"People coming, going; nothing ever happens." --Lewis Stone, "Grand Hotel"
Despite the ironic observation of one of the hotel's guests, quite a few things do happen. The melodramatic hijinks of "Grand Hotel" won the movie an Oscar for Best Picture in 1932, and the hijinks continue to entertain audiences today.
What's more, in honor of a true Tinseltown legend, the folks at Warner Bros. have collected on DVD star Greta Garbo's most-popular pictures, available individually or in a big, ten-disc box set. The titles include three silent films in a two-disc set, plus "Anna Christie" (1930 and 1931), "Mata Hari" (1931), "Grand Hotel" (1932), "Queen Christina" (1933), "Anna Karenina" (1935), "Camille" (1936), and "Ninotchka" (1939) on separate discs. In addition, the box contains the original documentary, "Garbo."
"Grand Hotel" was directed by Edmund Goulding and is based on the novel and play by Vicki Baum and the American stage version by William A. Drake. It is credited as the first movie to successfully interconnect a series of stories into a single plot, something modern television soap operas have been doing for years and radio before them. "Grand Hotel," employing an all-star ensemble cast, does it better than most anything since, certainly better than I remember the 1945 remake, "Weekend at the Waldorf."
True to its stage origins, "Grand Hotel" begins with a clear exposition of its principal players and their predicaments, the major characters being introduced one at a time in the first five minutes. All of them, for reasons of their own, have come to Berlin's Grand Hotel, the most elaborate and expensive hotel in the city in the decadent years just after the First World War; and all of the characters are about to become involved in one way or another with everyone else. Yet, as helter-skelter as this setup might sound, as their narratives intertwine, one is never conscious of any episodic discontinuity but of a seamless, well-integrated flow of stories. The plot framework is quite ingenious, actually, and the tales themselves hold up remarkably well for their age.
The cast is headed by Garbo as Madame Grusinskaya, a Russian ballet dancer, once a major star but now experiencing a decline in her popularity and paying the price for it in despondency and despair. It is one of Garbo's most famous roles, and it is in this film that you will hear her utter the famous line that dogged her the rest of her life, "I want to be alone." She is staying at the hotel while performing in town, but she is on the verge of suicide.
Opposite Garbo is the leading stage actor of his generation, John Barrymore, known as "the Great Profile" for obvious reasons if you've ever seen him in his prime. He gets plenty of profile shots here, playing Baron Felix von Geigern, an impoverished nobleman and gambler, at the moment reduced to gentleman thief. It is his intention to steal Mme. Grusinskaya's pearls, but he is such a sweetheart he falls in love with her instead! The acting of both stars is remarkable, of course, yet by today's standards they may seem to some viewers overly-emphatic in terms of gestures and vocal mannerisms. Nevertheless, they are a kick to watch, Barrymore actually upstaging Garbo, and they create an unforgettable couple.
Next in order of importance is Otto Kringelein, played by John Barrymore's older brother, Lionel Barrymore. Kringelein is a dying man, a relatively poor factory accountant who takes his life savings and spends it by living up his last days at the ritzy hotel. Kringelein works for an industrial tycoon, Preysing, played by Wallace Beery, who coincidentally is staying at the same hotel. Preysing is there to meet with the representatives of a rival company with whom he must merge in order to survive. Lionel Barrymore's character is the direct opposite of Beery's. Kringelein is kind and modest; Preysing is gruff and insensitive. Beery, who usually played congenial lugs like "The Champ" or, later, Long John Silver, at first refused the part, saying it was too unsympathetic, but MGM told him he'd be the only major character in the cast who would be allowed to speak in a German accent, and that won him over. His accent may not stand out, but his performance does.
Then, there's Miss Flaemmchen, played by a young, flirtatious, and totally captivating Joan Crawford, a stenographer for Preysing who is really a gold digger willing to do anything for a free ride. She agrees to accompany the married Preysing to England (minus the wife) as his "assistant." Finally, there are the hotel porter, Senf, played by Jean Hersholt, whose wife is expecting a baby at any moment; and the enigmatic Dr. Otternschlag, played by Lewis Stone, a physician disfigured in the War, who hangs around the hotel and paces and waits, for what we don't know. Except that he becomes our observer of life and death and rebirth.
The interrelationships are fascinating and endlessly diverting; the Strauss waltzes playing in the background are charming; and the art deco set designs are wonderful. The huge, circular lobby with its open atrium to the top floor, the lobbies on each level overlooking the central space, is a delight to the eye as well as conveying the idea that life goes round and round.
In the end, it's all about love and money. But mostly money. What isn't?
The picture has been transferred to disc from an excellent original print at a fairly high bit rate ensuring probably the best video quality we could hope from this old a source. There is a soft blur to the image, a small degree of fading, and a fine grain, all most likely inherent to the source. But because of the relatively low compression used, there are few to no noticeable digital artifacts to be seen. It's not great picture quality, but it's better than we have any right to expect.
The first thing one notices about the Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio is its smoothly agreeable nature. The second thing is a very slight background hiss. The third things are its limited frequency and dynamic ranges. But the latter issues are to be expected of a soundtrack that was produced less than half a dozen years into the talking era. It is quite satisfactory for its job.
This special edition DVD contains a new making-of documentary, "Checking Out: Grand Hotel," that is really quite good, if somewhat brief at only twelve minutes. It leaves one wanting much more. Then there's an eighteen-minute Vitaphone musical parody of "Grand Hotel" called "Nothing Ever Happens" that is amusing. This is followed by a nine-minute newsreel of the films première that features practically every star in Hollywood showing up on camera. Finally, there are thirty-two scene selections; a theater announcement about the film, "Just a Word of Warning"; and two theatrical trailers, one for this film and one for the 1945 remake. English and French are offered as spoken language options, with English, French, and Spanish as subtitle choices.
Also, if you buy "Grand Hotel" in the big box set, you get the 2005 documentary disc, "Garbo." It's eighty-six minutes long, divided into twenty-four chapters, and narrated by Julie Christie. The documentary examines Garbo's life, her career, and her contradictions through interviews with friends, family, actors, biographers, critics, writers, and filmmakers. I'm not sure any of them shed any new light on the figure, but it's a fascinating look at a fascinating character, nonetheless.
It had been maybe forty years since I watched "Grand Hotel" in a college film class, and I was concerned it would strike me today as old-fashioned and corny to a fault. It didn't. The movie kept me involved the whole way, with perhaps just a tad too much swooning and preening from its two principal stars to make it an absolute personal favorite. But entertaining? You bet.
"Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens."