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GRAND HOTEL

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt
Director: Edmund Goulding
Audio: English monaural, French
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, full-screen 1.33:1
Studio: Warner Brothers
Features: Making-Of documentary, premiere newsreel, musical short, theatre announcement, trailers
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: February 3, 2004

"For the first time in my life, I've tasted life."

Film ****

Berlin, in the early 1930's, was the cosmopolitan center for German resurgence and national pride.  Host to many of Europe's finest artisans and industrialists, the capital city attracted wealth and royalty alike.  If the rest of Germany was struggling economically, such was not the case with Berlin.

The ritz and sparkle of Berlin was recreated for MGM's 1932 extravaganza Grand Hotel.  Set almost entirely within a posh and luxurious hotel, the film offered escapist fantasy for Depression-era audiences, eager to grasp at any vision of a better and brighter tomorrow.  Here was a futuristic yet refined setting decorated with vividly stylish art deco interiors, a titillating pleasure palace where dinner suits, white ties, and tails were the norm.  Here, absinthe was still served in the lounge, and a live orchestra offered waltz music as an invitation to the dance.  Here, the genteel nouveau riche gathered, carrying out their fabulous upper class lives while revealing that beneath their material wealth, they were still human after all, vulnerable to the same human fallacies of all common people.

Grand Hotel was based on a 1930 story, "Menschen im Hotel," written by Vicki Baum from her experiences as a hotel chambermaid in Berlin.  First adapted into a stage play, the story was then transformed into an ensemble film for some of MGM's elite talent of the day.  Once upon a time, stars in Hollywood were truly stars, and glamour was the name of the game.  In Grand Hotel, that star power wattage was positively blinding indeed.  With a cast comprised of such legendary greats as John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Greta Garbo (any of whom could have easily carried a picture on his or her own), Grand Hotel was not just an attractive film, it was a truly unforgettable and classic experience.

Among the film's stars, Lionel Barrymore was the most senior.  The eldest of the "Fabulous Barrymores," by the turn of the twentieth century, Lionel had become a leading stage actor, frequently appearing alongside his famous uncle John Drew Barrymore, the foremost actor of his era.  Lionel gradually moved away from the theatrical world in the 1920's to devote his efforts to films, eventually appeared in some 250 films and establishing himself as one of Hollywood's greatest character actors.  In Grand Hotel, Lionel Barrymore portrays the doomed Otto Kringelein, the film's most poignant character.  His is a heartfelt and touching performance that fully justifies the Barrymores' reputation as the First Family of acting.

Lionel is joined in the cast by John Barrymore, the youngest of the "Fabulous Barrymores."  Unlike his older siblings Lionel and Ethel, John Barrymore opted for the newspaper trade early in his career but eventually settled into the family tradition as well, soon surpassing even the achievements of his siblings to become the most prominent stage actor of his day.  John Barrymore possessed a fine voice and commanding presence, frequently dominating the productions in which he appeared.  He starred in several silent films, most famously Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), and although his career was in decline by the start of the sound film era, he was still capable of delivering memorable performances.  In Grand Hotel, John Barrymore portrays the financially-ruined but proud Baron von Geigern, a man desperate for material means yet still holding on to a certain chivalrous noblesse.

Wallace Beery, another fine character actor with an intimidating physical presence, was regularly called upon to play the role of the heavy in his early sound picture roles.  Whether appearing as Long John Silver (Treasure Island, 1934) or as an elite prizefighter (The Champ, 1931), Beery frequently took advantage of his huge frame and gravelly voice for impressive results on screen.  In Grand Hotel, Beery portrays Preysing, a hard-nosed industrial magnate obsessed with securing an important, upcoming merger at any cost.

Among the film's two female leads, Joan Crawford had been the very personification of the "flapper girl" in the 1920's (along with Clara Bow and Louise Brooks).  By the advent of the sound film and the start the Great Depression, however, Crawford had begun to transform her screen image into that of a more socially conscious working girl.  While not a great beauty, Crawford nevertheless had few contemporary peers for star power or glamour.  In Grand Hotel, she portrays the coquettish stenographer Flaemmchen, whose strikingly alluring figure draws the eyes of all men towards her.  Crawford is quite stunning as the ambitious working girl, easily relatable for impoverished working-class audiences yet somehow glamorous beyond their means as well.  Her performance may surprise some young viewers who only know her from much later films such as Mildred Pierce, Johnny Guitar, or What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, if at all.

