Friday, July 12, 2013

Grand Hotel (Best Picture 1932)

A week or so after watching a "Grand Hotel" type picture called Dinner At Eight, I happened to notice that Grand Hotel itself was on Turner Classic Movies. This was the Best Picture of 1932, so I immediately DVR'd it. Recently I and a friend sat down to enjoy it.

Grand Hotel is definitely a classic of the genre and a very entertaining film to boot.

In Grand Hotel the action is centered loosely on a handful of occupants of the Grand Hotel in Berlin. In the opening scene several of the leads make telephone calls to explain to the audience their back stories. The only story-point we really need to understand is that Lionel Barrymore is a dying man who is now at the Grand Hotel to spend his life's savings; he wants to go out in style. His real-life brother John Barrymore plays a gambling playboy who is out to steal Greta Garbo's jewelry. She is a ballerina who has lost her passion for The Dance. Wallace Beery is the swindling businessman boss of Lionel; he is in the hotel to make a shady business deal while lusting after a very young and beautiful Joan Crawford. That enough star power for you?

Even though some of the plot developments are easy to guess (John falls for Greta so can't steal her diamonds, John can't steal Lionel's wallet, Noah gets his comeuppance) some others actually surprised me. I won't spoil anything, but suffice it to say that the ending is not what I expected. Joan Crawford especially was a surprise to me; my image of her is as a monstrous older woman (from such films as Johnny Guitar, Mildred Pierce, and especially Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?). Here she is a young, vivacious, and sexy actress I had never seen before! In a cast of several genuine stars, she nearly steals the film. She is  a down-on-her-luck stenographer willing to do almost anything in order to survive. Will she succumb to Wallace Beery's advances, or won't she? Does she befriend Lionel because she's kind, or because she finds out he's rich? Or is it a little bit of both?
Speaking of Lionel, for those of us who mostly know him as evil Mr. Potter from It's A Wonderful Life, it's fun to see him here basically playing the other side in the battle between good and evil. The greedy and evil character here is Wallace Beery, and it is fun to see him be and do evil because we just KNOW he won't get away with it. It's also fun to see him fold like a bad Poker hand when he does finally get caught.

The one relationship that doesn't really work for me is the most famous one, Greta Garbo and John Barrymore. This might be because this romance has become something of a parody after 80 years. Or maybe it's because they are both acting in the traditional early "Talkies" style that doesn't stand the test of time: they are all dramatic gestures and intense stares: "I want to be alone!" cries Greta. "I must love you!" shouts John. "Ho-hum," yawns Russell. This is, in fact, the movie where Greta cries, "I want to be alone," her signature line. She says it twice.

Two interesting things: I have often heard the name of Jean Hersholt, but I have never seen him in anything. Who hasn't wondered who Jean Hersholt was and why there is a special Academy Award named after him? It turns out that he was quite the humanitarian in his day. He was the President of the Motion Pictures Relief Fund for eighteen years. Here he plays the lead bell-hop. And the movie begins and ends with Lewis Stone as the doctor-in-residence. He is made-up (literally) to have been scarred in "The War" and is I guess supposed to represent the audience. His lines are basically the same at the beginning and at the end: "People come and go, but nothing ever changes here." It's an odd book-end to the film, and I don't know if it had more cultural resonance when the movie was first made. Now it seems distinctly out of place.

Grand Hotel (1932)
*Academy Award Best Picture 1932*
Produced by Irving Thalberg
Directed by Edmund Goulding
Screenplay by William A. Drake
From the play & novel by Vicki Baum

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Bad Girl
The Champ
Five Star Final
One Hour With You
Shanghai Express
Smiling Lieutenant
I've never heard of any of these except The Champ, which earned Wallace Beery the Best Actor Oscar. He "tied" with Frederic March in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the first time the Award went to two people in the same year.  Not sure why there are seven nominees this year after a high of five in previous years, either.

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