“Grand Hotel . . . always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”
This is the stock observation of one Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), the war-maimed physician-in-residence at Berlin’s opulent Grand Hotel—or, to be exact, in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s glitzy, Oscar-winning Grand Hotel. Now available in a beautiful Blu-ray edition from Warner Home Video, this granddaddy of all-star Hollywood dramas still delivers most of its much-touted melodramatic pleasure, and all of its original screen glamour.
In the Depression, nearly every studio in Hollywood either flirted with bankruptcy or went into actual receivership—except MGM. Why? They made glittering, audience-pleasing, infrequently challenging fare. (With few exceptions, if a producer or director wanted to be adventurous or independent, they went somewhere else.) The cutting-edge elements in an MGM film—and they’re there, in Grand Hotel—were to be found in Adrian’s costumes, the astonishing sets and production design supervised by Cedric Gibbons, and in William Daniels’ glistening cinematography. I have fond memories of a 1988 35 MM screening at Proctors (as part of their epic, not-to-be repeated Barrymore film series); this Blu-ray looks lovely in a way that doesn’t displace that viewing but doesn’t dishonor it, either.
MGM had big stars: Studio advertising boasted of having “more stars than there are in Heaven” under contract, and boy-wonder production chief Irving Thalberg put a lot of them in Grand Hotel.
In order of billing: Swedish diva Greta Garbo is a neurotic Russian ballerina; John Barrymore is an aristocratic thief in debt to gangsters; Joan Crawford is a penniless stenographer; burly Wallace Beery is a pompous German industrialist; and Lionel Barrymore is a dying, lowly clerk at one of Beery’s factories on holiday in Berlin for a final spree. Negotiating the casting was akin to legislating a treaty: Matinee idol John Barrymore agreed to accept second billing and Garbo agreed to allow Barrymore’s legendary left profile to be featured in their two-shots (for example, see the Blu-ray cover); Beery agreed to be in the movie if he was the only actor to affect an accent; and Crawford agreed to accept third billing after much hand-holding and reassurance.
Director Edmund Goulding does an admirable job making the varied acting styles seem like they could exist in the same universe. Garbo may look only somewhat more like a ballerina than Wallace Beery, but she has the neurosis down pretty well, and Beery is a blustering delight. But it’s Crawford and John Barrymore who run away with the picture. Crawford gets to deploy her working-girl persona in a high-class setting, and her one scene with Barrymore has more spark than the latter’s love scenes with Garbo. Barrymore is funny and aristocratic to the bone, and plays his best moments opposite a dachshund. He deadpans and underplays scenes with the hammy Beery and even hammier brother Lionel in way that makes him look good without making them look bad.
If the movie has a hothouse quality, that’s because it’s cheerfully, unashamedly studio bound. Thalberg didn’t even bother to include an exterior shot of what the entire hotel would look like; we see only the entrance before entering the grand interior.
The Blu-ray has a number of extras, including a parody/comedy short made at Warner Bros. Neither Thalberg nor his boss, Louis B. Mayer, would have been amused at its inclusion here.