As good as Crawford is in the film, ultimately no one can surpass Greta Garbo for unattainable Hollywood glamour.  Discovered and mentored by the great Swedish silent director Mauritz Stiller in the early 1920's, the "Divine Garbo" took America by storm with 1926's The Torrent.  The camera simply loved her, and adoring audiences immediately followed suit as well, with Garbo's exoticism only adding further to her allure.  Promoted with "Garbo Talks!" in 1930's Anna Christie, her first sound film, and "Garbo Laughs!" in 1939's Ninotchka, Garbo frequently played off her sensual if enigmatic screen persona to the delight of her admiring fans.  True to the Garbo legend, Garbo's secretive mystique is even immortalized in Grand Hotel, in which she utters her most definitive line - "I vant to be alone."

The film opens on a regular day at the opulent Grand Hotel, the most expensive luxury palace in all of Berlin.  In quick succession, the key characters in the film and their personal motivations are introduced.  There is the terminally-ill bookkeeper Otto Kringelein, who wishes to spend his remaining carefree days (and life's savings) in the lap of luxury at the Grand Hotel.  Preysing, too, has arrived with intentions of closing his company's vital merger deal.  As for the Baron von Geigern, he conceals his (as yet) unknown designs on the lovely, rich, but temperamental Russian ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), who shuns the public and remains in her hotel suite.

Adored by her admirers as an exceptional prima donna, Grusinskaya is privately world-weary and depressed.  She feels unloved and alone; returning one evening from the ballet theater, she even considers taking her own life.  Unbeknownst to her, von Geigern has hidden himself in her closet, silently awaiting an opportunity to slip away unawares while Grusinskaya changes into a negligée.  But when he realizes that the ballerina is about to swallow a handful of sleeping pills, von Geigern reveals his presence, nobly intervening and stopping the despondent ballerina from performing a fatal act.  Initially surprised and later grateful, Grusinskaya soon begins to question how the Baron came to be in her private chambers in the first place.

Meanwhile, Preysing, ever studious, has settled into his suite and has acquired the services of a young stenographer, Flaemmchen, to take down his dictations on the eve of his crucial meeting.  The businessman is a married man, yet he cannot help but admire the stenographer's shapely figure as she works.  Flaemmchen's casual comment that she occasionally poses for art classes to earn extra income only excites Preysing's imagination further.

The link between these individual storylines is Otto Kringelein, normally a shy and introverted bookkeeper.  Befriended by the Baron, later doted upon by the sympathetic Flaemmchen, Kringelein has determined to taste the wild side of life that previously had been beyond the reach of a man of his limited means.  With money no longer a concern to him however, Kringelein is eager to learn to dance (with Flaemmchen), accepts his first taste of strong liquor, and even indulges in a gambling game of baccarat for the first time.  Every hour of every day brings him closer to his final fate, so Kringelein longs to truly live before his time is finally expired.

As the film progresses, the destinies of these hotel patrons will intersect further for better or for worse.  In truth, Grand Hotel's intertwining narrative structure was highly unusual for its day.  While the plot might be considered somewhat melodramatic today, the performances in the film are so touching, so stirring, so grand, that this film transcends the straight-forwardness of its soap opera elements.  John Barrymore gives a restrained but confident performance that hints at his character's inner toil, a struggle between his need for money versus his growing and sincere love for Grusinskaya.  Truly, there is sublime seductive chemistry between Garbo and John Barrymore.  Crawford's performance is also a revelation, nearly the equal of Garbo's.  Greta Garbo, of course, turns in a memorable and glowing star performance strongly reminiscent of the expressive gestures once used so regularly in silent films to convey emotions.  In Grand Hotel, Garbo's radiance transcends that of a mere actress and elevates her to the status of a legendary screen goddess, a legacy which continues today long after Greta Garbo's final bow.

In the end, yes, Grand Hotel is melodramatic.  Yes, the film features a mannered style of acting more akin to the silent screen or the stage than to modern Method acting.  And yes, this is a very old film.  However, Grand Hotel's stellar cast and luxurious art deco designs set this film apart.  When our older generations reminisce today of the splendor of the silver screen, it is in remembrance of the beautiful sheen and sparkle of such films like Grand Hotel, a film that decades after its premiere remains virtually unparalleled for Hollywood glamour.

