Berlin is my favorite city on earth – bar none, period, the end. That’s where this blockbuster film takes place. With an illustrious cast full of stars, including John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford, the story is based on the 1929 novel Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum. The movie is incredibly engaging, centering on the comings and goings of a group of people in a large, bustling hotel. There is a lot to follow, and the pace is one of the film’s greatest selling points for me. Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern, a man who has lost his fortune and occasionally engages in illegal activity to make ends meet. He befriends many others at the hotel, including Otto Kringelein, a sweet gentle soul in the final days of his life due to illness, who has never lived the kind of lavish lifestyle he adopts at the Grand Hotel, and Flaemmchen, an attractive young woman who makes a living as a stenographer. Geigern and Flaemmchen develop a flirtatious rapport, but that changes when he meets Grusinskaya, Garbo’s character, while attempting to rob her.
Grusinskaya is a depressed ballerina, who can’t bear to endure the stage or her fans in many of the scenes. Garbo convincingly delivers the memorable line “I want to be alone” with appropriate weight and melodrama. The Baron is overcome when he meets her, while in her room for a break-in and attempt at larceny. The two fall madly in love and begin making plans to run away together – plans that seem quite absurd considering the amount of time they have known one another, but which the viewer can buy into because of the actors’ performances.
My sources tell me Grand Hotel was the movie that established the format wherein various strangers are brought together and their various stories interweave to make a whole. With its polyphonic texture, I suppose we could see it as a granddaddy to American Graffiti, Traffic, Wet Hot American Summer, and every other movie lacking a single identifiable main plot. Continue reading