Friday, April 9, 2010

Grand Hotel

"Grand Hotel... always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." --Doctor Otternschlag, Grand Hotel
This film prescribes to the belief (still prevalent in films today) that if you pack enough stars into one film it will have to be a hit.  Although this is not always the case, with the amount of talent bursting at the seams of this movie, it is impossible for it to fail.  And it doesn't.  Through sometimes plodding in its pace, Grand Hotel weaves an interlocking collection of stories together in unexpected but ultimately satisfying ways.

The Plot
Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen
Greta Garbo as Grusinskaya
Flaemmchen and Preysing
Welcome to The Grand Hotel in Berlin, Germany, home to Europe's rich and famous, and full to bursting with interesting characters.  There is Baron Felix von Geigern, played by John Barrymore, a devil-may-care womanizer and war veteran, who has turned to gambling to increase his seriously depleted funds.  Grusinskaya, played by Greta Garbo, is a spoiled, perennially depressed prima ballerina who is still suffering from her defection from Russia.  Wallace Beery plays an industrial tycoon, General Director Preysing, who married his way into his job but is now trying to push a merger through just to stay afloat.  His newly hired stenographer, Flaemmchen, played by Joan Crawford, pines for the Baron while fending off the advances of Preysing.  Otto Kringelein, played by Lionel Barrymore, is a man who has just discovered he has a terminal disease, and has decided to quit his job as a bookkeeper in one of Preysing's factories and live the remainder of his life in the most extravagant way possible.  Lastly is Dr. Otternschlag, played by Lewis Stone, a disfigured war veteran who hangs around the Hotel, commenting on them all.  Hanging around the fringes are Grusinskaya's many attendants, the head porter whose wife is in labor, Preysing's laywer, and the other hotel guests.
Flaemmchen and the Baron

Preysing is worried.  If his merger doesn't go through, his company is sunk.  But the merger will only come through if "The Manchester Company" agrees to do business with him.  His lawyer hires Flaemmchen, a beautiful stenographer with aspirations to act, to assist him before the meeting.  Kringelein throws a fit because he wants a much better room than he has, and is finally accommodated.  The Baron befriends the hapless Kringelein, and the two of them meet Flaemmchen as she waits outside Preysing's room.  The Baron makes a date with Flaemmchen for the next night at 5pm, while waiting to see if he can catch a glimpse of Grusinskaya, to whom he has been sending frequent gifts.  Grusinskaya has been performing badly, and is suffering from bouts of melancholy that make her unable to sleep or dance, which in turn causes her staff to tear their hair out in frustration.  Returning from an incomplete dancing engagement, she turns everyone out of her room, uttering her famous line, "I want to be alone."  What she doesn't realize is that the Baron, up to his ears in gambling debts, has been coerced into stealing her priceless pearl necklace and is now trapped inside her room.  He reveals himself to her, while confessing that he has also fallen in love with her.  She tries again to send him away by repeating her famous line, but he stays and she finds herself falling for him as well.

Grusinskaya and the Baron
Grusinskaya and the Baron
Preysing stops Flaemmchen and Kringelein
Preysing and Flaemmchen
Preysing meanwhile has received a note that the Manchester deal is not going through.  At his meeting he tries to evade a straight answer, but finally is forced to lie and say he does have the Manchester deal to guarantee his merger.  Grusinskaya and the Baron spend the night together, and the next morning she invites him to travel with her.  The Baron refuses to take her money, but tells her he will find a way to make the money and get on the train with her the next morning.  Grusinskaya is happy once again, and her staff is relieved.  The Baron, however, is depressed.  He keeps his date with Flaemmchen, but tells her he loves another.  She is disappointed, but agrees to dance with the lovable Kringelein.  Preysing, witnessing this, becomes angry and tries to separate them.  Kringelein and Preysing exchange words, but after Flaemmchen finally dances with Kringelein she goes with Preysing up to his room.  She agrees to go with him to Manchester, and to stay with him in his suite at the hotel, though she is clearly repulsed by him.

Flaemmchen witnesses the Baron's death
Kringelein gambling with the Baron and Dr. Otternschlag

Flaemmchen and Kringelein
Increasingly desperate, the Baron tries a number of ways to pay off his debts.  He gets Kringelein to help run a gambling ring from his room, but he goes bust while a drunken Kringelein doubles his money.  Distraught, he tries to steal money from Preysing's room, only to get caught by Preysing himself as Flaemmchen is undressing in the next room.  They struggle, and Preysing hits the Baron over the head, inadvertently killing him.  Preysing tries to get a horrified Flaemmchen to cover for him, but she runs crying to Kringelein, who reports him.  Preysing is carried out in handcuffs and Kringelein and Flaemmchen run off to Paris together.  Fearing another bout of depression, Grusinskaya's staff hide the Baron's death from her, insisting that he will join her on the road.  As she leaves, finally happy, Dr. Otternschlag affirms his opening line, that nothing really happens at the Grand Hotel, although so much has.

