Oscar's best picture of 1932 was the brainchild of wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg, and it
broke the mold of studio pictures before it. Conventional wisdom of the time required that each
film be allotted only one star, but Thalberg, whom no one ever accused of thinking small,
decided that MGM had so many stars under contract that it could afford to lavish a whole group
on one big show. Of course, each star had to have a story, and thus was born a multi-layered
extravaganza whose progeny includes such diverse products as the Seventies disaster film with
its megawatt cast, Robert Altman's "who'll show up next?" projects like Nashville and Short
Cuts with their overlapping narratives, Neil Simon's various Suite comedies (Plaza, California
and London) and, God help us, Gary Marshall's holiday-themed smorgasbords.
Grand Hotel also illustrates Hollywood's early adoption of a practice that's still familiar, which
is the perpetual recycling of material. The film began as a German novel by Vicki Baum, who
based the story on her experiences working as a hotel chambermaid. When Thalberg purchased
the rights, he first had it adapted into a Broadway play, which made a profit. Only then did
Thalberg set about having Grand Hotel adapted to the screen, under the supervision of director
Edmund Goulding (Dark Victory). The story would later be remade again as a movie (in the 1945
film Week-End at the Waldorf), for Broadway (in the 1989 musical Grand Hotel) and, in its latest
incarnation, as a Las Vegas gambling attraction (the MGM Grand).
Of the many starry presences in the film, the brightest by far at the time was the legendary Greta
Garbo, whose despairing ballerina speaks the line in Grand Hotel with which Garbo herself
would forever after be identified: "I want to be alone." Garbo always insisted that the character
wasn't her, and that she merely wanted to be left alone by the press and public, but her
performance was so convincing and, opposite the great John Barrymore, so compelling that the
identification with her character was probably unavoidable.
The film is set entirely within the most luxurious hotel in Berlin. Art director Cedric Gibbons
studied the cream of European resorts, then designed one even more sumptuous for the camera.
A series of carefully choreographed crane shots establish the scale of the operation, as well as its
constant activity: switchboard operators routing calls, staff at a busy concierge desk answering
questions and receiving new arrivals, other staff tending to all manner of requests as patrons
come and go throughout the lobby. A porter named Senf (Jean Hersholt) is on the phone with a
hospital inquiring after his wife, who is in labor. His frustration over the lack of news is a subplot
running through the film.
The remaining subplots all concern guests at the hotel. We are introduced to many of them
through an initial series of telephone conversations occurring simultaneously in booths in the
hotel lobby. The same element of chance allows these stories to brush up against each other—and
sometimes collide—throughout Grand Hotel. The guest most likely to turn up in any story is
Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore), a nobleman fallen on hard times, who is there to
perpetrate a robbery to satisfy a debt. But his eye is caught by a pretty young typist, who goes by
the name of "Flaemmchen" (Joan Crawford, who feared, not without reason, that her scenes
would be cut by local censors).
Flaemmchen has been hired by one Preysing (Wallace Beery), the head of a large industrial
concern who has come to Berlin to conclude a merger that he desperately needs. A brutish,
lecherous bully, Preysing is the film's villain. Beery, who was then at the height of his popularity,
had to be talked into taking the role and reportedly complained throughout the making of the
film. Despite the pressures of business, Preysing has time to make a crassly commercial
proposition to Flaemmchen. For her part, she seems more than willing to accept it, despite her
obvious interest in the Baron. Indeed, she almost seems to invite Preysing's offer.
As luck would have it, one of Preysing's long-suffering employees is also a guest. A bookkeeper
named Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore, John's brother) has been told that he hasn't long to
live and has decided to blow all his money on one last good time. Initially a pitiful figure, he will
make friends with the Baron and Flaemmchen and discover an unexpected joy in human
connection—and also in gambling, drinking and dancing. Lionel Barrymore's performance is
bold and theatrical, but especially in his scenes with his brother as the Baron, unusually affecting.
It's impossible to recognize either the face or the voice of the actor who, fourteen years later,
would play the evil Mr. Potter in It's a Wonderful Life.
The famous Russian dancer, Grusinskaya (Garbo), is also a guest, but she is reclusive, appearing
just long enough to enter and exit the limousine that takes her to and from the theater.
Grusinskaya is exhausted and despairing, though exactly why is never fully explained (and it's a
tribute to Garbo's screen presence that no explanation is needed). As a result of unexpected
developments, however, Grusinskaya glimpses the possibility of a new beginning and she departs
the hotel at the end of the film filled with hope. But is it an illusion?
Floating through these proceedings like some specter out of Edgar Allan Poe is Dr. Otternschlag
(Lewis Stone), a military physician whose face has been badly scarred by injury and disease. He
occasionally checks the front desk for messages, of which there are none. It is the doctor who
bookends the film with the strange pronouncement: "Grand Hotel... always the same. People
come, people go. Nothing ever happens." On the contrary, quite a lot happens in the two hours
between the doctor's pronouncements, but perhaps it doesn't amount to much from the
sepulchral perspective of a walking death's head.
