Director: Edmund Goulding
Grand Hotel is an unusual quirky film. It features a blockbuster cast of stars including Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Berry, and Lionel Barrymore and was billed as “the greatest cast in stage or screen history!” The story follows the lives of assorted characters during a brief stay at the Grand Hotel, a luxuriousBerlin hotel. Obviously, with a story involving so many characters, the individual backgrounds of the hotel guests cannot be explored in depth and, in fact, remain a mystery for the viewer to draw one’s own conclusions. Perhaps what brought the characters to this place is not as important as what their current circumstance appears to be and how each character deals with adversity. To me, the movie expresses certain truisms – one, good people faced with grim financial prospects will often be drawn to do bad things (such as theft or adultery); two, wealthy people faced with the potential loss of wealth will often do bad things (such as lying and murder); three, wealthy and successful people can still suffer from depression despite material comforts; and four, people facing imminent death can enjoy their remaining days because they are freed from the burdens of responsibility and conformity. I can’t help but feel the screenwriter was sending a message to all of those affected by the Great Depression that was still devastating the American filmgoer. I do not know whether the message that wealth does not lead to happiness could make a depression-era filmgoer feel better, but that’s the impression the writer appears to convey. If all this sounds confusing, it is because it is. Unless the viewer pays close attention to the dialogue, the interwoven vignettes would become increasingly difficult to follow. There were some interesting plot twists but I did not feel an emotional connection with any of the characters.
I did enjoy seeing 1930’s glamour and the hotel switchboard scenes were a great reminder of a bygone era. The director presents scenes of the luxurious hotel with dramatic angles and interesting lighting effects particularly the shots from the top floor overlooking the open lobby below.
Grand Hotel was the most eccentric film we have viewed so far in our quest to view all of the Best Picture winners. While the acting was a bit dated, the Grand Hotel touched upon certain societal themes that still ring true today. Especially in the dialogue between the haves and the have-nots, the depression-era socioeconomic divide clearly influenced the film’s moral compass. This film was another example of an ensemble piece that relies on a diverse character-base to provide a snapshot of life in a specific setting. Each character has a unique function, and represents a role from a different class or profession. Interestingly enough, this was actually the second film that we have viewed thus far to take place in Germany, a setting that will become infinitely less popular after the beginning of the United States involvement in WWII starting in 1941. While it is hard to compare the technical aspects of Grand Hotel to the more grandiose productions of Cimarron and All Quiet on the Western Front, the scene transitions were smoother than its predecessors and appeared to be a more finished final product. Grand Hotel also contained bona fide Hollywood stars, an aspect the previous films did not capitalize on. Greta Garbo plays Grusinskaya the beautiful and troubled dancer. John Barrymore (Drew Barrymore’s grandfather) plays The Baron Felix von Gaigern, a cat burglar and imposter. As well as a supporting role played by Joan Crawford as a stenographer, to help fill out the rest of the talented ensemble cast. My favorite member of the ensemble cast was the mysterious doctor (Lewis Stone) who would appear in different scenes and provide commentary about the characters in the Hotel. He delivers the famous tagline “Grand Hotel… always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” This serves as the complete antonym of the reality of the situation, but draws the audience in with the force of the narrator of The Twilight Zone.
Overall, I enjoyed the film and found it a nice mix of drama, quirk, and comedy. It was the first real glimpse we have had in our journey of the golden age ofHollywood. I left the finish of the film with great optimism both for what clearly had shown me the refinement I was looking for in these films as well as the fantastic movies we shall see in the future.