Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932)

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.

John Barrymore and Greta Garbo

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.

Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford

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.

Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery

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.

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20 thoughts on “Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932)

  1. Another dent in my film watching experience and only a few weeks ago I borrowed the film from my local library and never watched it!. Just the other day I admitted to R.D. over at The Movie Projector that I have not seen LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. This is getting embarrassing! That aside, this is a great review and now I am going to have to borrow that DVD again!

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    • Well, you have seen far more than I have in general, John, as you know – and I must admit I haven’t seen ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ either. Anyway, thanks very much, and I’m sure you will enjoy this one when you do get to it!

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  2. “Grand Hotel” is not my favorite movie of 1932, but it ranks number two for me with “Trouble in Paradise” beating it out. It is still a remarkably good movie, a real gem from MGM and a feather in the cap for Irving Thalberg. I particularly love the relationship between Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore, both of whom deserved at least acting nominations. I’m kind of a sucker for ensemble, multiple story lines like some of Robert Altman’s later stuff (“Nashville,” “Short Cuts”) and we can really trace the genesis of that style to this movie. (I can’t think of one that did something similar before it. If someone else can I would be curious to hear about it.)

    Judy, you’ve done a great job here with your review. You hit on the movie’s strengths and taught me something about why Wallace Beery used a German accent while no one else did. Great job as always!

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    • Thanks, Jason – I do love this era and am hoping to write about more early 1930s films. I actually saw another great movie from 1932 today, Frank Borzage’s ‘A Farewell to Arms’, but have now discovered that the DVD I have of that one is a censored version, so I need to get hold of the uncut movie before writing anything about it!

      Getting back to ‘Grand Hotel’, I also like ensemble movies – I tend to think of this one together with the following year’s ‘Dinner at Eight’, again starring both Barrymore brothers. I haven’t heard of an earlier one of these “portmanteau” films either, and would be interested to know if this was the first. Thanks for the kind comments. I do find it slightly disconcerting to have Beery using a German accent when none of the others do, but he gives a fine performance all the same, very much cast against type.

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  3. Very nice review Judy. This is another movie I have gathering dust on my shelves – there are far too many in that category I’m afraid. I only ever saw bits and pieces of this during a long ago TV screening. I really need to dust it off and watch it properly.

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    • Thanks, Colin – I know exactly what you mean about movies gathering dust on the shelves, as I have a lot of those too. This is definitely one worth dusting off, though!

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  4. “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.”

    Indeed Judy! GRAND HOTEL is the most rightly famous portmanteau film of all-time. While admittedly a glossy and manufactured entertainment it’s irresistible and beautifully acted by both Barrymores, Beery (German accent and all!), and Garbo among others.

    I found this discussion most interesting Judy, in view of my placing this comment on Oscar night:

    “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 sole win for GRAND HOTEL as Best Picture is a record I believe. (I believe CIMARRON may also have this distinction, I am not sure)

    You’ve done a great job here Judy in making me want to visit this hotel again soon!

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    • Thanks very much, Sam – glad to hear you find this movie irresistible too. I agree on its glossiness, which is part of its appeal. I always tend to think of this one together with ‘Dinner at Eight’, so must watch that film again soon too.

      I’ve just checked ‘Cimarron’ at the imdb, and it did get two other Oscars beyond best picture, for art direction and best writing (adaptation), so I think ‘Grand Hotel’ is unique in only taking the award for best picture.

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  5. Pingback: “Of Gods and Men,” “Heartbeats,” “Carancho,” “Even the Rain,” Bogie-Bacall and the Oscars on Monday Morning Diary (February 28) « Wonders in the Dark

    • Thanks very much for that, Miguel – I will have to see if it is possible for me to get along there, which I’d love to do! And I do appreciate knowing in advance.

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  6. Excellent piece, Judy! Did not know that the Garbo-Barrymore scenes were done on a closed set. Interesting. Garbo was luminous here and utterly gorgeous, IMHO. It’s instructive to watch GH and then to watch various movies from other studios in that same year. GH seemed way ahead of its time. Though I have to agree with Jason above that TROUBLE IN PARADISE is my favorite movie from 1932. Like GH, it has a slick, cosmopolitan vibe with a sophisticated story line. GH has great sets, though I was distracted on occasion when a character (Lionel Barrymore, e.g.) slammed his hotel room door and the walls vibrated. I’m easily distracted. :)

    Like you, Judy, I tend to pair in my mind GRAND HOTEL and DINNER AT 8. For me personally, one of DA8’s best assets is Marie Dressler. I love to watch her onscreen.

    I hope you’ll be able to review DA8 some time soon. I’d enjoy reading your thoughts on it.

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    • Thanks very much, CagneyFan – there’s a mention of the set being closed during those scenes in one of the featurettes on the DVD and I believe Garbo often wanted to film without visitors being present. There’s a nice piece about John Barrymore and his work with Garbo on a website about her, Garbo Forever, which mentions that he understood her need for privacy when filming: “there’s no reason in the world why Garbo should be expected to work in front of visitors,” he said. “It isn’t like being on the stage, where one is prepared for an audience.”
      The weblink is http://www.garboforever.com/John_Barrymore.htm
      I do agree that she is luminous here – the two of them are great together. Must admit I haven’t seen ‘Trouble in Paradise’ yet, something I need to put right! I didn’t notice the walls shaking in ‘Grand Hotel’ and am quite surprised to hear it as it all looks so sumptuous.
      ‘Dinner at Eight’ was the first movie I saw Dressler in – I’ve seen one or two more since, including ‘Min and Bill’ where she gives a wonderful performance. Thanks again for the kind words.

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  8. I finally got around to watching this in its entirety last night. I enjoyed it a lot except for Garbo. I’ve never been a particular fan, finding her always a bit artificial. Having said that, I wouldn’t count myself a big Crawford fan either but her performance here really drew me in and I felt it had genuine honesty to it.
    The Barrymores are always a pleasure, and Lionel’s turn as the doomed clerk determined to live life to the full as long as he can is touching stuff indeed. Seeing him and Crawford heading off, full of anticipation, to seek something better after both had endured a lifetime of bad breaks was incredibly uplifting.

    Thanks for reminding me about this movie Judy – I’m even in the mood to reassess my attitude to Crawford now.

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    • Glad you enjoyed the film, Colin, and thanks very much for returning to post your thoughts on it. I agree Crawford’s performance in this is very honest – I’ve read that a few of her scenes were cut out by the censors even in the pre-Code era, so it might have had an even greater honesty. I also agree that the friendship between Lionel Barrymore and Crawford’s characters in this is touching – you’ve written a great description of the two of them heading off together.

      I really need to see more of both Garbo and Crawford to fully work out what I think about them – but I like Crawford a lot in a couple of films where she is older and a bit battered by life, ‘Flamingo Road’ and the weirdly captivating Nicholas Ray Western ‘Johnny Guitar’, and I liked Garbo’s intense performance opposite Gilbert in the silent film ‘Flesh and the Devil’.

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  9. Pingback: Dinner at Eight (George Cukor, 1933) | Movie classics

  10. Pingback: Mata Hari (George Fitzmaurice, 1931) | Movie classics

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