During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.
1932’s “Grand Hotel” is the first movie on this list to have more than one name that Diane and I had heard before. It stars John Barrymore (the grandfather of actress Drew Barrymore), Greta Garbo, and Joan Crawford. The movie, originally adapted from a play, takes place entirely in the Grand Hotel of Berlin and follows in the lives of some of its guests as their stories slowly interconnect.
For a movie where, to quote the Doctor who permanently lives in the hotel “nothing ever happens”, enough did happen through its nearly two hour runtime to convince us both to put it at/near the top of the list of the movies we’ve watched for this series thus far. Compared to my favorite so far “Cimarron”, “Grand Hotel” is wonderfully subdued – give or take any scene with Greta Garbo – and incredibly small. The movie takes place entirely in the Grand Hotel, shifting from the lobby to various hotel rooms, never leaving the premises or the actors’ sides.
Despite its smallness, “Grand Hotel” feels large and all-encompassing. All of the characters are interesting. We owe the acting for that. The plot too kept us engaged as it blended just enough mystery, drama, and humor as each character moved from vignette to vignette, crossing over, never crossing at all, or double-crossing one another.
Not to give too much away, but the movie ends with both a death and a birth. In a sense, the Grand Hotel is the cosmos itself as it lets in and lets off its passengers. It may seem slow moving at first, but “Grand Hotel” picks up speed without you realizing it. Whether its Joan Crawford’s tart secretary or John Barrymore’s friendless baron, there’s a lot of reasons to watch this movie. By focusing on these characters and others all at once, “Grand Hotel” manages to captures a series of stories all unfolding in the middle of their arcs simultaneously and pulls it off spectacularly.
I imagine its interwoven story comes from the movie being based off a play. Still, it’s cinematography and set design keeps it from ever feeling boring or two dimensional. The Grand Hotel is no Overlook Hotel like in “The Shining” with its own personality and importance, but the 360 degree desk in the lobby makes the “Grand Hotel”’s setting feel like its own place.
The opening of the movie begins with a series of shots in a phone booth as each character takes a turn introducing themselves and alluding to their background directly to the audience through an ingenious use of a phone. It almost predicts the more modern “confession booths” of reality television.
From there, as each character is introduced as they live and breathe within the Grand Hotel, we also eventually see all of their rooms. Most of the characters are having extended stays in the hotel, so rather than cookie cutter rooms each reveals more insight into the character.
For example, Greta Garbo plays a depressed ballerina whose room is a maze of fine clothes with a clear path to the bed where she spends most of her time. Contrast that with the dying accountant whose savings are being spent entirely on enjoying luxury in his final days.
After begging for a larger room, the one we eventually see him in is massive, luxurious, and empty save for the dresser that holds his hat and umbrella. By dressing the rooms much as the actors wear costumes, the hotel comes to life in the kind of way that only a movie excels at.
And for once on this list, this movie holds up almost entirely to a modern eye’s scrutiny. There’s no racism to point to and the boss who wants to have sex with the secretary (Joan Crawford) he just hired for his business trip is sadly a still familiar and relevant plot line. Even more relevant is the importance placed on money, especially in how the dying accountant whose former boss (the same one with the secretary) is also staying at the hotel though as part of him running his business.
Diane and I did share one weakness for the film: Greta Garbo. While researching the movie after watching it, I saw several reviewers praise her acting, but for us it was over-the-top and silly. It didn’t help that the camera kept zooming in on her face whenever she spoke. Also, the romance plot she was involved in didn’t make much sense to me. Greta Garbo fans or people who watched this movie when it first came out in the 30’s might’ve been able to fall in love with her after only one real look, but I couldn’t.
For some, “Grand Hotel” may be a boring movie where nothing truly happens, but for us it was a treat. The cinematography still holds up, as does the acting. The plot is nothing revolutionary, but so well executed that I felt engaged for most of the movie. We both recommend “Grand Hotel” to anyone who wants a film that likely deserved its Best Picture Academy Award.