admired and after only the briefest of formal introductions during pre-production, never saw again during the shoot.
Reportedly, neither Garbo nor Beery wanted to be in the picture. Perhaps, Garbo worried her particular brand of stylized theatrics was ill-fitted for this all-star cast. Garbo, whose popularity had skyrocketed as MGM’s exotic bird of paradise during the silent era, and had made the successful transition from silent to talkies with Anna Christie (1931) suffered from bouts of crippling anxiety. Beforehand, Garbo heavily campaigned for her frequent silent costar and former lover, John Gilbert, to be cast in the part of the Baron. Alas, Gilbert’s last few pictures had not performed at the box office. And Thalberg was taking no chances in casting John Barrymore in his stead. Viewing Grand Hotel today, one is stricken and baffled by the fact Barrymore has barely ten more years to live; his confidence, talent and health eroded by years of chronic alcoholism. In Grand Hotel, Barrymore is quite simply, the heart of the piece; a conman masquerading as a member of the aristocracy, determined to steal Grusinskaya’s pearls until he is irreversibly struck by Cupid’s arrow, falling madly in love with his intended victim.
On the first day’s scheduled shoot, Barrymore arrived on set to discover Garbo had yet to arrive. Twenty-minutes later, he had grown mildly perturbed until one of the prop boys informed him Garbo had been patiently waiting all this time outside to escort him onto the set; equally unaware Barrymore had already arrived. Touched by the gesture, Barrymore approached the Swedish enigma, kissed her hand, and said, “My wife and I think you the most beautiful and talent actress in the world,” to which Garbo’s nervous aloofness completely melted away, favoring the compliment with one of her own, “You have no idea what working with such a great artist means to me.” From this moment forward, Barrymore and Garbo’s mutual admiration would only continue to grow. Indeed, they would remain lifelong friends until Barrymore’s untimely passing – a rarity for Garbo who, in later years was compulsively reclusive. When Grand Hotel had its premiere, a single line of dialogue uttered by Grusinskaya was substituted as Garbo’s own mantra: “I want to be alone.” The line is repeated several times by Garbo’s emotionally-tortured ballerina in moments of darkening despair. However, it stuck to the star like glue and has since been endlessly parodied as part of the Garbo mystique.
Thalberg was to have trouble convincing Wallace Beery to accept the part of Preysing. Beery was one of Metro’s biggest stars, usually playing loveable galoots in movies like Min and Bill (1930) and The Champ (1931). Alas, in life, his temperament tended to run truer to the haughty and churlish Preysing. Perhaps Preysing was too close to the bone for Beery, who had striven to preserve his fictionalized public image. Thalberg eventually cajoled Beery into accepting the part by suggesting his would be the only role to adopt an affected Germanic accent. Beery liked this challenge; better still, designed to make him stand out in relief from the ensemble. Because Grand Hotel was made in the years preceding Hollywood’s self-governing code of censorship, there are more than a handful of risqué moments adorning the picture; a good many favoring Beery’s performance, beginning with the first ‘cute meet’ between Flaemschen and Preysing in his suite.
Crawford’s world-weary stenographer enters the room, catching Beery wearing nothing but a towel from the waist down and engaged in some post-shower calisthenics to preserve his male vanity. The two regard one another with some highly charged and thinly veiled impure thoughts. Later, Preysing all but pummels a helpless Kringelein in the hotel’s bar. Finally, in the movie’s penultimate shocker, Preysing accidentally bludgeons Baron von Geighern to death with a telephone. Beery was understandably concerned carrying on as an oversexed, philandering cheat, liar and finally, murderer would negatively impact and tarnish his reputation. In the final analysis, he had nothing to fear – at least, from the movie; his reputation later besmirched by ex-wife, Gloria Swanson, who had no quam about exposing Beery’s abusiveness while the two were briefly married.
Among its many other attributes, Grand Hotel is a highly stylized fashion parade for MGM’s resident designer, Gilbert Adrian (simply known as ‘Adrian’) and an exercise in uber-chic fanciful art deco designs under Cedric Gibbons’ watchful eye. The amalgam of European characters set against these obvious American backdrops is not altogether successful; the deco a tad too pronounced, the glibness in the repartee between Crawford’s private secretary and John Barrymore’s empathetic con artist in particular, leaning more toward Broadway Burlesque than the uber-wanton and slightly déclassé escapades of the Bohemian wealthy in gay Berlin. Nevertheless, Grand Hotel clings together primarily because the silky interaction between these stars is richly satisfying. Here is a show that is genuinely unapologetic about showing off; the screenplay adapted by Béla Balázs and William Absalom Drake, a potpourri of charming and slightly risqué vignettes that miraculously come together in unexpected ways near the end.
Grand Hotel opens with the emotionally embittered and physically scarred Doctor Ottenschlag (Lewis Stone) declaring Grand Hotel as a place “where people come and go”, but where “nothing ever happens.” The next 112 minutes will prove him severely mistaken in this assessment. Almost immediately, 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). Gruskinskaya is a creature of extremes; suffering from a sort of love-starved claustrophobia in her private life, surrounded by fair weather sycophants who neither understand nor are willing to appreciate the great strain she is under. Despite being letter perfect each and every night, Gruskinskaya is plagued by crippling self-doubt. She belabors each nuance to the point of nervous exhaustion and is quite unaware she has already become the target of Baron Felix von Geighern (John Barrymore).
