“Grand Hotel…always the same…people come and go but nothing ever happens” bemoans a regular guest at Berlin’s famed Grand Hotel. The guest’s observation is quickly proved to be misguided, however, as a whirlwind of activity sweeps through the hotel’s doors and guests not only come and go, but come together only to be torn apart before departing through the hotel’s revolving doors. A tapestry of tales woven together with performances from some of the 1930’s most memorable stars, Grand Hotel is a must watch for both fans of vintage drama, and newcomers looking for an introduction to the classics alike.
|Whatever happened to wanting to be alone?|
The story begins with a brief introduction to the diverse guests populating Berlin’s Grand Hotel. Terminally ill bookkeeper Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) retreats to the hotel for a few final days of extravagance after a lifetime of caution and frugality. Soon after, Kringelein’s boss, ruthless industrialist Mr. Preysing (Wallace Beery) arrives with his seductive new stenographer, Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) in tow. Meanwhile penniless aristocrat turned thief Baron von Gaigern (John Barrymore) patrols the hotel halls looking for a score. Finally tormented ballerina Grusniskaya arrives with her entourage in preparation for an upcoming performance. This diverse cast of characters’ lives cross and intertwine in by turns tragic and comic ways that ultimately leave each of them profoundly changed when they finally exit through the hotel’s lobby.
|That Joan, always getting a leg up on the competition|
Adapted from Vickie Baum’s novel and stage-play, Grand Hotel captures the dizzying atmosphere of a generation dancing on the edge of darkness. Through its portrait of Europe between the world wars the film aptly portrays the ways in which political and economic turmoil can upend even the most seemingly stable lives. Set in impoverished 1930’s Germany, the film largely focuses upon the ways in which its characters compromise their ideals and morals in an effort to survive. For instance, Flaemmchen seriously considers becoming Mr. Preysing’s mistress despite her obvious disdain for him and her growing affection towards the Baron. Similarly, the decline of the aristocracy in the wake of World War I has left the Baron stranded in a world that has moved on without him, leading him to drift into a life of gambling and theft. In a more subtle scenario, Kringelein realizes that he has wasted his life working at a job he despises, all in pursuit of a material success that he never will achieve. Even the wealthy Mr. Preysing proves vulnerable to the upheaval of the Great Depression as he faces financial ruin in the film’s final act. While ballet star Grusniskaya is at the height of her wealth and prestige, she is all too aware that her fortune and fame are slipping away from her as her career approaches its inevitable decline. It is this realization, along with the prospect of returning to the poverty and political oppression of life in the Soviet Union that leads her to attempt suicide. While modern critics have dismissed the film’s plot as soap-opera material, it is this soapish atmosphere that actually lends the film its most biting social critique, as its characters become so consumed with their personal crises that they fail to see the political and social forces threatening to engulf them. Although glittering with talented stars, dazzling costumes, and elegant sets, Grand Hotel is far more than mere artifice as it invites viewers to look beyond the glamour to the sinister forces lurking beneath the glossy surface of 1930’s Europe.
The film’s all-star cast ensure that each of the film’s intertwining plots is never less than stellar viewing. Wallace Beery brings much needed nuance and humanity to what easily could have been a caricature role as brutal businessman Mr. Preysing. Lionel Barrymore is an everyman audiences young and old will be rooting for as his Kringelein finds the confidence and courage to finally live life to the fullest while he still can. Joan Crawford infuses her performance as the sultry Flaemmchen with a crucial vulnerability that ensures audiences with empathize with her character, even as she is tempted by the moral pitfalls of life in the fast-lane. While Greta Garbo is surprisingly under-utilized, she aptly captures both the confident persona and inner torment of her wounded ballerina as she struggles with personal demons in the public eye. John Barrymore’s Baron is equal parts charming and conflicted as he struggles to go straight in a crooked world. Each of these distinct performances adds their own unique touch to the film’s proceedings, while still combining to form a deeper, more satisfying, whole.
As the film that launched the trend of intersecting plotlines, Grand Hotel remains perhaps one of the greatest films of its kind. Through its intelligent script, excellent performances, and innovative premise the film personifies the best in classic cinema. Book a visit to Grand Hotel; you won’t want to check out any time soon.
|So many stars, so little screen-time|