Starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore and Joan Crawford
Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Ensemble films are notoriously difficult affairs. Multiple characters in overlapping storylines can leave audiences unsatisfied. The director has to be a tightrope walker: balancing plot elements and making sure everyone gets their screen time only to find in the end that viewers liked that character but hated that story.
If it's a small miracle that these types of movies succeed, then Grand Hotel turns water into wine. The film follows a destitute Baron (John Barrymore) who is both a jewel thief and in love with the famous dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo). The Baron befriends Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), a lifetime employee of General Director Preysing's (Wallace Beery). Kringelein is dying and looking to use his remaining money to live life to the fullest. For his part, Preysing is teetering on the edge of financial ruin and hires the beautiful stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) to help him with his affairs. Preysing likes the woman, but Flaemmchen is smitten with the Baron.
Did you get all of that?
The connective tissue between the players and stories is the location: The Grand Hotel in Berlin. The hotel is effectively another character in the film. We can feel the pulse of the movie in its lobby. Rooms seem to morph from places of romance to ones of foreboding. And we can never leave the hotel. When characters head out its front doors, we cannot follow. The tone constantly shifts and director Edmund Goulding takes full advantage of his locale.
If there is a surprise here, it is just how subversive Grand Hotel is in its themes. For a big Hollywood spectacle packed with stars, the movie is dark almost to the point of being nihilistic. Of our main characters, one leaves the hotel in a body bag, another in handcuffs, and a third for a train station to meet a lover we all know is not showing up, a fact the hotel itself seems to conspire to conceal.
The only other true hopeful moment comes from a minor character, a porter. As the film ends, he receives a call from the hospital. His wife is having a baby. Perhaps we can look forward to the future.
Or perhaps not. Dr. Otternschlag, a permanent resident of the Grand Hotel, seems to act as the voice of the place. And he closes the film repeating a line he said at the beginning:
"Grand Hotel. People come and go. Nothing ever happens."Indeed. Robberies and murder. Love and hatred. Death and birth. All are consequential to the players. But the hotel just goes on. Whether you leave the hotel for a train station or the morgue, there is always another guest waiting to check in.
Grand Hotel is about as perfect as an ensemble film gets. It balances all of its elements and has something to say. It's a masterpiece of the pre-Code era.
***** out of *****