Video ** ½

Grand Hotel is presented in a full-frame format that preserves the original black & white, theatrical aspect ratio.  The bit transfer rate averages 6 Mbps.  The picture has a somewhat soft quality with a mild grainy texture that works in the film's favor, enhancing the many softly-lit glamour shots of the film's stars.  However, there are some inevitable emulsion scuffs and debris specks.  A couple of late scenes also appear slightly washed out, and the frame jitters on a few rare occasions.  There are a few wipes which jump at the optical cut points, a general trait for these old films (this editing technique is rarely used anymore, save for in the films of George Lucas).  Overall, despite its less-than pristine condition, Grand Hotel has weathered the intervening years quite well for film of its age.

Audio **

Grand Hotel is presented in English monaural with an optional French track.  I recommend the English track, if for no other reason than to experience Greta Garbo's uniquely husky voice.  Otherwise, don't expect too much from the audio quality - this film harkens from the very dawn of the sound film era.  Speech is thin and reedy, and there is an occasional hiss on the audio track.

Also prominently featured on the soundtrack is Johann Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz.  As this waltz may forevermore be associated with 2001: a Space Odyssey for younger generations, so for older generations, it will always be associated with Grand Hotel.

Features **

The bonus features are short and of varying interest.  First up is a Making-Of featurette, Checking Out: Grand Hotel (12 min.).  This short but exceptional featurette chronicles the origins of the film from the Vicki Baum novel to the ambitious efforts of MGM's creative genius Irving Thalberg to construct a masterpiece (and also one of the earliest examples of an ensemble film in the sound era).  The featurette includes many glamour shots of the stars, production photos, publicity stills, and also clips from the film.

Next, there is a Hollywood Premiere newsreel (10 min.) of Grand Hotel at the famous Grauman's Chinese Theater, one of the greatest opening nights in Hollywood history.  In an interesting publicity gimmick, a replica of the film's circular lobby desk has been situated on the red carpet to "register" the arriving Hollywood stars into the theater for the premiere.  Many of the notable names and faces on parade for this gala event will be unfamiliar to modern audiences but a few still-recognizable stars, such as Marlene Dietrich, Clark Gable, and Jean Harlow, do appear.  Being a film buff, I recognized quite a few more (how many can you identify?).

To check out a mediocre parody of Grand Hotel, take a peek at the newly-rediscovered Vitaphone musical short Nothing Ever Happens (19 min., 1933).  The short film opens with an unusual rhyming prologue as lines are delivered via recitatives or sing-speak.  From there, however, the story quickly deteriorates into a directionless series of skits concerning the comical, financial, and sexual intrigues occurring in a busy hotel.  There are several tunes - "Service with a Smile" being served up by a chorus of dancing female bell-hops and "What We Put in the Soup" concocted by a cook and accompanied by another chorus of dancing female chefs.  There is even a song about cocktail hour, with (yet again) a chorus of French maids this time.  The film even squeezes in an animal trick and a juggler, too.  Overall however, the dance choreography is weak, the songs more so, the acting inane, and the plot completely forgettable, this last point being rather odd considering that this short film is essentially a condensed variation of Grand Hotel.  Obviously, star power and acting ability can make a world of difference in a film.  Ultimately, Nothing Ever Happens is nothing special, offering little more than a typical two-reel diversion before a main feature attraction.

The remainder of the bonus features consists of publicity trailers.  There is a one minute theatre announcement, "Just a Word of Warning," reminding audiences that the film engagement at the Grauman's Chinese Theater will soon come to an end.  This announcement concludes with a bygone listing of nostalgic ticket prices (the most expensive being merely $1.50 for evening box seats!).  Times have certainly changed.  Other promos include vintage trailers for Grand Hotel and its 1945 remake Week-End at the Waldorf (with its own star-studded cast, including Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, and more).

BONUS TRIVIA:  Silent comedian star Buster Keaton was originally considered for the role of the poignantly comical Otto Kringelein.

Summary:

Grand Hotel is a supreme example of Hollywood glamour in the heyday of the studio era.  And yes, Greta Garbo does smile in this classic film, which fully deserved its Best Picture Oscar.  For admirers of vintage Hollywood, there are few grander films than Grand Hotel.  Top recommendation!

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