Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Grand Hotel (1932)

Welcome back to my Oscar Film Journal, here at Enuffa.com, where I'm trying to take in as many of history's Best Picture nominees as I can before the 2021 ceremony.

Today I'll be talking about the 1932 drama Grand Hotel, based on a 1930 play, itself based on a 1929 novel.  Grand Hotel is an all-star ensemble piece (generally considered the first of its kind) involving the machinations of various characters, either to find happiness, financial success, or romance.  The entire movie takes place within the titular hotel, and the film is notable for both its lavish interior sets and for its camera movement, taking the viewer all around the lobby and allowing us to view things from multiple angles.  This innovation proved quite influential, as prior to this film Hollywood's cinematography tended to be more about simply capturing action in two dimensions.  

The film opens with a montage of various hotel employees and guests making phone calls, helping lay the foundation for the intertwining storylines to play out over the next two days.  John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigem, a gambler and thief hoping to win back his squandered fortune and achieve financial independence from the gangsters with whom he's fallen in.  Lionel Barrymore (sharing the screen with his brother for the first time) plays Otto Kringelein, a terminally ill accountant who has vowed to spend his remaining days in the luxurious Grand Hotel, going so far as to cancel a recently drafted will to free up the funds for his stay.  Greta Garbo plays Grusinskaya, a fading Russian ballerina who's fallen into a deep depression.  Wallace Beery is General Director Preysing, an aggressive industrialist in town for an urgent business deal.  Joan Crawford is Flaemmchen, a stenographer hired by Preysing, who has designs on an acting career and is willing to do just about anything to get there.
The characters' paths cross mostly by accident; the Baron hatches a plan to break into the ballerina's room and steal her jewelry but ends up falling in love with her as she contemplates suicide.  Hours earlier he'd bumped into the stenographer in the hallway and they shared a meet-cute, during which the accountant happened by and struck up a conversation with him as well.  It's later revealed that the accountant used to work for the industrialist.  Once the chess pieces are in place the film proceeds as a series of little episodes between the characters.  The Baron can't bring himself to steal the ballerina's jewelry and instead vows to raise money for a train ticket to run away with her, but his attempts at gambling backfire and the accountant ends up winning all his money (He nearly robs the accountant as well but can't bring himself to do it).  The industrialist chases after the stenographer for much of the film, trying to convince her to go with him to England for the business deal, but she's more interested in the Baron.  All the threads come together in the end, but oddly none of the characters really get what they came for.  Is the moral here that life, in the words of John Lennon, is what happens when you're busy making other plans?

I enjoyed Grand Hotel's performances, particularly John Barrymore as the dashing but desperately sad Baron, and Joan Crawford as the surprisingly sweet stenographer (very much at odds with the jaded characters she tended to play later in her career).  I actually found myself rooting for them to get together, as their chemistry in the hallway scene is so effortless and charming.  Ultimately I wasn't sure what exactly to make of the story; it plays out like a series of connected vignettes rather than a cohesive plot.  I suppose that's sort of a hallmark of theatrical ensemble pieces, but I think I'd have liked the film to have a stronger narrative thrust.  Still the film has some charm to it; it's very character-driven and boasts strikingly innovative visuals, so it's worth a look.

I give Grand Hotel *** out of ****.

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