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.
A lot of the budget must have been lavished on the hotel set, which is most impressive and atmospheric, with sweeping views of the staircases and the revolving door sending visitors in and out at the start and end of the film. Adapted from a novel by Vicki Baum which was turned into a successful Broadway play by William A Drake, the drama is set in Berlin towards the end of the Weimar republic. However, most of the actors thankfully keep their normal voices, with only Beery adopting a German accent for his role as a bullying and ruthless businessman. I was a bit puzzled as to why he is out of step with the rest of the cast, but, according to the ‘making of’ featurette on the DVD and an article about the film at the TCM site, Beery was reluctant to take such an unsympathetic role, and felt that using a German accent helped to distance the part from his usual screen personality. It also strikes me that making the least sympathetic character the only one with a German accent would have fitted the mood of the time when the movie was released, with the Nazis on their way to power.
The film is fast-moving, with sharp and witty dialogue, and interweaves the stories of the individuals, starting with the opening which cuts between them all on the telephone to different people. All five stars never appear in the same scene, and Garbo and Crawford don’t share the screen at all. Apparently this was because of the rivalry between them, but, although it is a pity not to see the two together, it helps to give a feeling of the characters leading compartmentalised lives alongside one another within the hotel.
Despite the glamorous setting, this does feel like a movie of the Great Depression, with most of the characters facing money worries. John Barrymore plays a baron who is in debt and desperate, despite his grand name – he is a gambler and a thief, who hangs around the hotel hoping to steal jewels from Russian dancer Grusinskaya (Garbo), but steals her heart instead. While he is out to get money by some short cut, dying book-keeper Otto Kringellein (Lionel Barrymore) built his small fortune the hard way, working long hours all his life to amass a pile of bank notes, which he is now spending on a short holiday, his first and last.
Ironically, Kringellein’s boss, industrialist Preysing (Beery) is also at the hotel, trying to arrange a merger deal – but his business is in trouble and his struggle to keep up appearances is nearly as desperate as that of the baron. Meanwhile, his stenographer, Flaemmchen (Crawford) has so little money that she is only eating one meal a day, and, in this pre-Code, it is hinted she may be forced to provide other favours to the sexually predatory Preysing.
All the actors are wonderful in their roles, both those who are cast against type, like Beery as the stiff industrialist, and those playing extensions of their usual screen personalities, like Garbo as the insecure, passionate dancer and Joan Crawford as the struggling working woman who fends off advances with a joke. Garbo’s love scenes with John Barrymore were filmed on a closed set and have a beautiful intimacy to them – all her changing emotions flicker across her face, and she says her famous line “I want to be alone!” But he also has lines which seem tailored to him in real life as well as to his character, such as “I am a prodigal son, the black sheep of a white family.” John brings all his raffish charm to the baron, while Lionel, walking with obvious difficulty because of his real-life disability, is poignant as the dying man. His character is excited to be at the Grand Hotel, and yet alert to the snubs from his employer, determined to make him feel that he is out of place here among his “betters”. There is a great scene where Kringellein stands up to Preysing, insisting that he doesn’t own him, which must have struck chords with many factory workers watching, despite the film’s grand setting. The brothers have quite a few scenes together and there is a lot of warmth and affection between them.
Grand Hotel won the Oscar for best film, but sadly had no other nominations – a unique distinction. I suppose with five main actors it was difficult to decide who should be nominated, but it’s a pity that Goulding was overlooked as director. Looking at the quality of their work in this, it’s also a shame that Garbo never won an Oscar and John Barrymore never even had a nomination, though at least Lionel took the award for his rather over-the-top performance in the previous year’s A Free Soul (1931).
The quality and sound of the print on the DVD seem very good, and I enjoyed the special features, which include a “making of” featurette about the background to the film and MGM boss Irving Thalberg’s work in getting the all-star cast together, a newsreel about the premiere of the film, a trailer and a couple of ads for showings. One of these mentions an elaborate live prologue which sounds as if it must have been along the lines of the Busby Berkeley numbers in Footlight Parade. Possibly best of all, though, is a Warner Brothers short called Nothing Ever Happens (1933), an affectionate musical comedy spoof of Grand Hotel which clearly relies on the audience knowing the plot and stars. The cast of lookalikes really capture the mannerisms of the stars and Jane Gale, in particular, who is still alive and now 98 according to the imdb, looks amazingly like Joan Crawford. All in all, a great DVD package, though it would have been even better if a commentary had been added to the mix.