Director: Edmund Goulding
Written by William A. Drake (based on Vicki Baum’s novel “People in a Hotel”)
Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, and Lionel Barrymore
DVD available from Netflix.
Five years into The Oscar Project and it feels like I’m starting to see a shift. The first 4 celebrated grandeur and spectacle, whether than was with visual wonder or, in the case of The Broadway Melody, the wonder of a movie musical.
Grand Hotel doesn’t rely on either of those as the entire film takes place in the hotel and it’s easy to see how William Drake had success by first adapting Baum’s novel into a play.
The opening credits were similar to Cimarron but instead of goofy vignettes Grand Hotel features still photos of the stars. And boy howdy do we have some stars.
This film is chock full of Hollywood legends.
Great Garbo. Joan Crawford. Lionel and John Barrymore.
A very young and beautiful Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo are transitioning perfectly from nearly 50 silent films combined into “talkie” superstars.
When Grand Hotel was released Garbo was already a star in her own right with a best actress nomination under her belt two years prior. She would notch two more nominations in her career but never take home the big prize.
Although Crawford was considered “box office poison” in the 30s, the 40s brought turn around for her and between 1945 and 1952 she’d win one best actress Oscar (Mildred Pierce) and be nominated for 2 others (Possessed and Sudden Fear).
Watching brothers Lionel and John Barrymore acting together is a treat. You might know them better as Drew’s grandfather and great uncle. Lionel was the reigning best actor having won for his work in A Free Soul. But both are stellar.
The opening of the film gives a lot of exposition. It’s a pet peeve of mine when writers tell instead of show. This one at least does something a little interesting in that we open on the hotel switchboard as some of our main characters conduct phone calls to explain their situation. This is for the audience’s benefit only. Some are relatively natural. Some are really forced.
This continues with conversations in the lobby of the hotel. Again, some well done with intrigue while others are contrived. But it doesn’t last long and since we’re treated to some nice beautiful shots it’s easy to endure.
You may not have seen Grand Hotel or even heard of it, but you are probably familiar with Garbo’s line “I want to be alone” (best pronounced “I vant to be halone.”)
The film weaves the stories of a stenographer, a broke Baron in need of cash, a Russian ballerina diva, a magnate whose textile business in on the brink and an accountant without much time left to live spending his life savings to live in the glitz and glamour of the Grand Hotel.
The film takes tried and true archetypes and gives them real depth of character. This is not a paint-by-numbers story by any means. By the time the third act arrives you have a vested interest in the outcome. What unfolds is both unpredictable and frankly shocking. By the bittersweet ending I couldn’t help but smile. It’s a remarkably well-made film.
Grand Hotel is still the only film to win best picture with no other nominations. That’s a shame because this isn’t a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. There could have easily been 4 acting nominations but the supporting acting categories didn’t exist yet so the Academy probably couldn’t figure out who to nominate. Along with acting it could have receive nods for the cinematography and director Edmund Goulding.
For the first time there was a tie with both Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) and Wallace Beery (The Champ) winning best actor awards. Since there were only three nominees in that category I feel kinda bad for odd-man-out Alfred Lunt (The Guardsman).
These 1932 Oscars also introduced four new categories, one for art direction and three for various short films (two live action, one animated). It also marked the start of the Walt Disney legacy with his first two of his record 59 individual nominations and the first of his record 22 wins.