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Grand Hotel (1932)

by on April 2, 2010
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“Grand Hotel” was one of the first conscious attempts to gather an “all-star” cast. The poster blared out the names of the cinematic giants of that era: Garbo! Barrymore! Barrymore!

Joan Crawford, nearly unrecognizable with her trademark eyebrows shorn back, was the baby of the bunch.

Nearly 80 years later, the 1932 film is most notable for its intersecting, interweaving storylines — similar to “Nashville,” “Crash” and a number of other notable films.

Like “Crash,” “Grand Hotel” would win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was the only award for which it was nominated, and still holds the record of least number of nominations for the movie that won Oscar’s top prize.

An old, horribly scarred doctor (Lewis Stone) acts as the quasi-narrator and chorus. “Grand Hotel: People come, people go, but nothing ever happens,” he intones at the beginning and end of the story. The obvious irony is that a whole lot does happen.

The central story thread revolves around Grusinskaya, the greatest ballet dancer in the world, played by Garbo. At the height of her fame, she’s sick of dancing and adoration. “I want to be alone,” she insists after a performance — words that would forever become associated with Garbo, herself a reluctant star.

Little does she know, but Grusinskaya is being stalked by a thief after her priceless pearls: Baron Felix von Geigern, played by John Barrymore. The baron is a ruined noble, a gambler and occasional bandit, when necessity calls. He poses as a rich gentlemen to move about in high society, which he exploits either with card games or outright robbery.

He’s being financed by some criminals who are growing impatient with his attempt to wrest away the pearls, and are ready to apply strong-arm tactics to recover their stake money. The baron finally sneaks intoGrusinskaya’s suite and takes the pearls, but overhears her despair and stops her attempt at suicide. They fall in love, and he resolves to repay his partners in crime rather than hurt her.

The entire story takes place over the course of a couple of days, with lives and loves being changed forever.

Crawford plays Flaemmchen, a poor young stenographer hired by a powerful business magnate named Preysing (Wallace Beery). The baron and Preysing both flirt with the ingenue, which leads to a clash between the two later on.

The other principle character is Kringelein (Barrymore’s brother, Lionel), an accountant from Preysing’s textile plant. An old, timid man, he’s been diagnosed with a fatal illness, and determines to spend all his money living his last few days in luxury.

Preysing, who’s pursuing a major merger deal to save his failing business, is the villain of the piece, although he isn’t portrayed as evil — merely imperious. He’s the sort of man who treats his perceived equals with genteel manners, and his underlings with dismissive contempt.

At one point Preysing hires Flaemmchen to be his secretary on a trip to England, and both of them understand this to mean she will become his well-compensated mistress. It’s a great early role for Crawford, as the smart but fatalistic woman who keeps finding herself under various men’s thumbs.

Director Edmund Goulding — who also helmed “The Dawn Patrol,” which was featured in this space some months ago — uses some interesting storytelling techniques. He shoots the Grand Hotel in Berlin with an opulent eye, lingering particularly over the great checkerboard-tiled lobby and the view down the great circular atrium. William A. Drake adapted his play for the screen, which in turn was based on a novel.

Money, and the pitfalls of the pursuit of it, are the central theme. Other than Grusinskaya, who only wants a little joy in her life, every character is in some way ruled by their wealth, or lack of it.

“Grand Hotel” hasn’t aged particularly well, but it’s still an engaging and important piece of cinema.

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