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GRAND HOTEL, NOW AND FOREVER William S.

Stone 1,562 Words Eighty years is a long time for a film to captivate audiences but that is exactly what Grand Hotel, the winner of the 1932 Best Picture Oscar, has accomplished. Despite the passage of eight decades, its story of romance and intrigue continues to fascinate viewers. Grand Hotels well drawn characters come to life on the screen via the credible performances of some of the most sought after actors of that time: Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford and Wallace Beery. It was filmed at Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM) studios under the watchful eye of its overbearing head, Louis B. Mayer. British director Edmund Goulding was at its helm. Along with Grand Hotel, he directed two other MGM film classics: Dark Victory with Bette Davis and The Razors Edge with Tyrone Power. Both Mr. Goulding and MGM were taking a significant risk with Grand Hotel since it was the first ensemble cast production that had ever been filmed. Until then, studios had relied on one or two name actors to carry a picture. In this case, however, the cast included five major stars all of them demanding top dollar salaries. Clearly, Grand Hotel needed to be a box office success to make up for those hefty production expenses. In an attempt to make that happen, Mr. Mayer launched the picture with lavish premiers on both ends of the continent: Times Square in New York and Graumans Chinese Theater in Hollywood. All of that fanfare clearly paid off since the response by both the critics and the public was overwhelmingly positive and Grand Hotel became one of the studios biggest critical successes and all time money winners. Grand Hotel was one of the earliest major talking pictures. When compared to later audio technology, its sound came across as somewhat flat and tinny. At the time, however, it was considered state of the art. The fact that its sound was always clear and understandable was no small accomplishment. The striking art deco sets were built to resemble the inside of the luxurious Grand Hotel in Berlin. Particularly impressive was the spacious entry hall with a mammoth circular registry desk at its center. Mr. Goulding expertly choreographed the comings and goings of hundreds of extras as they milled about this desk throughout the picture. One of the films most famous and ironic lines was proclaimed by the hotel doctor, Doctor Otterschlag, played by Lewis Stone (Judge Hardy of the Andy Hardy series) at the very beginning and then, once again, at the very end, Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come and go. Nothing ever happens. Concluding the doctors boring assessment, the viewers were about to discover just how inaccurate that nonchalant comment actually was. The film was an adaptation of an expos written by a former Berlin Grand Hotel chambermaid, Vicki Baum. It focused on the actions of several hotel guests, most of whom interacted with one another as the film evolved. The most intriguing character was that of the Russian ballerina Grunishkaya played by Greta Garbo. Like Garbo herself, Grunishkaya was extremely temperamental. Despite her world renowned reputation as a prima ballerina, Grunishkaya needed constant reassurance of her dancing prowess and was constantly threatening not to perform. It was

in Grand Hotel that one of Garbos most famous lines of her career I want to be alone! was uttered. That short phrase became closely identified with Garbo when she totally withdrew from acting nine years later and remained in virtual seclusion for the rest of her life. Throughout the film, Garbos charisma comes through loud and clear. At the age of 27, she was at the peak of her beauty and talent. Her scenes with her costar John Barrymore are cinema classics that reveal two consummate actors at the top of their game. The fact that they got along so well off camera was evident from the chemistry that they revealed on film. Throughout their careers, both stars had nothing but positive things to say about the work that they had performed with the other. John Barrymores character, a down on his luck German baron, Felix van Geigen, was every bit the equal to Garbos Gruinskaya. He had been a successful gambler who had run into a dry spell. After losing repeatedly at cards, he was being pressured to pay his gambling debts or face the consequences. As a result, he was forced into becoming a cat burglar. It was while he was in the process of robbing Gruinskayas pearls, that he was discovered by the ballerina herself. At first, he succeeded in disguising his true intentions. Despite her initial suspicions, she couldnt resist being attracted to him. Little by little, they fell madly in love. Even after the baron confessed the true reason why he had entered her hotel room and returned her pearls, her infatuation for him remained in tact. Some of the most memorable love scenes ever put on film followed. The fact that Garbo and Barrymore succeeded in making this unlikely scenario plausible demonstrates what talented actors they actually were. The other pair of actors who played opposite each other was Wallace Beery and Joan Crawford. Beerys character, General Director Preysing, was a corrupt business tycoon who was trying desperately to save his company by maneuvering one last critical deal. To do so, however, he was forced to blatantly lie. The stenographer he hired to type up the agreement was Joan Crawford called Flaeminchen in the film. As the film evolved, it was clear that Beerys interest in Crawford had nothing whatever to do with her typing skills. Although not at all attracted to Beery, Crawford agreed to become Beerys mistress in exchange for a new wardrobe and a trip to England. It clearly was a cut and dry business transaction. The presentation of such a crass money for sex agreement on film was considered extremely scandalous at the time. Beery at first turned down the part of Preysing and only agreed to take it after Goulding assured him that he could speak his dialogue with a German accent. With the exception of Garbo who was supposedly Russian in the film and spoke English in her native Swedish accent, the other major actors all spoke with American accents. Although one would think that Beerys dialogue would be out of synch with that of the others, for some strange reason, it wasnt. The final major character was Otto Kringelein played by Lionel Barrymore, Johns older brother. Kringelein was a disgruntled lower level employee at Preysings company. He had nothing but bad things to say about Preysings autocratic rule. Since Kringelein had

just discovered that he was dying, he decided to splurge all of his savings by going on a spending spree in Berlin staying, of course, at its most expensive hotel. Many of Lionel Barrymores scenes are memorable. Of particular interest, however, were those in which he interacted with his brother John. To see the Barrymore brothers working together was a special treat. Another scene where Lionel Barrymore is totally alone when Kringelein returns drunk to his hotel room also was exceptionally well done. His touching scenes with Joan Crawford at the end of the film also were quite poignant. The film ends on a tragic note with the death of Baron von Geigen. He was shot by Preysing who is arrested for the murder. With no where else to go, Flaeminchen ends up accepting Kringeleins offer to become his nonsexual travelling companion. Without being told of the barons death, Gruinskaya moves on to her next ballet performance expecting to find the baron waiting for her there. No sooner does she and her entourage leave the lobby with a flourish, a new couple is seen arriving. As the couple registers, the doctor repeats his initial remark about nothing ever happening at the Gran Hotel. The cycle begins all over again, only this time with a new cast of characters. When compared to films made since the late 1930s, Gran Hotel comes up short. Its dialogue is somewhat stilted and dated. Its script is melodramatic. Its sound system is extremely basic. But, when considered on its own terms, it clearly deserves all the accolades it has received. For its day, it used the most advanced technology available. It also was exceptionally well acted, directed and photographed. It warrants high praise for experimenting with ensemble casting by bringing together a group of exceptionally talented actors under one roof. Its results were so impressive that other studios soon began to emulate MGMs success. MGM even copied itself with the 1933 production of its all star cast of Dinner at Eight. Three final points of interest: Throughout the film, all the major characters interacted with one another with two exceptions: Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford. The scriptwriters deliberately kept their characters apart so that one actress would not upstage the other. When the film was completed, Director Goulding felt that Joan Crawfords part ended up being the flashier of the two. As a result, additional scenes of Garbo were shot and edited into the pictures final cut. All of the stars but one attended the films Hollywood premier. That missing star was elusive Greta Garbo. To this day, Grand Hotel is the only Oscar winning film for best picture that was not nominated in any other category.