Last night I had the opportunity to see GRAND HOTEL, the 1932 classic starring a litany of movie stars: John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and a supporting cast of hundreds. Although I could have sworn I had seen this before, once I started viewing it, I knew I hadn't - I would have remembered this gem.
GRAND HOTEL is apparently the movie that changed everything in Hollywood. Before, the long standing tradition was that movies could only have a maximum of two movie stars; anything more than that would have made the production cost-prohibitive. In addition, Cedric Gibbon's set design was so elaborate and so gorgeous (my film forum commentors last night said that the set of this glamorous hotel set in Berlin was the "sixth character" in this film) that it ushered in the glamorous and elaborate art productions that the 1930s would be famous for. The hotel literally shimmers with the shining black and white floors, gleaming bannisters, elaborate staircases, and granite counters that, according to my sources, this movie was where the term "silver screen" was coined.
But for me, it was all about John Barrymore. His character, a baron who has a money problem due to a gambling habit, is desperate to come up with money - in the beginning it's to pay a gambling debt, but later to be able to run off with Garbo's character, a high-strung ballerina who he rescues from suicide at the last minute.
Barrymore, for me, carries the whole movie, and that's saying something because everyone else is magnificent as well (with a slight dip in ratings for Garbo in my mind - her acting is over the top). Barrymore's Baron (or Flix, as he is called affectionately by Garbo) is a class-act despite being a thief: he won't stoop to petty thievery and befriends the stenographer Crawford and the dying bookeeper Lionel Barrymore. He is a supreme gentleman to them and to everyone else in the story, including his beloved Dachsund. To me, Barrymore's character was a story in and of itself. He plays it to the hilt; if there ever was a role made for him, this was it. Many people consider this the last of his great performances.
There are several story lines: Garbo's suicidal despair over her decline as a prima ballerina and her neurotic insecurities; John Barrymore, in a desperate need for funds, breaks into Garbo's room, finds her pearls and pockets them, only to have Garbo return to her room early and watch her, behind a curtain, decide to kill herself. Wallace Beery needs to successfully complete a merger between the company owned by his father-in-law and a contentious owner of an English textile company - if he doesn't, his father-in-law's company will collapse. Crawford is a steely independent single woman who is hired by Beery to document the merger talks, but Beery wants more than dictation from her. Crawford meets John Barrymore and is intrigued by him and can't wait to meet him again the next evening. Lionel Barrymore is dying and decides to spend his last days spending the money it had taken him a lifetime to save. To his delight, his boss, who he despises, has also checked into the hotel and Lionel would love to find a way to bring him down a peg or two. His boss, by the way, happens to be Wallace Beery.
Of course, it all ends up in the ways you'd expect, but I still found myself crying at some points both out of grief and out of joy.
GRAND HOTEL was a monstrous success and raked in huge ticket sales, so much so that MGM became the only movie studio that year to report a profit. Ironically, GRAND HOTEL was only nominated for one Academy Award - for Best Picture.