It's the 1932 Oscar-winner for Best Picture, but furthermore it's also one of the first All-Star vehicles. Hollywood back then would only use one or two of their biggest stars in any given movie, to keep down the budget. For this film, MGM used five. This yielded one of the top-grossing films in studio history and a new genre was born.
I hunted this down because Koki Mitani's The Uchoten Hotel
(2006) is a homage to it. However to my surprise, the films aren't comparable. They're superficially the same thing, but they're different in tone and scale. The Uchoten Hotel
has a bigger cast, running time and plot, while in addition it's also a 1930s/40s screwball comedy and a very funny one. Grand Hotel isn't. Today it feels more modest, although it was the eight hundred-pound gorilla of that year's movie releases, and it's not afraid to go for a darker tone.
In other words, both films are outstanding in different ways and I don't feel any need to measure either against the other.
The film's based on a 1930 stage play, which in turn was adapted from a 1929 German novel. Its author based it on a true story about a scandal at a hotel, combined with her own experiences working as a chambermaid at two Berlin hotels. It's also been remade, as Week-End at the Waldorf in 1945 and as a 1989 stage musical. It's one of those plots in which we follow a whole bunch of people as they follow their own separate sub-plots. The stories overlap, but there's no scene that includes everyone. Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford are never on-screen together, although given the strength of the two stars' personalities, that was by design. Obviously these days there are many such movies, but this was effectively the film that invented the genre and the phrase "Grand Hotel theme" has apparently been used of other films with the same structure, whether or not they take place in a hotel.
The plot is good. Everyone's individual story is straightforward, but this makes it an easy film to watch despite the fact that overall, it's more complex than it appears. People are basically enjoying themselves because, after all, they're in a luxurious hotel, but most of the important characters could also be described in some way as fragile. The plot's capable of surprising you and I found it emotional at the end.
However just as important are the actors.
Greta Garbo's perhaps not everything she could have been, despite being top-billed. She's playing a Russian ballerina who's a slave to her prima donna emotions and can go from suicidal to being on top of the world. She's certainly memorable in the role and every inch a star, but I didn't always think she was quite delivering on the terrifying emotional range the part required. Nevertheless she's still Greta Garbo and it's impossible not to find her impressive. Of all the fragility in this film, hers is the most frightening. Her elation is both beautiful and slightly scary in how hard she'd take it if anything went wrong.
Joan Crawford, on the other hand, is... oh, my God. That face. I'm in awe. She runs away with the film, which is saying a lot considering her co-stars. Apparently they added extra scenes with Garbo after the previews so that she wouldn't get overshadowed by Crawford.
There are two Barrymores, John (as Baron Felix von Gaigern) and Lionel (as the mouse of a man with a terminal illness). Both are playing wonderful roles that will make you fall in love with them, but they're also generous to their fellow actors. Look at the incorrigible John's scenes with both Garbo and Crawford, for instance.
Then there's Wallace Beery as General Director Preysing, who apparently threw a strop at the nature of his role and did a walkout. After that, he'd constantly be trying to upstage his fellow actors. Ahahahaha, no. You're not upstaging this lot, Beery. I believe it's known as "running as fast as you can to keep still". However despite his antics, the backstage combination everyone was worried about was Garbo and Crawford... but fortunately in the end they got on well. Crawford would deliberately be late on set and play Marlene Dietrich records between shots, knowing those were two of Garbo's pet hates, but I'm guessing that by 1930s Hollywood standards that counts as a cheery "good morning".
Incidentally wikipedia thinks that both of those two actresses shows a nipple in a single frame, although I can't say I noticed. It is obviously a pre-Code movie, though. Garbo swans around in bright sunshine and a translucent dress, while towards the end Crawford gets an eyebrow-raising plot development.
The only bad thing about the film is unfortunately right at the beginning. Someone's using the telephone, but I didn't believe for a moment that there was anyone on the other end.
Even the production and art direction at the time were ground-breaking, with a 360-degree lobby set that changed the way sets would be built from then on. Overall, an excellent film. A modern audience might not guess that it was a Hollywood-changing megastar blockbuster, but it was. It has joy, sadness and kindness that I'm wondering whether to call cruelty. "For the first time in my life, I'm happy." "You're a good man, Mr Kringelein." That's the kind of dialogue that you'd be laughing at in a bad film, but here works triumphantly. You see, the film has heart. Don't expect to be blown through the back of your seat, except possibly by Crawford, but do expect a good film.
Oh, and Garbo gives what would eventually be seen as the defining line of her career. "I want to be alone."