Title: Grand Hotel
Language: English, Russian, French
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Edmund Goulding
Writer: William Absalom Drake
based on the novel by Vicki Baum
Music: Charles Maxwell
Cinematography: William H. Daniels
This early MGM talkie is a trendsetter at its time for the all-star glamour, also an Oscar BEST PICTURE winner (oddly enough, without any other nominations). There are five centre characters hemmed in Berlin’s Grand Hotel, a Russian prima ballerina Grusinskaya (Garbo), a moneyless Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore), an accountant Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a dying man who decides to shell out all his savings by living in the luxury. Then a young stenographer Flaemmchen (Crawford), hired by the industrial magnate Preysing (Beery), who is negotiating a merger deal and is the former employer of Mr. Kringelein.
None of them are satisfied with their status quo, Grusinskaya is grievously rattled by the fading appeal of her dance as the turnout is ebbing away and the thought of suicide sneaks in, while the chivalric Baron must abase himself to theft in order to pay back his debt, but sadly that kind of deal doesn’t go along with his blue blood, and when he resorts to his last straw – gamble, luck is not on his side when Otto’s beginner’s luck foreshadows his doomed nobility. But the ablaze passion between Grusinskaya and Felix appears so genuine and powerful, it might save both from their plights, they are planning to catch a train together but the twist of fate cannot let that happy ending happen. Here Garbo histrionically alternates between frowning in angst when dreads for her future and flitting about hyperactively when a budding romance resuscitates her life. John Barrymore, revels in posing as suave and earnest, a heart-stealer in every sense, their ill-destined romance is the quintessential melodrama no matter how dated it comes across by today’s standard.
Flaemmchen is charmed by Felix’s debonair appearance too, but he returns with an avuncular affection, calls her “the funny one” and promises a dance only. She succumbs to reality, a pretty girl who needs money, when the one she loves cannot love her back, she moves on, grants tacit consent to become Preysing’s mistress, but eventually, after a heartbreaking incident, fate offers her a better option and she does’t hesitate to take it. Crawford is my pick of MVP in this movie, at her utter prime, she blends her magnetism perfectly with the worldly wisdom, her acting is less mannered and occasionally sparks with certain flair of self-assurance, a true flapper of its time.
As for Otto, he is supposedly to be a sympathetic character, but myself find Lionel Barrymore’s all-over-the-place acting quite annoying, wanting any trace of subtlety needed to counterbalance the haphazardly-paced narrative, together with Beery’s hateful Preysing, an outrageously repulsive character, becomes the nadir of star-power vehicle (Beery won BEST LEADING ACTOR at the same year for THE CHAMP 1931 though).
Director Edmund Goulding (THE RAZOR’S EDGE 1946) is an important name in the Golden Age Hollywood – although never won any substantial accolade for his directing work, plus his filmography being too comprehensive to sum up thus it is difficult to extract his own directorial touch to be categorised as an auteur – his adroit skill in manoeuvring a large and elaborate set, the outstanding fluidity of shifting his camera within a confined interior and magnanimously permitting enough space for his stars to enjoy the spotlight, is undeniably a key factor is this polished hit of its era.