Film Score: Charles Maxwell Cinematography: William H. Daniels
Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Lionel Barrymore
Grand Hotel has the same kind of European flavor that many of the Ernst Lubitsch films did later in the decade. Early talkies were rife with adapted stage plays and this film is no exception. Based on the stage play by William Drake, who had adapted it from the novel Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum, it begins with the ironic statement by one of the characters that, “Grand Hotel . . . people coming, going . . . nothing ever happens.” Of course plenty happens right away, the film itself opening on a series of telephone conversations of guests staying at the large Grand Hotel in Berlin. The lobby is busy with guest checking in, looking for messages, being directed to rooms, and behind it all the dominating sounds of Strauss’s “The Blue Danube.”
One of the wonders of the film is the incredible technical achievement onscreen. So many film histories belabor the fact that early talkies were stagey and had little motion. And when looking at films of this era, many are. But it’s important to note that this is not so much due to the technical limitations of the time as it is the unimaginativeness of the directors or just outright laziness. Grand Hotel has a wonderful, crisp look to the cinematography. There are long, sweeping tracking shots that move through the set with the same grace that cameras move today, and crane shots descending into the opulent rooms. The sound is also excellent, and we can hear the actors clearly no matter how much movement they undertake. The only aspect that dates the film somewhat is the relatively intrusive music that tends to compete with the viewer’s attention rather than supporting the action.
It’s not until twenty-five minutes into the film that the audience learns what the actual plot is, which is kind of fascinating so I don’t want to give it away. John Barrymore plays a Baron apparently on the make and, even at fifty, is still a commanding presence in the film. His brother Lionel, however, doesn’t fare so well. As the simpering Kringelein, on a spending spree because he has only a short time to live, he’s not very convincing. I’m not a big Garbo fan, simply because I haven’t been able to figure out what all the fuss was about. Here she plays a diva ballerina and seems to me to be overacting quite a bit. At the same time her beauty pales in comparison with the young Joan Crawford, who electrifies the screen whenever she appears. Wallace Beery is perfectly adequate as the industrialist desperate to merge with another company, though one wishes someone like Emil Jannings could have played the part instead.
The film has a surprising ending which threatens to make it a good picture, but in the end the whole thing is something of a let down. Its fame rests chiefly on its position as one of the first ensemble films, but what it has now is simply the ability to see these fine actors working together. It’s also something of a metaphor for life, and when looked at in that way it is a success. Ultimately, it’s not something I would recommend for the story itself, but as an historic film that holds a specific place in film history, and for its glimpse at these great MGM stars, Grand Hotel is definitely worth a viewing.