Grand Hotel [50 Films Older Than Me #25]

A while ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #25. So, that’s 25 movies out of 50 in well over 50% of the year, which just goes to show how far behind I am with all this.

Spoilers ahead.  

Grand Hotel

Directed by Edmund Goulding..

Release Year:  1932 (38 years before I was born).

What it is about:  The lives of a diverse group of people intersect at the Grand Hotel in Berlin.

Notably, Baron Felix von Gaigern makes his living a hotel thief and intends to steal valuable jewelry from a depressed ballerina, Grusinskaya. Upon meeting her, however, the two fall in love and form a bond. He intends to leave with her the next night but must pay his debts to the criminal gang that he belongs to. He intends to steal this money from a selfish businessman, General Director Preysing, but is caught and killed by Preysing in a fit of rage. Preysing attempts to seek the assistance of his employee, Otto Kringelein, in covering this up but Kringelein, who is terminally ill and had befriended the Baron, refuses. In the end, Kringelein becomes connected to Flaemmchen, a secretary that Preysing had hired and made advances upon, and the two depart for Paris together.

Starring Greta Garbo as Grusinskaya, John Barrymore as the Baron, Wallace Beery as Preysing, Lionel Barrymore as Kringelein, and Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen. Also starring Lewis Stone as a disfigured doctor who lives at the hotel, and Jean Hersholt as the porter whose wife is expecting a baby.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I didn’t know anything about it. Even in preparing to watch it, I just new it was an old drama with Greta Garbo and the Barrymores.

Reality: Grand Hotel is apparently the first “all-star” movie made in Hollywood. Stars had carefully managed careers in those days, and it seems studios kept too many of their big names from appearing in movies together because theoretically they would sell more movie tickets. But then producer Irving Thalberg went ahead and made Grand Hotel with no less than five big stars, and the movie was a huge hit, changing everything.

Those five stars were Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and brothers Lionel and John Barrymore, who were appearing together for the first time.

All of those but Wallace Beery are very familiar names for me, but I actually can’t think of anything I’ve ever seen any of them in before, except for Lionel Barrymore in It’s a Wonderful Life–although I didn’t remember that until I looked it up. (Ironically, I just saw Wallace Beery in The Sea Hawk, which I watched for this series.) So watching Grand Hotel now was fascinating, to see all actors that I know were massive celebrities but whom I’m sort of clueless about, sharing the screen together.

Grand Hotel has got that sense of distance that one associates with 1930’s filmmaking–there are close-ups but relatively speaking we’re mostly in wide and mediums. That, plus the black and white cinematography, the somewhat slow and steady pace, the old-fashioned style and the lack of high-definition all help to make it a bit of effort for the audience to fully engage…but it was worth it to push through.

The characters are a fascinating lot whose varied motivations come together in a fascinating series of dramatic interactions. Garbo’s Grusinskaya is a bit on the outside of the group, but ebbing and flowing of relationship between the Baron, Kringelein, Flaemmchen and Preysing are all engrossing and I could watch their conversations all day.

Linking these four together is the way all of them are in one way or another concerned with money. Most of them want it and are willing to compromise themselves in various ways to get it–seeing just how far each character is willing (or unwilling) to go is where a lot of the interest in the story lies. The only one of the group with more than enough money is Kringelein, and this is only because he is supposed to die soon is thus spending everything he has living his final days in luxury. But even he almost loses his mind when he thinks he’s lost his wallet.

Standing truly apart from these concerns is Grusinskaya–for her, money is not an issue, but almost everything else is. Indeed she is the most miserable of all the characters, and her story the most devastating.

Her story only works if you accept the least believable even in the film, which is the way she and the Baron so abruptly and so deeply fall in love with other. But if you can accept that, then the whole story takes on a tragic quality. Eager to find a way to be with the dancer, the Baron desperately seeks money to pay off his debt to a criminals. This leads him back to his own criminal ways, which tragically cause him to run afoul of Preysing. The businessman’s own loss of money (and accompanying reputation) leads him to lash out and actually kill the Baron. It’s quite shocking (though not very well filmed) when this happens–one moment the Baron is there being our main character and the next he has fallen off-camera, dead.

When we go back to Grusinskaya, she is blissfully preparing for the rendezvouz, not suspecting the that her hopes have literally died. Everyone shields her from the news in the effort to just get her onto her next train, and in the end as she exits the hotel (and the film) we know that the terrible moment of discovering the truth still lies in front of her.

The cinematography is a quite fluid, considering the day, with a camera that moves around extensively to cover different bits of various well-timed conversations. The lobby set is impressively-realized, and there are good imagines both inside and outside the hotel that showcase how big this Grand Hotel really is.

The cast is excellent. As I said, most of these actors are knew to me even if they were household names back in the day. John Barrymore is the closest thing the movie has to a leading man and his grounded performance as the Baron anchors the whole film. Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery get to play much more extreme characters. Beery is suitably unlikable while Lionel Barrymore is highly sympathetic in a role that is sort of the opposite of his role in It’s a Wonderful Life. Joan Crawford, whose career was still on the way up apparently, is fantastic as the film’s relatively “normal” woman, at least when compared to Grusinskaya.

I was most curious to watch Greta Garbo in a film finally and I have to say that she took some serious getting used to. Gursinskaya is so melodramatic about everything that I was afraid Garbo’s performance was going to be the one element of the movie that would be so stylized by 1930’s theatricality that I’d be unable to take it seriously.

But while it is certainly extreme at times, she exudes broken-hearted pain in such a visceral manner than you can’t help but to be won over. The woman is unbelievably magnetic and it’s no wonder she was such a huge star.

In spite of the movie’s dark story, it still manages to end on an upbeat note. Kringelein and Flaemmchen find some measure of happiness with each other, and the hotel porter learns that he is a father and that his wife and baby are fine. It’s a good balance to the horror of what lies ahead for Grusinskaya and helps one to finish the movie satisfied, and not just sad.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Like a lot of these older movies, it requires a bit of commitment from a modern movie-goer like myself. But the cast, the directions and the cinematography all come together in a strong drama that manages to keep things grounded in spite of all the potential there would have been for hokeyness in a story like this.

See here for the Master List.

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