Review by Ed Nguyen
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
the first time in my life, I've tasted life."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
TRIVIA: Silent comedian star Buster
Keaton was originally considered for the role of the poignantly comical Otto