The History
Irving Thalberg, "Boy Wonder" and creative mind behind MGM, purchased the rights to Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum and first produced a successful Broadway play before turning it into a film.  Before Grand Hotel, it was considered too costly to have more than one or two big stars per picture.  But Thalberg decided to launch the first "all star" film and choose five top MGM stars to play the major roles.  While both Barrymores agreed, Garbo, Beery, and Crawford all had their doubts.  Greta Garbo thought 27 was too old to play a ballerina, and only agreed after she was given control over who played her love interest in the film.  Beery thought the role would be too unsympathetic and damaging for his image, finally agreeing after Thalberg told him he would be the only one with a German accent.  Lastly, Crawford had to be persuaded into the role, as she thought that most of her scenes would be censored and she would lose screen time.  She wasn't completely wrong; theaters in more conservative states cut her racier scenes.

Flaemmchen and Preysing

When Thalberg eventually got everyone on set, things went a little more smoothly.  The famously reclusive Garbo surprisingly got along well with John Barrymore, even allowing the publicity department to take rare behind-the-scenes photos.  She requested that the love scenes in rehearsal be lit with red lighting so as to be more romantic.  Garbo and Crawford never appeared in the same scene together, so that one wouldn't upstage the other.  The director, Edmund Goulding, did decide to add more Garbo scenes after previewing the film, concerned that Crawford was stealing the show.  All the hard work and risk paid off; after a star-studded opening night, Grand Hotel would turn out to be one of biggest grossing MGM films of all time.  Grand Hotel has the dubious honor of being the only film to win "Best Picture" but not be nominated for any other category.  Incidentally, to prevent last year's disaster, the Academy made a rule that prohibited speech-making at the Awards.  This would also be the year that Walt Disney would win an "Special Award" for creating Mickey Mouse, and winners' names would be broadcast on a screen behind them with a small clip of their film.

Barrymore and Garbo backstage
Grand Hotel is still famous today.  Garbo's line, "I want to be alone," is ranked as #30 on AFI's List 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes.  It is also the line that managed to sum up Garbo's attitude toward her fame for the rest of her life.  It was the first all-star drama in Hollywood and also the first film that followed characters in one large setting, their lives either overlapping or completely separate.  This is what is now known as a "Grand Hotel theme" and has since been used in movies that have since been set at airports, aboard ocean liners, in large department stores and so forth.  While it has been criticized as being overly dramatic and "largeish," Grand Hotel is usually remembered for its glamorous theatricality and star power.

Filming of Grand Hotel
The Verdict?
The best description I can come up with for this film is "luxurious."  The women vamp their way through the film with low, throaty voices, dressed in silk stockings and robes.  The men wear expensive suits and plow their way through the film with heavy, important dialogue.  It is a melodrama, and it is as though the director is attempting to pack as much action as he can into each scene while still muffling the whole thing with expensive decor.

I don't suppose I'm making much sense.  Put it this way: this movie has rich people fighting, falling in love, falling in lust, dying, and gambling.  We as the audience are both very aware of the humanity of the main characters while simultaneously marveling at how fabulous they all are.  It's fun!  It's like watching an old Hollywood soap opera with better acting but less overt sex.  The thing about movies like this, however, is that they cause the audience to focus on who the actors are rather than the parts they are playing.  The entire movie, I didn't think that Grusinskaya was doing something, but rather that Greta Garbo was.  Some parts were a little slow, and it was difficult to focus because the plot really didn't matter.  New characters kept popping up all the time, each with a new story or problem.

The best part was discovering these old Hollywood actors.  Isn't Greta Garbo gorgeous, in a surreal, otherworldly kind of way?  And looking through these pictures, don't you desperately wish you had Joan Crawford's legs?  And watching both Barrymores allowed me to compare them to the current famous Barrymore, John's granddaughter Drew.  The stars make the film, without them this film would be just another 1930s melodrama.  It is worth watching just for the thrill of seeing incredible actors waltz around a plush hotel, draping themselves over divans and uttering "I want to be alone."  Hell, it's worth it just to hear that one line.
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