Film review by Jason Day of Grand Hotel (1932), the portmanteau drama set in a luxurious Berlin hotel interweaving the personal lives of several guests. Starring Greta Garbo and John Barrymore, directed by Edmund Goulding.
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Set during a brief period, this melodrama focuses on the personal lives of five very different guests who are staying at the Grand Hotel in Berlin. They include a famous ballerina (Greta Garbo) who is tired of her art, a gentleman jewel thief who finds love as he attempts to steal from her, a bullish industrialist (Wallace Beery) and his put-upon employee (Lionel Barrymore) and comely stenographer (Joan Crawford). Their lives become increasingly intertwined.
Review, by @Reelreviewer
Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.The supposedly observant Dr Otternschlag (Lewis Stone) totally misses the (plot) point.
During her heyday, movie legend Greta Garbo was referred to as being ‘divine’. With her patrician beauty, aloof demeanour and intelligent, erotic and perceptive acting, she was viewed as a goddess in human form.
But even goddesses have ‘off days’, and Grand Hotel is one of GG’s.
As usual with her movies, we are kept waiting for 20 minutes as the other characters and narrative elements are introduced before the ‘big reveal’ when the audience is treated to a huge closeup of her lovely face, etched with a faint ‘worry line’.
She veers from her usually dependable turns with an off-key, melodramatic performance as the world-weary Russian ballet dancer who wants to quit at the top, or go on to ‘top’ herself. In a censor-heavy era busting moment, we briefly see Garbo grabbing what appears to be a syringe of a possibly toxic substance, before her soon-to-be romantic suitor – John Barrymore’s highly amusing, hard-up aristocratic jewel thief – stops her.
She doesn’t convince whether in a tutu or out and her acting isn’t helped by some mouldy lines.
The censor-evading dialogue between Barrymore and Joan Crawford’s penniless, sexy secretary veering on prostitution crackles with innuendo that benefits Crawford to the neglect of the movie’s leading lady:
Barrymore: Oh! You’re a little stenographer! I don’t suppose you’d take some dictation from me sometime, hmm? (Pause). Well…how about some tea then?
Crawford: Tea would spoil my dinner. I only have one meal a day and I’d rather hate to spoil it.
Barrymore: Why? Are you reducing?
Crawford: Reducing! Me?! Do I need to?
Barrymore: (Swiftly admiring her body). Oh. Oh no. It’s perfect.
John’s brother Lionel is touching as the terminally ill clerk to Wallace Berry’s globulous technocrat. For me, it’s Wally who takes the acting plaudits as the only main cast member who tries a German accent (it’s laid on with a trowel, but I’ll forgive him in this instance).
Englishman abroad Edmund Goulding finds himself helming his second Garbo feature (the other was the silent version of Anna Karenina called, with stunning simplicity, Love in 1927). He directs what is generally seen as the first all-star portmanteau picture with effortless élan, making full use of the innovative set designs (the 360° reception desk was recreated outside the movie’s Hollywood premiere, with invited guests ‘checking in’ before they took their seats).
NB: With hindsight there are parallels between the Grusinskaya character and the leading lady’s own performing career. Garbo – who had been bored with movies and Hollywood for some time before Grand Hotel was made – abandoned her profession in 1941 at the age of 36, the official reason being she was waiting out World War II until the European market opened up again. Garbo may also have suffered from bouts of depression during her life and mentioned to friends feelings of deep loneliness.
Cast & credits
Director: Edmund Goulding. 1hr 52min/112min. MGM. (U).
Producer: Irving Thalberg.
Writer: William Absalom Drake.
Camera: William Daniels.
Music: Charles Maxwell.
Sets: Cedric Gibbons.
Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt, Rafaela Ottiano, Tully Marshall.