Filmsite Movie Review
Grand Hotel (1932)
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Background

Grand Hotel (1932) remains a classic masterpiece as the first all-star Hollywood epic with many high-powered stars of the early 1930s. The classic MGM film - a pet project of MGM's production head Irving Thalberg ("Boy Wonder") was directed by Edmund Goulding who had acquired the nickname "Lion Tamer" for his ability to deal with many temperamental Hollywood stars, as he did in this film.

[Note: Two years earlier, Goulding had directed Paramount's The Devil's Holiday (1930) - a romantic drama that opened at another Grand Hotel, and starred Nancy Carroll in her sole Oscar-nominated role. Goulding went on to direct a number of classic dramas, including The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), The Great Lie (1941), The Constant Nymph (1943), The Razor’s Edge (1946), and Nightmare Alley (1947).]

William A. Drake's screenplay was based on his own play adaptation of author/playwright Vicki Baum's 1929 best-selling novel Menschen im Hotel (translated 'People at the Hotel'). Baum's writings were based on her own real-life experience as a chambermaid at two well-known Berlin hotels. [Note: Baum's original play version, dramatized from her own book, opened in Berlin in February, 1930.]

After MGM acquired stage and film rights to Baum's book (for $35,000), a Broadway stage-play version was first planned as a test of its popularity. It opened in New York City in mid-November, 1930 and became a major hit (and played for over a year with 459 performances). Afterwards, the film was developed as a major MGM project, and given a spectacular premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, with top-priced seats at $1.50!

The episodic film (at 112 minutes in length) of a bygone era was set at Berlin's ritzy, opulent art-deco Grand Hotel, and told the multiple-narrative story of the criss-crossing of the lives of five major guests whose fates intertwined for a two-day period at the hotel. Its ensemble cast of stars were occupants of a between-wars German hotel, all struggling with either their finances, scandals, health, emotional loneliness, or social standing in multiple storylines. The film clearly resonated with Depression-Era audiences, who were also financially desperate, in the midst of strivings and worries about their futures, but intrigued and entertained by famous celebrity faces in an appealing melodramatic soap-opera. Extravagant art direction was provided by MGM's famed art designer Cedric Gibbons.

Basically, the entire cast was from MGM's star-making 'film factory' to give prestige to the production. The revolutionary film marked the first major use of a large all-star cast ("the greatest cast ever assembled"). [Note: It was the only film that brought together Swedish star Greta Garbo (in one of her earliest sound films) and John Barrymore, nicknamed "The Great Profile."] This pattern (known as the "Grand Hotel format") would later be copied in other big-budget studio productions, including MGM's own Dinner at Eight (1933) - the first all-star comedy, Warner Bros.' Wonder Bar (1934) (set not in a hotel but a Parisian nightclub), Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974), among others.

It won the Best Picture Oscar in the year of its release - its only nomination. Only two other times has the film named Best Picture failed to win any other awards: Broadway Melody (1928/9) and Mutiny On the Bounty (1935). It remains - to date - the only film to win Best Picture without having any other nominations. With Wings (1927/28) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), it was also among a group of Best Picture winners whose director wasn't also nominated.

The dated story was an example of the 'portmanteau' style (everything revolved around or was tied together by a single location, a fashionable foreign hotel in this case). A glossy remake was titled Week-end at the Waldorf (1945), with Ginger Rogers (in the Garbo role), Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Van Johnson, and Edward Arnold, and set at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The 1932 and 1945 films pre-dated two later films that also centered around hotel settings, both from playwright Neil Simon:

  • Arthur Hiller's Plaza Suite (1971)
  • Herbert Ross' California Suite (1978)

More recently, Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) also made a grand hotel setting (in the fictional European principality of Zubrowka) a character in itself.

