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Best Picture: GRAND HOTEL (1931/1932)

Witney’s making his way through every Best Picture Oscar winner. Number Five: Grand Hotel.

A bit of trivia about Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel: It’s the Academy Awards’ only Best Picture winner to have not been nominated in any other category.

“Grand Hotel. People coming… going. Nothing ever happens.”

We enter week five in my epic quest to watch and review every Best Picture winner with yet another tragedy, and perhaps the best one yet. Grand Hotel is, unlike its predecessors, more character based than situational. The other films have all been, to date, high melodramas. Grand Hotel, based on a play, has the heart-softening ring of the stage lingering about it. It’s still cinematic – the open areas of the titular hotel are captured using a gigantic set and variously realistic hotel rooms – but the drama itself is more of a pleasant Gesamtkunstwerk, blending tenets of film, the stage, and even opera to make a wholly satisfying and incredibly moving drama; this is the first Best Picture winner that actually moved me to tears. Also, I apologize for cracking off a $4 word like Gesamtkunstwerk.

Grand Hotel‘s whole image doesn’t emerge until near the end of the film, when all the main characters’ personal dramas finally interlink. It won’t be until then that we’ll see the grand tapestry the film is trying to interweave. Grand Hotel follows five major characters. There is the deposed Baron (John Barrymore), now broke, making his living by gambling and by sneaking into people’s hotel rooms to rob them. He’s simultaneously proud and ashamed of his profession. There is the fading prima ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), half-hysterical, who seems to be on the verge of some sort of mental collapse – it is from this film that Garbo’s famous line “I want to be alone” is uttered. There is the feisty stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) who is perfectly willing to be her married boss’ floozy in order to advance her own career. There’s her boss Preysing (Wallace Beery), a steely and serious man who is looking to make some sort of deal with the hotel management. And there’s the sad, buttoned-down everyman Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a quiet office wonk who is dying of an unnamed ailment, and who has checked into Grand Hotel to live up the final few days of his life. Yes, that final character is evocative of the main character in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, one of the best films of all time.

Grand Hotel Crawford and Barrymore

As the film progresses, Flaemmchen will achieve her goal of seducing her boss, much to her own dismay. The boss will threaten to shut down the hotel. Kringelien will fall in love with life for the first time. And the Baron and Grusinskaya will develop a loving regard for one another that offers them both a vital, desperate, life-giving release from their social, financial, and psychological ruts. And, to add to the tragedy, at least one of these characters will die by the end. As you can probably already sense, there is a lingering deadline on these characters’ redemptions, a feeling of “before it’s too late.” Death and madness hover over them all like the Sword of Damocles, so they must, in violently passionate throes, embrace what little bits of hope they can. The joy is overwhelmed by sadness. The sadness, salved by joy.

It’s been said that Grand Hotel was the first of a certain kind of stage genre that is now named after it. Neil Simon, for instance, wrote numerous Grand Hotel dramas, all of which featured various unconnected characters meeting in a central location, and intermixing their fates. Because Grand Hotel is so, well, grand, I am tempted to see it as an echo of realist drama traditions of an older vintage.

Grand Hotel Garbo and Barrymore

But don’t think that Grand Hotel is a turgid downer. Indeed, the film is lively and active in a way Cimarron certainly wasn’t. The camera movements and production values are elaborate and intriguing and engaging. There is a sense of activity, of bustle in every frame. When Grusinskaya exits the hotel at the end of the film, waiting for true love to meet her at the station, you’ll be beating your heart in sadness. And yet, there is something hopeful lingering through the haze. The final thing to happen in the film is an office clerk announcing that his wife has given birth. There is life in that place alongside the death.

People will continue to come and go. But a great deal of things happen.

Join me next week for Cavalcade.

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3 comments

  • Grand Hotel is a fascinating example of prototypical “Oscar Bait.”

    Irving Thalberg bought the play as a vehicle specifically to empty the MGM stable of stars into an extravaganza film. It all but established MGM as the studio of refinement and glamour in the sound age. Garbo, both Barrymores, and Beery all had been big stars since the silents. Even now it self-consciously oozes prestige.

    It is interesting to observe in the film how far sound technology had come in the five years since The Jazz Singer (1927). The action in Grand Hotel, though stage bound and largely static, is also fluid. The actors move as does the camera as it explores the set.

    Earlier sound productions could often be tenuous and rigid as regards character and camera movement because it was easy to go off axis with the limited sound recording technology.

    Grand Hotel is also notable as the film Billy Wilder used in The Apartment to lampoon the desecration of great films by television. With Jack Lemon’s happy anticipation of the film constantly interrupted by soap commercials.