1930s, 3.5/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Edmund Goulding, Review

Grand Hotel

A film set in a hotel? Where nearly everyone lies about who they are? Where a woman has to prostitute herself to survive? Where those who can remove their metaphorical masks honestly are the ones to come out happiest? With movie stars? Is this a Billy Wilder movie before Wilder came to America? Practically.

The first major multi-star vehicle with five of MGM’s biggest draws, Grand Hotel has the interesting distinction of being the only Best Picture winner to be nominated for absolutely nothing else. If the Supporting Actor and Actress categories had been a thing at the time, surely it would have gotten a nomination there. Anyway, no matter that interesting historical footnote, Grand Hotel is the kind of star-driven vehicle that Hollywood could pull off for so long when the star system was strong. Based on a novel by Vicki Baum, the film takes a hefty cast of characters, swirls them about each other, and gets quite an emotional denouement out of it all, balancing a couple of different emotions surprisingly deftly.

The Grand Hotel in Berlin is the transient home to many people. Our introduction is a series of telephone calls from some of these guests, notably Otto (Lionel Barrymore), a bookkeeper given a death sentence of a medical exam who decided to use his life savings to live it up in style in his final days, Preysing (Wallace Beery), the general director of a company in Berlin to desperately complete a merger agreement with another company after another deal with “Manchester” falls through, the Baron (John Barrymore), an aristocrat fallen on hard times who is now working as a burglar focused on some pearls owned by the dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), and, finally, a lowly stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) hired by Preysing with dreams of making it big in the movies.

The least of the host of interactions we get is between the Baron and Grusinskaya, a torrid romance that starts when the Baron gets caught in her room, admits to what he’s done, but covers it with a lie about how much he idolizes her, something that appeals to her wounded ego due to her failing popularity. The Baron later talking about how it’s true love feels odd since the two have this relatively brief scene late into the night and the only one other interaction through the rest of the film. It’s thin.

The rest of the interactions are actually wonderful, though. The real heart of the movie is the elder Barrymore as Otto. Tasting this heedless life for the first time in his many years, he’s like a lost puppy, latching onto the Baron and making gentle connections with Flaemmchen and a long-term resident of the hotel, the scarred by war Doctor Otternschlag (Lewis Stone). He gets his moments of righteous rage against Preysing, though, since he worked for Preysing for years, even to the point of being able to imply he knows of Preysing’s mismanagement of the firm that lead to the loss of the Manchester deal. He’s a gentle soul, bullied his whole life, and given a chance to really live for the first time, he takes it with both hands.

The Baron himself becomes a very nice center of melancholy, especially in contrast to Otto. Having fallen in love with the dancer Grusinskaya, but also being too prideful to take her money, he insists on making his own way with her. He takes Otto around the city and into the country on a wild ride (all off camera, of course, because this is a movie about the Grand Hotel) where he’s looking for money wherever he can. Defeated, he resigns himself to organizing a game of baccarat in the hotel with Otto where Otto ends up winning more than 14,000 marks and the Baron wipes out. This is where the film moves firmly from its earlier, high energy into a quieter melancholy as the Baron is faced with moral choices around the money and this puppy of a man that looks up to him.

Alongside is Flaemmchen, falling for the Baron but realizing that he’s fallen for someone else, she gives Otto a dance to help him live but needs to figure out her next stage in life with dreams as big as she has. So, with the Baron cut off, she decides to give into Preysing’s advances, essentially agreeing to become his mistress (a series of events that led to most of her role being cut around the country in the days before the Hays Office). She’s a sad character, wonderfully played by Crawford with a smile on her face but always seeming to be holding back tears at the same time.

Everything comes to a head when the Baron makes a fateful decision about money, and the quiet melancholy just fills the screen for the rest of the film. It’s something I really eat up, and I think it is a source of great pathos for everyone involved.

Really, my only problem with this film is the romance between the Baron and Grusinskaya, something that could have been addressed with one or two more scenes of them together, maybe five minutes of runtime. Outside of that, though, this is a small treasure of a picture, using its star-studded cast incredibly effectively in order to tell a surprisingly sad story that ends up ringing quite true. Directed with tact and style by Edmund Goulding, Grand Hotel was a very good movie that has really stood the test of time.

Rating: 3.5/4


2 thoughts on “Grand Hotel”

  1. I was actually expecting a comedy, something along the lines of ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’, but Grand Hotel is really a drama. A big, glamorous drama with big stars and skilled actors, but in the end this is about the inner conflicts of people that seem separate but are really interconnected. There’s a great theme here about how the randos we see around us may actually have a very complicated life we aren’t aware of. This is a movie of great compassion but also bleak reality.

    These people feel real in the sense that their actions have human consequences, there are no magical Hollywood endings. We have heartbreak, murder, theft, impending death and of course, irony.

    ‘Nothing ever happens’, indeed, not if you only see the surface. Grand Hotel lets us seen beneath the surface. It’s very good storytelling.

    It truly is a good movie.

    But I would have preferred a comedy, I think.

    Oh and screw the Baron, he’s an asshole.


    1. The Baron really isn’t a good person, but he does try, at least. Well, sometimes. Not very hard…At least he was nice to Otto when he wasn’t trying to steal all of his money, that is.

      As a historical note, it’s kind of weird that Warner owns the film now. They bought the MGM library a while back, and MGM and WB were making very different movies at the time. WB was small and making movies about the grittier side of the depression and crime. MGM was making grand statements of glamour and drama. They really couldn’t have been more opposite.

      I think a lot of WB’s cache as a studio these days comes from the fact that they bought the MGM library from its inception through 1985 and pass off those movies as their own.


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