Grand Hotel (1932)
Release Date: September 11th, 1932 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Edmund Goulding Actors: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Jean Herscholt, Purnell B. Pratt, Robert McWade
enf (Jean Hersholt), the head porter of the Grand Hotel in Berlin, frantically makes a phone call. In quick succession, numerous residents also take a turn, to express concern about the considerable cost of every second of their conversations, or to request the money necessary to remain at this most expensive hotel in the city, or to conduct stressful financial dealings, or simply to check in on family members and children. All the most important people stay at this ritzy venue, yet, as an elderly gentleman comments while watching the clientele scurry back and forth, people come and go but nothing ever really happens (an estimation that will be strikingly countered during the next two days).
Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) worries over failing funds, his dachshund Adolfous, and concealing his larcenous motives; assistant bookkeeper Mr. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) fusses over receiving a bigger room – one as lavish and pricey as General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), a manufacturing magnate sweating over a looming merger; Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), who suffered a grenade to the face in the war, pesters the clerks over messages and letters that never seem to arrive; and stenographist Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) appears nosey and then impatient and then flirtatious when she’s called upon for a job. Everyone is disgruntled or antsy or severe; there’s always something to grieve over, and so very little to praise. Additionally, financial problems abound (an inescapable topic with the Great Depression still in effect), even though the majority of the hotel’s inhabitants strive to appear wealthy.
As the characters’ various predicaments and goals crisscross – with a romance or two blossoming, friends and enemies forming, and complainers complaining – their interactions remain somber and heavy. Even brief moments of comic relief are merely extra opportunities for whining. Isabella Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), the star performer in a prestigious ballet, is perhaps the most popular of the patrons, though she’s vain, excitable, and temperamental – and just as disagreeable as the rest. No one in this picture is sympathetic, heroic, or admirable.
Although “Grand Hotel” is overlong and underwhelming, it’s notable as one of the first big ensemble pieces (and surely the most famous of the time). Rather than telling a single storyline, it follows the exploits of a great many personas, each with distinct personalities and objectives, casually interfering with one another’s lives. Here, there are a lot of big names and faces; but they’re all poorly designed and terribly unconvincing, making absurd decisions and then calling upon unlikely acquaintances for improbable solutions.
“You must believe that I love you,” insists Felix, who effortlessly wins over the lonely Isabella, who in turn trustingly and emphatically embraces a total stranger – seconds after he admits his original intentions were to steal her pearls. Her behavior is nothing short of insane. And this inexplicable mania is matched by desperation all around, which leads the roles into a number of uncomfortable confrontations, pitiable concessions, and wild (though unsurprising) revelations. In the end, a few lessons and observations about life and death and love are imparted, though they’re blatant, uninspiring, and ineffective.
– Mike Massie