Like nearly all of Garbo's films, Grand Hotel was shot by William H. Daniels, who was often
credited with creating the famous Garbo "face" but always insisted otherwise. (Ironically,
Daniels' only Oscar win was for a non-Garbo film, 1948's The Naked City.) Widely considered
one of the great innovators in lighting for black-and-white, Daniels devised numerous tricks to
adapt to the quirks of the various stars in Grand Hotel and also to the scale of the vast set.
Modern audiences aren't likely to have an opportunity to see Daniels' work projected on a thirty-foot-tall screen as he intended, but Warner's 1080p,
AVC-encoded Blu-ray is the next best thing.
The source is clean, the blacks are solid and deep, and the shades of gray are finely differentiated.
According to the scholarly commentary track, much of Grand Hotel was shot with some degree
of diffusion, in part to flatter the features of star John Barrymore (and disguise his hangovers),
and in part to contribute to a sense of spaciousness and old world grandeur. This provides a
somewhat softer image. To make matters more challenging, the film's original camera negative
was lost, and all of the surviving elements are reportedly several generations removed from the
OCN. The result is a somewhat inconsistent level of detail, but it's not something you're likely to
notice unless you're looking for it. What is noticeable is the pleasingly natural grain pattern that
has been accurately reproduced without reduction or filtering. Whatever detail remains on the
existing elements appears to have been fully translated to Blu-ray.
No doubt due to the fact that all of the extras are in standard definition, Warner's use of a BD-25
does not appear to have provided any challenge for the compressionist. No artifacts were in
Grand Hotel's mono audio track, presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0, shows its age, with
noticeable background hiss and a thin top end to the orchestral accompaniment that makes it
inadvisable to listen at anything more than a modest volume. But this is a not a film that requires
"reference level" for its dialogue to be intelligible. The spoken exchanges are clear at all times,
and the underscoring, most of it drawn from Strauss, Grieg and Rachmaninoff and heard as if the
Grand Hotel's ballroom orchestra were permanently playing in the background, does not need to
be loud to create the desired effect.
The Blu-ray includes the supplements from the 2004 and 2008 DVDs. New to the Blu-ray is an
informative commentary track.
Commentary with Jeffrey Vance and Mark A. Vieira: Vance is a film historian and
former archivist for MGM, where Grand Hotel was produced. Vieira is a writer,
photographer and historian whose books include a biography of Irving Thalberg. Their
track is a gold mine of information on the making of the film, its stars, director, producer
and the various craftspeople involved. The commentary includes information about
reshoots, edits, an alternate opening, script changes and similar details that would today
be preserved during the making of a film for inclusion on a DVD or Blu-ray, but for a
film of Grand Hotel's vintage must be painstakingly researched in studio archives.
Checking Out: Grand Hotel (480i; 1.33:1; 12:20): All of the information in this "making
of" documentary is also included in the commentary, but here it's less densely relayed
and accompanied by helpful visuals.
Hollywood Premiere of Metro Goldwyn Mayer's Grand Hotel (480i; 1.33:1; 9:24):
Newsreel footage from the film's opening at Graumann's Chinese Theatre. They don't do
premieres like this anymore.
Nothing Ever Happens (480i; 1.33:1; 18:50): A musical parody of Grand Hotel released
Just a Word of Warning Theater Announcement (480i; 1.33:1; 1:16): Catch it now, or
you'll miss your chance!
Grand Hotel (1932) (480i; 1.33:1; 2:27)
Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) (480i; 1.33:1; 2:42)
When one takes a step back from the lavish decor and costumes, what's most striking about the
guests of Grand Hotel is that they're all in trouble, spiritually, physically or financially. There
isn't one among them for whom anyone would confidently forecast a bright future. Thalberg's
instincts for what the audience wanted were legendary. In 1932, the year that FDR was first
elected to the White House, the effects of the Depression were being felt everywhere. While
audiences might have been willing to enjoy the escapism of seeing opulence on the screen,
perhaps Thalberg sensed that they didn't want to see characters enjoying that opulence without
penalty. As Grand Hotel ends, a young couple arrives, probably newlyweds. They're all smiles
and anticipation. One wonders how they'll be after their stay. Highly recommended.
Blu-ray.com and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment are offering three members an opportunity to win one of three Catalog Classic Prize Packs that include Driving Miss Daisy, Grand Hotel and Mrs. Miniver. All three films make their Blu-ray debut on January 8th.
Warner Home Entertainment will release on Blu-ray Edmund Goulding's Oscar winning film Grand Hotel (1932), starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and Joan Crawford. Exact technical specs and supplemental features to be included with this release are unknown at the ...