- Production Company: MGM
- Year Released: 1932
- Directed by: Edmund Goulding
- Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford
- Expect to pay: $10-38
The 5th Best Picture winner, Grand Hotel, is widely considered as one of the greatest of the early talkies. Critics, both then and now, praise it for its well-drawn characters and its intricate plot. It currently holds an 86% on Rotten Tomatoes and is currently being preserved by the federal government as a piece of art that is historically, culturally, or aesthetically significant. Yet for all of the accolades, I hated this movie. Of the five movies that I’ve watched for this project thus far, this one by far pissed me off the most. While it has great production value and has excellent star talent behind it, at the end of the day, none of these things can save the poor script that Grand Hotel has to suffer through.
Grand Hotel is based off the 1930 play of the same name that itself was based off the 1929 German novel Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum. In that sense, it is similar to the 1931 version of Dracula, a movie based off a play based off a novel. The plot mostly concentrates on Baron Felix vo Geigern (John Barrymore), who is currently staying at the Grand Hotel in order to get a chance to steal the pearls of the Russian ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo). Grunsinkaya, after having a particularly bad night, says “I vant to be alone,” and shuts herself up in her room.
She closes the door and considers killing herself. The Baron, moved by pity, asks her to stop, and of course the two fall in love. He decides to not steal her pearls and travel with her and now he needs money to do that and he’s also involved with a stenographer named Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford). There’s love triangles and tragedy and all of that melodramatic stuff that we have come to expect from old Hollywood. The only difference is that the delivery is completely off.
Before we talk about that, there are a few positive qualities to this movie. First off, the film actually has a consistent soundtrack! After three years of virtually no soundtrack, the film actually has a soundtrack that plays through out, except when the film wants to be quiet or storytelling purposes. There’s also a lot of interesting shots employed, including a 360 view of the hotel lobby that must have quite impressive at the time(See the picture at the top of the review to see what I mean). The set design is also impeccable, and mimics the architecture of a 4-star hotel well. I would also be mistaken if I said that I didn’t enjoy seeing so many stars from the golden age of Hollywood together on the screen.
However, that is where my praise ends, as everything else is wrong. If my description of the overall plot seemed vague, it’s because the film’s pacing and its structure is as disjointed as an old man with rheumatism. It plays out more like a set of vignettes than a cohesive story. And then there’s the acting. While I previously said that it was novel to see so many big stars working together in one movie, it is a shame that none of them turn in a decent performance. Greta Garbo as the ballerina was so hammy and over-the-top that I spent her entire screentime just mocking her and her scenes. “I vant to be alone,” she said. I agree. I want her to leave me alone.
The one thing that killed this move, more than anything, was the dialogue. I cannot be too hard on the actors and the actresses in movies, because oftentimes a bad performance can be equivocated to bad directing or a bad screenplay. While the direction of the film clearly proves that director Edmund Goulding is at least competent in his craft, the same cannot be said for the screenplay. The screenplay was written by William A. Drake, the same man who wrote the play that the film is based on. I have never seen the play, so I can’t comment on the quality of its writing. But if it’s anything like what I saw on the screen with this movie, I would stay far away if someone gave me a ticket to see it. Every piece of dialogue, from the opening to the closing monologue is sappy and full of excessive sentimentality. This is the kind of sentimentality that critics constantly harangue other films for having, but because it has famous stars in it, it’s all of a sudden okay here. It’s little surprised that Grand Hotel was nominated for no other award besides Best Picture.
So how could a movie with a movie with so many glaring flaws win Best Picture for 1932? I personally have a theory about that. In order to figure out why, we have to breach the etiquette of film criticism for a moment and talk about the world outside of the film. The United States of America in 1932 was a mess, much the same as everywhere else during the 1930s. In the aftermath of World War I, there was a worldwide economic clump the likes of which have not been seen since.
Whole empires that were supposed to last a thousand years vanished in the span of four. The United States, who stayed neutral until late, emerged relatively unscathed from it, but that was not going to last. So when the market crashed, it crashed hard. Hundreds of thousands were out of work and there often was not enough to eat. So anything to distract audiences from the cares of the world at the time would have been welcome. Grand Hotel, with its subplot involving a retired worker telling his former boss, is surely that. It’s full of glitz and glamour, and would have resonated well with audiences in 1932. As it stands now, the legacy of this film has far outgrown its quality. Give it a miss.
Next time, we look at what could potentially be another slog: Cavalcade. See you then.
Order Grand Hotel here.