A West German feature film titled Menschen im Hotel (1959) was also directed by Gottfried Reinhardt. Later, it was adapted into two Broadway stage musicals:

  • At the Grand (1958), set in 1950s Rome; the Broadway-bound play was a brief hit in some major cities, but never reached New York and Broadway; it featured musical diva Joan Deiner as the ballerina, and aging actor Paul Muni (in a modified Lionel Barrymore role)
  • Grand Hotel: The Musical, opening in mid-November of 1989; it ran for over 1,000 performances on Broadway and won five Tony Awards (from 12 nominations); set in Berlin in 1928, it starred Liliane Montevecchi (in the Greta Garbo role) (later played by Cyd Charisse), and David Carroll (in the John Barrymore role) (later played by John Schneider)
The Story

During the opening credits, each of the main performers received a separate screen, identifying their cast names:

  • GRETA GARBO as GRUSINSKAYA...the dancer
  • JOHN BARRYMORE as The BARON
  • JOAN CRAWFORD as FLAEMMCHEN...the stenographer
  • WALLACE BEERY as General Director PREYSING
  • LIONEL BARRYMORE as OTTO KRINGELEIN
  • LEWIS STONE as DOCTOR OTTERNSCHLAG
  • JEAN HERSHOLT as SENF, the Porter

Afterwards, the film opened with a left-to-right tracking shot atop a busy row of telephone operators at consoles, answering calls at Berlin's ritzy hotel: "Hello, Grand Hotel." Five telephone conversations were highlighted, introducing (directly or indirectly) the personas and circumstances of almost all of the major characters:

  • Senf (Jean Hersholt), an emigre and the head porter at the Grand Hotel, nervously called a Berlin hospital inquiring about news of his wife's imminent delivery of a baby, with the film's first major lines of dialogue: "Hello, hello, hello. Is that the clinic? This is Senf, the Head Porter, Grand Hotel. How's my wife? Is she in pain? Isn't the child coming soon? Patience? Would you have patience?"
  • Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a timid assistant bookkeeper-accountant and factory clerk from Friedersdorf, called Heinrich about a diagnosis from his specialist following an operation - he was declared terminally-ill; with an unnamed fatal condition, the sickly Otto requested Heinrich to tear up his most-recent will, and vowed to use all his savings and remain in the luxury hotel until his death: "I'm never going back to Friedersdorf. Never. I'm staying here at the Grand Hotel. It's the most expensive hotel in Berlin. All the best people stay here"; he was upset that his detested and inimical boss Preysing was also residing in the hotel; his plan during his final days was to spend all of his money and live in grand luxury in the hotel like other rich people ("Music all the time, oh, it's wonderful")
  • General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), a disagreeable, bulky, German-accented industrial (textile) factory-owner and magnate, phoned his wife in Friedersdorf; he was in Berlin transacting important business deals, first with the Saxonia company the following day - a merger that was wholly dependent upon other negotiations with a second business, England's Manchester Cotton Company; he confidently assured the call's recipient Papa, his father-in-law: "Rely on me, Papa. I will make this merger go through. I never fail," although he was desperately worried and apprehensive about financial ruin if the merger fell through
  • Suzette (Rafaela Ottiano, the only cast member imported from the Broadway play), Mme. Grusinskaya's (Greta Garbo) personal maid, relayed a message that the fragile, isolated, aging, sickly Russian prima ballerina performer wouldn't be attending her dance rehearsal due to nervous exhaustion; the performer's emotional state was threatening her career; reportedly, there was "something preying on her mind" and she couldn't sleep; the possibly suicidal, forlorn dancer had taken a sleeping tablet (Veronal) to ease her "tortured" mind
  • Baron Von Gaigern (John Barrymore), an indebted, financially-broke yet charming, sophisticated and suave gentleman, frantically phoned about needing money; he was plotting the theft of the ballerina's jewels in the hotel by scoping out her room, and by becoming friends with her ballet master Pimenov (Ferdinand Gottschalk)

In the lobby, world-weary house physician Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), disfigured on the right side of his face, philosophically and ironically commented upon the nature of the expensive hotel's activities where he permanently resided:

Grand Hotel. People coming, going. Nothing ever happens.

