by David Cornelius
For decades, MGM famously boasted that they had “more stars than there are in the heavens.” And with “Grand Hotel,” the studio put that slogan to the test, producing what would soon come to be the definitive all-star extravaganza. The gimmick here is that there are no supporting players - of the seven main roles, all of them were given to superstars. And what superstars they are: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt. Whew.It’s Stone who get’s the film’s second most famous line: “Grand Hotel… always the same,” his character, the hotel physician, sighs. “People come, people go, nothing ever happens.” It’s the understatement of a lifetime. At Berlin’s Grand Hotel, we get to see everything happen. In the memorable first sequence alone, we’re swarmed with shots of an assortment of characters placing important phone calls; Blanche Sewell’s notable rapid-fire editing sets the stage for the various criss-crossing of plotlines to follow.
In brief, the characters who make up such plotlines: Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore), a gentleman thief, finds himself in desperate need of cash due to a nasty gambling problem; Preysing (Beery), a boorish executive sent to Berlin to finish an important merger; Flaemmchen (Crawford), a young stenographer, hired by Preysing, who falls for the Baron and, more importantly, yearns for fame, fortune, and big living; Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), lifelong bookkeeper and clerk who’s dying and therefore is determined to finally live life before he expires; and, finally, Russian ballet diva Grusinskaya (Garbo), tired, suicidal, desperate.
I say that Stone got the movie’s second most famous line, because who can dare forget the line which tops it in terms of cinema immortality: Grusinskaya, in the throes of a down point in her manic depression, declares, “I want to be alone.” The line played off the star’s infamous reclusive attitude (a bit of a false legend, however, as Garbo wasn’t a hermit, just weary of a rabid press) and cemented her as a genuine icon.
It’s telling that Garbo was brought back to the set after the film wrapped in order to shoot additional scenes. These extra scenes were intended to flesh out her character, as the original cut of the movie left the star wildly upstaged by her diva rival, Crawford, who, it turned out, had a larger part despite the lesser billing. The producers thought it best to balance the difference as much as they could, both to placate a temperamental star and to help story flow. Even with the new scenes, however, Garbo’s dancer remains the weakest link in the film, a character that remains on the perimeters of the story, never getting too interlaced. (That said, what a testament to Garbo’s star wattage that she makes these scenes sparkle, and that she makes her character feel at times like the centerpiece.)
The real star of the film - or, at least, the cast member who best grabs our attention - is Lionel Barrymore. His performance as the dying clerk who finally discovers what it means to truly live is equally rousing and heartbreaking. “For the first time in my life, I tasted life!” Kringelein exclaims in one burst of drunken joy. His is the character that earns our cheers, and watching him evolve from quiet schlub to carefree big spender is a genuine thrill.
The movie’s other big star is its look. This is a film swimming in style, from its art deco set design from the great Cedric Gibbons (remember, the entire extravagant set, including the mammoth lobby, was built from scratch) to its lush designs from legendary costumer Adrian. “Grand Hotel” more than lives up to its adjective, as the picture becomes a prime example of classic Hollywood style. Even if, as Stone’s doctor says, nothing ever happens here, at least there’d be plenty of gorgeousness to see.
“Grand Hotel” walked away with the Best Picture Academy Award for 1931-32, making it one of Oscar buffs’ most popular trivia answers: it’s the only movie to win the top prize without receiving a single other nomination. But those were the strange early years of the Academy anyway, and such a feat at that time was typical.Besides, the movie is far more than just some Oscar footnote. It’s a Hollywood legend, a big, brassy melodrama overflowing with top stars, ready to overwhelm the viewer with elegant entertainment. Here we have some of the golden age’s best stars in top form (and if you only know Crawford from her later shoulder pad gay icon years, you’re in for a pleasant surprise; here, she’s both drop-dead gorgeous and stunning as an actor), teaming up to create a lavish multilayered story. From an age when the studios made everything as big as possible, “Grand Hotel” was the biggest entertainment of them all.
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originally posted: 02/28/05 04:45:37