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Grand Hotel: Best Picture, 1932

grandhotelposter.jpgThe 5th Annual Academy Award ceremony has very little to offer the modern viewer in the way of classic American cinema. You probably haven’t heard of most (perhaps all) of the nominees. Grand Hotel received a single nomination, for Best Picture, which it won, making it the only winning film in academy history to receive no other nominations. However, one of its stars (Wallace Beery) won Best Actor (tied with Fredric March for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) for his role in The Champ. The Champ (a boxing movie) was nominated for 4 awards, including Best Picture, and won 2.

Grand Hotel is as impressive an undertaking as its name implies. The project was orchestrated by the legendary Irving G. Thalberg (of the special Irving G. Thalberg academy award). Thalberg lit upon the bright (and, at the time, novel) idea of casting a film with not just one or two big name stars, but half a dozen. Grand Hotel is the original ensemble film. Thalberg bent over backwards to convince Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and others to join the production. Most of them refused their offered roles at least once.

The story of Grand Hotel is based on the play Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum, which was in turn based on her experiences working as a chambermaid in two Berlin hotels during the roaring ’20s. In it, the lives of several people flow in and out of each other over the course of a few days in a luxurious hotel. A bankrupt-but-charming baron-turned-cat burglar (John Barrymore) stalks the pearls of a fading prima ballerina from Russia (Garbo), but accidentally falls in love with her instead.

A lowly bookkeeper (Lionel Barrymore) who has just discovered that he is dying decides to blow all of his savings on a last fling of luxury after a life of slaving for a blustering, sleazy industrial magnate (Beery). The magnate is sweating over a merger that could make or break his company, and over his charming stenographer (Crawford). Meanwhile, the hotel porter (Jean Hersholt) has a wife that is in labor and a jaded doctor (Lewis Stone) watches events unfold, wryly noting, “Grand Hotel . . . always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”

What we have here is a big-budget, Depression-era melodrama that has not aged well. Overacting abounds, and while the mini-plots are occasionally amusing or even moving, none of it manages to gel into anything like a compelling story. The movie is all over the place, emotionally, and takes two rather ridiculous turns in the third act that completely threw me. The first unexpectedly darkens the tone of the whole story, which is all well and good, except that the second attempts to drag things back up for a happy ending. None of it can really be said to work.

As for the actors, well . . . John Barrymore struggles to sell us on a character whose actions make no sense. Lionel Barrymore (in a role originally slated for Buster Keaton) tries very hard but is completely hopeless. His character ought to evoke pathos, but is far too annoying. Wallace Beery plays the guy you love to hate, but he is jarringly out of place. Beery only agreed to take the role when he was told he would be the only actor allowed to use a German accent . . . considering all of the German names (Baron von Geigern, Flaemmchen, Kringelein, Dr. Otternschlag) and the fact that this is set in Berlin, his character only draws sharper attention to the fact that we are watching an elaborate fantasy.

Joan Crawford, as the only character that isn’t a done-to-death cliche, turns in probably the best performance in the whole film and very nearly steals the show from top-billed Greta Garbo. But never underestimate the star power at play here. Garbo emotes mercilessly, and almost never convincingly, but her screen presence and magnetism are virtually unmatched in Hollywood history. She seems to exist in her own little movie in the corner, segregated from the other plots and characters.

In actuality, Crawford and Garbo never shared a scene because it was feared that one might upstage the other, and additional Garbo scenes were filmed after Crawford received the lion’s share of the buzz at a preview screening. That pretty much says it all. Grand Hotel represents the worst that the studio system of the Golden Age had to contribute to the development of film, and its only remaining value is as a cultural dinosaur. It has its admirable aspects, but there is no mystery surrounding its demise.

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~ by Jared on November 14, 2007.

One Response to “Grand Hotel: Best Picture, 1932”

  1. I once watched . . . or tried to watch all of “GRAND HOTEL”. It was a struggle for me to simply keep my eyes opened. So, all I can say is that you’re right . . . about everything.

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