Inside the lobby of the art-deco hotel (decorated with circular swashes of large black/white squares on the shiny marble floor) as Johann Strauss' waltz music played, there was bustling but aimless activity. The Baron briefly spoke with ballet master Pimenov to compliment dancer Grusinskaya for her "splendid" performance the previous night. General Preysing met with Justice Zinnowitz (Purnell Pratt) with concern about the impending business merger, and asserted: "I'm used to making my deals on a solid basis. I'm an honest businessman, a good husband and a father. I have nothing to conceal. I could not live happily otherwise." A stenographer named Flaemmchen, in Preysing's employ, was due to arrive soon and was to be directed to his Room (#166). At the front desk, Dr. Otternschlag asked for letters, telegrams, messages, or other inquiries that never seemed to arrive, as the Baron observed:

He always seems to be waiting for something, but it never happens.

And then an impatient Kringelein, who was awaiting service at the front desk, complained to one of the hotel employees about his dwindling lack of time:

Every day is precious. Every hour, every minute is precious. I came to live here for two weeks, maybe three. Heaven only knows. I can pay whatever you want. I'm tired and ill. Now, I can't wait.

Dissatisfied with his originally "cheap" hotel room (#559), Kringelein requested a room upgrade: "I came here from a great distance to live at the Grand Hotel. I want a room, a big room. The same kind of a room you'd give General Director Preysing." He detested his current room: "a little room where the water pipes go 'pop, bing, boom' all day." He was offered one of the hotel's most expensive rooms (#176), one of the front rooms with "a private bar." Later, he vowed to the Baron that he had enough money to pay for his burial costs and to live out his final few days: "I'm going to have a good time while I can." The Baron heartily agreed: "That's my creed, Kringelein: A short life and a gay one," and he promised to be Kringelein's friend.

Through the revolving doors strutted the attractive, beautiful young stenographer Miss Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), a typical ambitious working girl who ascended in one of the elevators to Preysing's hotel room on the 6th floor - she shared the lift with Pimenov, Kringelein, and the Baron. Inside Preysing's room, she was embarrassed to find him draped half-naked in a towel in his bathroom, and performing stretching and bending exercises before a steamy mirror. As she awaited Preysing outside the room, she became acquainted with the persistent and flirtatious Baron in the circular hallway. He first caught her attention when he looked over the balcony and suggested jumping into the middle of the cylindrical art-deco atrium:

The Baron: You know, I've often wondered what would happen to that old porter if somebody jumped on him from here.
Flaemmchen: I'm sure I don't know. Why don't you try it and find out?

She rebuffed his continued advances and request to dance - curtly: "Not with strangers." Then, he made a very forward, playful Pre-Code inquiry to the cute "little stenographess" after he learned her occupation as a typewriting stenographer:

I don't suppose you'd, uh, take some dictation from me sometime, would you?

When she gave no answer except a glaring glance, then he changed courting tactics: "Well, how about some tea, then?", but she declined. She revealed that she only had one meal a day because she was struggling to make ends meet: "Did you ever see a stenographer with a decent frock on?...One she'd bought herself?" He proposed seeing her the following day at 5:00 pm "in the funny Yellow Room where they dance." She chuckled ("You're funny") but then accepted his offer of a hotel dance date: "We'll dance." And then the on-the-make, good-time girl overheard Kringelein call him "a Baron" - and her interest in the supposedly-rich Baron was intensely magnified.

Now living the good life with caviar and champagne, Kringelein invited the Baron to his "beautiful room...it has real velvet upholstery". Flaemmchen was also invited but didn't want to join them: "Have caviar, if you like, but it tastes like herring to me." He bragged about his upgraded facilities: "I wonder if you'd like to see my bathroom? It has hot and cold running water all day. Nighttime too. I can have a bath anytime that I like." Fortuitously, she was summoned by Preysing to his room. Textile worker/clerk Kringelein expressed his disdain for his employer:

I've slaved in that man's factory for years and years. I know him through and through.


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