GrandHotelFilmPosterBerlin 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.

That being said, I would have to say the standout character is Kringelein, played by Philadelphia’s own Lionel Barrymore. As a dying man blowing his savings to live his last days above his station, he hits the right balance. He’s wide eyed at the opulence he’s bought himself into, and this invites laughter, but then we’re reminded of the sadness of his situation and it stops us short of descending into outright mockery. I credit Barrymore with making Kringelein a figure of empathy rather than just pity.

Kringelein was my favorite character in the movie (and I didn’t know until reading the credits at the end that his first name was Otto). He is gentle and childlike; he is a seeker; he is hopeful against all odds. He is also a little bit ridiculous in a few scenes, but always loveable. I appreciated his respectful treatment of Flaemmchen, especially when juxtaposed with both of their nefarious and lewd employer, Preysing (played by Wallace Beery).

This film reminded me of my favorite Quentin Tarantino film, Four Rooms. To be clear, Tarantino was one of four directors in this picture – it’s an anthology work, and Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, and Robert Rodriguez also directed, but I can’t help it, I pretty much just associate it with Tarantino. Both movies center on a hotel, and use the various rooms and guests as divergent plotlines. I appreciated that in Grand Hotel, though, these plotlines intersected again and again. As with other films we have seen, I thought this could have made for a great series, but in the year it was made I am sure it was more impactful as a full-length film. I appreciate a strong ensemble cast, and Grand Hotel has that in spades. Given the chance, I can see myself tuning in to these characters every week.  

Grand Hotel had some serious early-30s star power, but the large budget obviously didn’t just go to the on-screen talent. The Grand Hotel itself end up as one of the most handsome characters in the film. It is an accomplishment of set design that creates a little art deco world for the characters in a fictional Weimar Republic-era Berlin. The overhead shots of the lobby, through the spiraling central staircase, almost seem to have a little Busby Berkely in them.

The Berlin of this film was one of the great cosmopolitan cities of the world. It’s chilling to think that in another year or two it would be overrun by actual jackbooted thugs and all but destroyed by the war a decade later. I wonder if anyone had any idea of that when Grand Hotel was released?

After we finished this movie, I was really interested in checking out all the extras – something I rarely do. There was a special clip highlighting the opening night of the film at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Mouse and I visited the theater about a year ago on a west coast road trip, so this was really neat to see. It was a star-studded affair, to be sure – and guests coming to see the film signed in at a mock hotel front desk. Very cute, very clever. I’m glad to see such gimmicks were alive and well back then.

The extras also included a little bit of background on Garbo and Barrymore’s love scenes. The regard between the two is palpable, and made me wonder if there was a real spark there beyond the theatrical. I think this is technically the first time I ever saw Garbo in a full-length film – and I had wanted to my whole life. What a treat! I’m fascinated by her eschewing of a public life, and I thought she did a tremendous job in this role. Her character was oozing with melodrama – and as a viewer, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I appreciated, though, that in this film, she isn’t the only strong female lead. Joan Crawford was also exceptional. It’s great to see a film from this era offer two such characters. I only wish there was a plotline in which the two of them interacted – I imagine it would have been intriguing.

The promo footage from Grauman’s was pretty cool. My favorite part was Irving Thalberg looking up to face the overhead mic when it was his turn to talk. Also on the DVD is a musical short that is a budget version of Grand Hotel with grade school play lyrics.

A movie like Grand Hotel, with its elaborate sets and crowded marquee, surely made it exactly the type of movie that the Outstanding Production award was supposed to reward and encourage. But there was a film that has profoundly influenced popular culture and was a true artistic achievement in its own right, despite escaping notice at the 5th Academy Awards. James Whale’s Frankenstein was a realization of the German expressionistic tradition, a metaphor for the First World War, an exploration of the nature of meaning of good and evil, adapted a literary work onto film creating a distinct mythos all its own in the process, made Boris Karloff a star, and played a large part in the invention of the horror genre. If I could go back and make Frankenstein a Best Picture I would and in fact, although I did like and appreciate Grand Hotel, I would probably rather write a blog discussing Frankenstein. God knows Katy is tired of hearing me talk about it. Considering this post should be going up right around Halloween, I’ll say it: take my recommendation and watch it. Decades of kitchey parody notwithstanding, Frankenstein is a visually exquisite cinematic masterpiece.

Also nominated in 1932:
Bad Girl
The Champ
Five Star Final
One Hour With You
Shanghai Express
The Smiling Lieutenant

Next film: The Godfather (1972)


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