“People coming, going; nothing ever happens.” Lewis Stone, “Grand Hotel”
Not only that, the movie itself was a long time coming to Blu-ray. Over eighty years, in fact. But it was an Oscar winner for Best Picture in 1931/32, and for a lot of folks who appreciate older films, it was worth the wait.
What’s more, despite the ironic observation of the hotel guest quoted above, quite a few things do happen during the melodramatic hijinks of “Grand Hotel,” and the hijinks continue to entertain audiences today.
Edmund Goulding directed and Irving Thalberg produced MGM’s “Grand Hotel,” based on the novel and play by Vicki Baum, the American stage version by William A. Drake. Critics credit the film as the first successfully to interconnect a series of stories into a single plot, something modern soap operas and movies like “The Towering Inferno,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Crash,” “Babel,” and many others have been doing for years. “Grand Hotel,” employing an all-star ensemble cast, does it better than most anything since, certainly better than I remember in the 1945 remake, “Week-End 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 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 ingenious, actually, and the tales themselves hold up remarkably well for their age.
The cast is headed by Greta 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 Great 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 and interlocking stories 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 not only a delight to the eye but conveys as well 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 WB video engineers transferred the black-and-white, standard-ratio (1.37:1) picture to disc from a good original print using a single-layer BD25 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec. There is still a soft blur to the Blu-ray image, a small degree of fading, and a fine grain, all most likely inherent to the source. However, there are few to no noticeable blemishes or age spots one can see. It’s not great picture quality, by any means, but it’s better than we have any right to expect.
The first thing one notices about the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 monaural audio is its smoothly agreeable nature. The second thing is a very slight, hardly noticeable background hiss. The third things are its limited frequency and dynamic ranges. Nevertheless, we would expect the latter issues from a soundtrack produced less than half a dozen years into the talkie era. It is more than satisfactory considering the time from which it came.
First up is an audio commentary with producer, writer, archivist, and film historian Jeffrey Vance and filmmaker, photographer, and film historian Mark Vieira; they know what they’re talking about. Next, we find the making-of documentary, “Checking Out: Grand Hotel”; it’s really quite good, if somewhat brief at only twelve minutes. It leaves one wanting more. Then there’s an eighteen-minute Vitaphone musical parody of “Grand Hotel” called “Nothing Ever Happens” that is amusing. Following this is a nine-minute newsreel covering the film’s première that features practically every star in Hollywood showing up on camera.
The extras wrap with thirty-two scene selections; a theater announcement, “Just a Word of Warning,” about the film; and two theatrical trailers, one for the film itself and one for the 1945 remake, “Week-End at the Waldorf.” Finally, there are English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian spoken languages; French, Spanish, German, and Italian subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
It had been a few years since I watched “Grand Hotel” on DVD and before that it had been maybe forty years since I watched it in a college film class; understandably, I was concerned it would strike me today as old-fashioned and corny to a fault. It didn’t happen. The movie still kept me involved, 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.”