It seems the Baron is a penniless con, trading on his air of culture while working for a consortium of crooks in order to pay off gambling debts that have afforded him his fashionable lifestyle amongst these elegant rich. His title is just that, perhaps bought and paid for like everything else, to suggest a social refinement he otherwise lacks. The Baron encounters Senf (Jean Hersholt), the careworn night porter whose wife is in hospital having their first baby. He inquires about Gruskinskaya’s availability. Alas, the Baron’s initial taste in women shifts to a flirtatious detour with Flaemschen (Joan Crawford); the brassy stenographer, hired by Preysing to cover his merger with the Saxonia firm and another industrial powerhouse operating outside of Manchester, England. One problem: Preysing’s company is about to self-destruct. He desperately needs this merger to go through to save his family from financial ruin.
In the meantime, Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a meager bookkeeper toiling in one of Preysing’s factories has learned 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 prevent Preysing from seriously injuring Kringelein. The Baron’s chivalry infuriates Preysing. But it impresses Flaemschen, who has grown enamored of him and equally is 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 to get closer to her fabulous jewels. But then a strange thing happens. The Baron falls in love – not with the stenographer, but the ballerina he is trying to defraud.
If Grand Hotel is remembered today for any one particular scene, it remains the heartfelt confrontation between the Baron and Gruskinskaya: he, sheepishly remaining behind in her suite after already having stolen her priceless pearls, but quite unable to abandon her as she is about to attempt suicide. Unaware the Baron has been in her room all this time, Gruskinskaya is understandably shocked and ready to telephone hotel security. He begs her to reconsider what a waste it would be to end her life and she crumbles in his arms, not from embarrassment for being found out, but in the face of his seemingly genuine humility and compassion. Garbo and Barrymore mine this moment for all its dramatic intensity. After gaining her confidence, he humbly confesses his own failings, returns the jewels he has stolen with a repentant apology and equally as heart-felt declaration of unexpected love for her. Sensing his sincerity, and able to draw a parallel in their shared ‘sweet sorrows’ – Gruskinskaya cannot bring herself to chide the Baron. She is, in fact, hopelessly drawn to him as he is now inextricably affectionate to her.
It is a beautifully executed trice in the picture; subtly raw, yet with neither player endeavoring an upstage; each, immaculately giving it their all. Months after, Thalberg ordered Goulding to reshoot a few inserts; close-ups of Garbo and Barrymore to accentuate and punctuate the poignancy. And upon renewed viewing today, one can definitely sense the importance of these retakes; of a stirring and mutual admiration at play, not only between the Baron and Gruskinskaya, but also between Garbo and Barrymore. Arguably, Garbo was never more vulnerable on the screen than in Grand Hotel. It is more than simply allowing for tears, and gentleness to emerge; a sort of careworn passion to suddenly, and quite unexpectedly permeate from behind her wounded façade while in character. The actress herein seems to be expressing deeper, more internalized lacerations of the heart; a response Garbo was not generally known for and, regrettably, would never again reveal to the camera.
Having failed 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. She offers a payoff for his disentanglement from the syndicate, but he nobly refuses her gesture, made purely from love. He will make himself worthy of her on his own terms or die trying. The Baron’s first attempt to regain control over his finances leans toward a poker game with several other wealthy patrons staying at the hotel, also Kringelein who has adopted a laissez faire attitude towards life in genral and is determined to embrace all the wanton revelry he has denied himself these many years, and experience everything that is decadent in the span of just a few short weeks. The Baron wagers everything he has on one bad hand after the next. Ironically, Kringelein proves the big winner of the evening. His overjoy is interrupted with a mild collapse; the Baron sending for Doctor Otternschlag while seizing upon the opportunity to lighten Kringelein’s purse of his poker winnings. But the Baron is too good a man to cruelly steal away, particularly after Kringelein awakens and frantically explains that without these winnings he will surely be expelled from the hotel for being unable to pay his bills. Restoring the monies to Kringelein under the pretext he has discovered a wallet under a nearby couch, the Baron departs Kringelein’s suite. Time has run out for him. The syndicate will wait no more for their money and will surely expose the Baron as a fraud to cover their own tracks.
To maintain his secrecy, preserve his waning dignity, and, stay true to the promise he made to Gruskinskaya - to accompany her on her European tour - the Baron makes a fatal error in judgment. He breaks into Preysing’s suite by scaling the balconies just outside his room. Inside, an even more desperate Flaemschen has already agreed to become the wicked industrialist’s mistress. Preysing’s lie about the merger with Manchester having already successfully gone through requires he depart for England immediately to smooth over the deal so his new investors, the Saxonia Co., are none the wiser. Preysing, who has already fallen from grace in business, is about to compound this blunder by sacrificing his private life as a devoted husband and father. But Preysing’s seduction of Flaemschen is interrupted as his eyes are drawn to a slight movement from beyond his bedroom door. He leaves Flaemschen confused and alone in her room, confronting the Baron, already in possession of Preysing’s wallet. The Baron pleads for mercy. Instead, Preysing sees this as the perfect opportunity to expose the Baron as a fraud and humiliate him in front of Flaemschen. The two men struggle in Preysing’s suite and Preysing violently bludgeons the Baron to death with a telephone before suddenly realizing he has, in fact, committed coldblooded murder. An impatient Flaemschen wanders into Preysing’s bedchamber. But seeing the Baron’s body lying cold and bloody on the floor she flees in terror to fetch Kringelein.
Disgusted by the discovery of the Baron’s body, Kringelein telephones the police. Preysing is arrested and taken to prison. Gruskinskaya, unaware the Baron has been murdered, momentarily senses something is terribly wrong. Her fears are calmed by Suzette and Pimenov – who realize what it will mean, if she ever learns the truth. They quickly usher Gruskinskaya to a waiting taxi, her blissful excitement boundless as she daydreams of their heady (never to be) reunion at the train depot. The Baron’s body is removed from the hotel in a waiting horse-drawn hearse; his beloved dachshund, Udolfus, chased out with the trash. Senf receives a phone call from the hospital, informing him his wife has successfully given birth to a healthy son – the one bit of cheery news. Flaemschen and Kringelein are united in their grief over the Baron. Kringelein confides he is ill and dying and offers, if Flaemschen is willing, to look after her until the end. Unlike Preysing’s offer, there is no suggestion of quid pro quo sexual favors for this kindness. Kringelein is merely looking for someone to be kind to him in return. Determined to seek out the best doctors for a second opinion, Flaemschen accepts Kringelein’s proposal. The pair checks out – perhaps, bound for America, where, as Flaemschen tearfully points out, the doctors will undoubtedly discover a cure. “They can cure anything these days!” As Flaemschen and Kringelein depart from the lobby, Doctor Otternschlag casually reiterates the ironic line that began our story: “Grand Hotel…people come…people go…always the same…nothing ever happens.”
Grand Hotel would not have been possible without Irving Thalberg. Throughout the late silent and early talkies era, Thalberg encouraged his boss, L.B. Mayer to see a future of even greater profitability for the studio by investing more heavily on a smaller yearly output of quality-made pictures. Mayer, alas, could only see pure profit in terms of Metro’s enduring star system and an assembly-line manufacturing principle for churning out a minimum of 52 pictures a year. Thalberg and Mayer frequently clashed on this point of interest with Thalberg determined to prove Mayer wrong. Evidently, the strain proved far too great for this young genius whom Vicki Baum nicknamed ‘the little dynamo’. Thalberg suffered his second serious heart attack after returning from Grand Hotel’s triumphant Hollywood premiere. When Thalberg died of a coronary barely four years later at the tender age of 37, many blamed Mayer for contributing to the stressors. Mayer would overcompensate by building MGM’s executive office complex, christened by him as the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Building.
It is difficult to remain entirely objective about this tumultuous relationship. Who knew better – Thalberg or Mayer? Surely no one rivaled Thalberg’s peerless track record for generating one magnificent hit after the next throughout the early to mid-1930s. And Mayer, despite his objections, had allowed Thalberg to make the kind of movies he wanted, whatever their lavishness or cost. Although MGM’s output throughout the 1940s became somewhat homogenized and certainly streamlined, there is little to deny Mayer also knew what he was doing. The 1940s were MGM’s most profitable decade – partly, because of the war. But viewed today, Grand Hotel stands as one of the truly outstanding highlights from the Thalberg era; sparked by the boy wonder’s creative genius and fueled by Mayer’s executive aegis; a rare instance where both men’s cinematic tastes aligned to give birth to a lasting work of cinema 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. However, those expecting super clean crispness should look elsewhere. Film stocks being what they were in 1932, also, improper storage of second and third generation materials along the way have conspired to deprive us of an image harvest that would have more closely resembled the opening night splendor. Nevertheless, Grand Hotel on Blu-ray is a revelation. Contrast is darker – as it should be – and grain density is more pronounced – also, as it should be. What makes this transfer an eye-opener is the complete – or near complete – absence of age-related artifacts, something all previous DVD transfers have greatly suffered, 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 Westrex sound recording. Background hiss is ever-present – unavoidably so – and dialogue often sounds weak and thin – also inescapable for a film 80+ years old. Warner has done everything possible to restore the audio, but it still sounds small and uninspiring. Still, nothing more could have been done. Extras are all holdovers from the DVD and include an audio commentary by Jeffrey Vance and Mark A. Vieira; a very brief 12 minute ‘making of’ and some short subjects that include a fascinating behind the scenes of the Grauman’s Chinese premiere. Bottom line: Grand Hotel is a cornerstone of American cinema. It looks ravishing, if not perfect, on Blu-ray. It’s about time too, and on behalf of collectors everywhere – Warner Home Video ought to be saluted for their efforts.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)