I’ve been getting increasingly interested in the Barrymores recently and watching a lot of their films, so I want to write about some more of them here. Glossy drama Grand Hotel is one of three films made in 1932 which starred brothers John and Lionel together – the others were Arsene Lupin, which I have seen but only in almost unwatchable bootleg form, and spectacular historical epic Rasputin and the Empress, also starring sister Ethel.
By far the greatest of these three is Grand Hotel, a breathtaking MGM drama – and one of the first films to boast an all-star cast. Greta Garbo got top billing, with her name given in the cast list simply as “Garbo”, while the two Barrymores, Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford were the other big star names. The film had a huge budget for the time, estimated at 700,000 dollars, and was a smash hit – one of the special features on the Warner DVD, which is included in a Joan Crawford box set, shows excited crowds turning up for the premiere and breaking through a police cordon to swarm towards their favourite stars.
I’ll admit I originally wanted to see What Price Hollywood? because I knew it was an important influence on William A Wellman’s masterpiece A Star Is Born, released just five years later. (David O Selznick produced both films and they have the same basic story.) But, having watched George Cukor’s pre-Code twice, I now see it as a fine film in its own right, with compelling performances by both Lowell Sherman and Constance Bennett and wonderfully sharp, witty dialogue. I know I’m always moaning on this blog about 1930s movies not being available on DVD, but it is particularly frustrating that this one hasn’t been released as yet. I can only think that it is because none of the lead actors are household names, and, although Cukor is a celebrated director, he isn’t one of the very few who get box sets devoted to their work.
This is one of the first films where Hollywood eats itself, and it is often said to be harder-edged and more disillusioned with the world of showbiz than either Wellman’s A Star Is Born or Cukor’s own remake. However, before the disillusion sets in, it does fully show the glamour and seduction of Hollywood, with an extraordinary opening scene where Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), alone in her bedroom, is eagerly reading a fan magazine and imagining she is Greta Garbo in a clinch with Clark Gable. She is clearly in love with the whole idea of Hollywood, not just the handsome actor, as she devours ads for make-up and stockings which have been given the seal of approval by beautiful starlets.
Since getting into the early talkies, I’ve been thinking I ought to try silent films, but I’ve found it difficult. Voices are just about everything for me, and with most of my favourite actors the voice is hugely important – so I struggle to get engrossed by silent pictures. I’ve also found it hard to get used to the way the actors constantly move their mouths, saying words which can’t be lipread, while also nervously moving their eyes back and forwards and waving their arms around.
However, when I watched the 1920s classic Flesh and the Devil, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, shown on TCM in a beautifully restored print with full orchestral accompaniment, suddenly I got it.
I didn’t get it immediately, I must admit. I found it hard to concentrate on the opening scenes with Gilbert at a military academy – but, as soon as he glimpsed Garbo in the distance and fell in love, the film came alive for me. Both actors seem to have a strange luminous quality, making it hard to take your eyes off them, and there is also masses of chemistry between them – a scene where they share a cigarette has to be one of the sexiest scenes I’ve ever seen.
The way scenes fade into one another, with dream-like flashbacks for just a few seconds, or Garbo’s face hovering in the mist beyond the train window, is astonishing.
There are plenty of things that disturb me about the movie. It has a strong streak of misogyny, with the pastor telling Gilbert’s character at one point that the devil puts beautiful/evil women on earth to tempt men from the path of good. Garbo’s vamp character also seems to have a lot of the vampire about her, with another memorable scene where she and Gilbert share a communion cup, and it seems to be suggested that she is somehow drinking his blood, or his soul.
But my feeling is that Garbo gives the woman she is playing too much character to be dismissed, however much the pastor might try to do so. The impression of the love scenes is that she loves Gilbert just as much as he loves her, and is trying to struggle against their fatal attraction just as he does.