*. Grand Hotel is one of those movies probably more famous now than seen. I guess everyone knows that Greta Garbo said she wanted to be alone (three times, actually), and that this was the first all-star dramatic vehicle, a huge box-office blockbuster, and holds the odd distinction of winning the Academy Award for Best Picture Oscar without being nominated in any other category.
*. What should your expectations be on watching it today. Pauline Kael provides some helpful guidance: “anyone who goes to see this movie expecting an intelligent script, or even ‘good acting,’ should have their head examined. Most of the players give impossible bad performances — they chew up the camera. But if you want to see what screen glamour used to be, and what, originally, ‘stars’ were, this is perhaps the best example of all time.”
*. This is mostly right, but I’d want to shade it in a bit. It’s a very stagey production (Vicki Baum’s novel had already been a hit on stage), and looks it, though the set for the main desk is impressive. The editing is very choppy. The prolific and versatile Edmund Goulding directs it in a rather dull manner, with a number of shots very poorly framed. But these were the early days of sound and I don’t know how much of this could be avoided. As David Thomson writes, this is Goulding’s best known but not best film, “and it seems likely that on so prestigious a movie his control was reduced by executives and the stars themselves.”
*. Kael is typical in telling us that “Greta Garbo sets the movie in vibration with her extraordinary sensual presence.” If you’re a member of the Garbo Cult then this is holy ground, as she gets top billing and the delayed reveal (in a bed that’s a mountain of satin). I think she’s fine, but I agree with Thomson that “Contrary to legend, Joan Crawford is the best thing in [the] film.” Indeed, after one critical preview drew forth the comment from the Hollywood Reporter that Crawford was the real star (“Crawford has the feminine meat of the show, and how she does take advantage of it”) Irving Thalberg demanded more scenes with Garbo. I think Crawford’s negotiation scene with Preysing (Wallace Beery) is marvelous. Though apparently Beery stormed out of rehearsals saying he would only come back when Crawford learned how to act.
*. Garbo and John Barrymore (playing the gentleman thief Baron Gaigern) got along well on set, but I found their age discrepancy really bothering. She was 25 and he was 50. And 50 in 1932 was like 70 today. He looks much too old for her, or to be playing a cat burglar.
*. It’s a pretty faithful adaptation of Baum’s novel, which I’ve actually read. They’ve given Gaiger a dachshund to make us like him more, an early example of the pat-the-dog scene. Of course all the nudity is removed, and that was something Baum really dwelt on. Also gone is Kringelein’s crazy day on the town with Gaigern. No high-speed road racing or going up in an airplane. Which you might have expected them to work into such a big picture. But as I say, this is a stagey movie. It doesn’t take us outside the hotel at all.
*. The film follows Baum’s moral judgments pretty closely, and these are odd enough (at least to me) as to maybe call for comment. Preysing is the heavy — and perhaps not coincidentally the only character to affect a German accent, which was apparently a selling point for Beery — while Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a hero, at least of sorts. This strikes me as unfair.
*. Why? Preysing is in a bad situation through no fault of his own and is scrambling to keep his business afloat. Kringelein, on the other hand, though dying, is a whiny cheat who is scamming the company (and, though this doesn’t get mentioned in the movie, his wife) by blowing all his savings on a wild exit. Preysing is a lech, but Crawford’s Flaemmchen is for hire so there’s no foul there. Meanwhile, Kringelein is just as culpable, or more so, in running off with her to Paris as Preysing was going to be in taking her to Manchester. And with a good lawyer shouldn’t he beat that murder rap? The circumstances seem in his favour.
*. Still entertaining, which is quite an achievement after 90 years. And some of it has stayed fresh, including the relationship between Flaemmchen and Preysing and the way Grusinskaya is bundled out the doors, cocooned from reality by her entourage and still holding on to her dreams. Billy Wilder might have been taking notes for Norma Desmond.
*. But if our interests and sympathies lead us to view it differently than contemporary audiences did, that’s still a tribute to something in it that has stayed relevant long after its star power has been extinguished.