For a while now I’ve been trying to review every single winner of the Best Picture Academy Award. It’s harder than you’d imagine to get hold of some of these films but I managed to track down Grand Hotel in New York recently. I chose it over 1927’s Wings by price alone but now wish I’d opted for the latter. Grand Hotel won the Best Picture award at 5th Academy Awards and is to this day the only film in history to be nominated for BestPicture and nothing else. The film is based on a play which is in turn based on a novel and is set entirely within the grounds of Berlin’s Grand Hotel at the end of the Weimar Republic’s Roaring Twenties. The film is full of glamour and charm but left me feeling rather bored for almost its entire one hour and fifty minutes.
Grand Hotel became the model for many films that followed and for its time was unique for blending various characters and storylines into a coherent narrative. The film follows some of the guests at the hotel over the course of a couple of nights following a statement from permanent resident Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone) that “People come and go. Nothing ever happens”. Before Grand Hotel films weren’t as bold as to mix so many stories and characters in such abundance but the idea continues to this day with the likes of Babel and Crash.
The movie is notable for a number of reasons but the most striking is its all star cast. Greta Garbo stars alongside John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt in a cast that exudes talent, looks and star quality. A problem with the ensemble though is that the likes of John Barrymore and Greta Garbo aren’t afforded quite as much screen time as perhaps one would like but there is rarely more than five minutes which passes without each major actor getting a line. At times some of the acting feels dated and this is only heightened by the next notable thing about the movie – its style. Grand Hotel feels very opulent and is full of what appears to be marble, silk and fur. Initially there is some fantastic editing which pieces together snippets of phone calls which the major players make from the hotel lobby. Later though the editing becomes a bit sloppier and characters are occasionally cut off mid sentence or shown in differing positions in reverse angle shots. The cinematography uses a very soft focus, especially when shooting Garbo and Crawford and this dates the movie to a very specific time in the early talkies period. The film actually resembles many of the spoofs which it undoubtedly inspired.
Unfortunately I found a lot of the stories had little appeal to me and I was often bored. I checked the time much more often than I normally would during a classic, Oscar winning film. The plot does weave together well and it finishes by tying everything up nicely but it took me a long time to invest in the characters or their stories. Greta Garbo for instance plays a Russian Ballerina whose star it seems is fading. She mopes around the hotel being a diva while attracting the attention of John Barrymore’s Baron character. I felt no affinity for Garbo and was generally turned off by her character. Given her magnetic screen presence this is a surprise. Equally I had no interest in the plight of Wallace Beery’s industrial magnet Preysing. He was made out to be a nasty and selfish man but I was neither hot nor cold towards his character. He simply existed and had little impact until the very end. I was more interested in Lionel Barrymore’s Otto Kingelein. Here we have a man at death’s door that is enjoying his final moments on Earth, living for the first time. I enjoyed his excitement and kindness and thought he bought a lot to the film in addition to his obvious comedic moments. Equally Joan Crawford’s stenographer character was another whom I was interested in spending time with.
The film very successfully pieces everything together and the stage direction is spot on. Characters come and go perfectly and can be seen in the background occasionally before appearing in the right place soon after. Technically the film wasn’t bad, despite my editing problems, and the sound quality was excellent for the period. My main problem lies in the story. Perhaps in an effort to fit all the characters and stories in everything is kept very simple and I found it was too simple. I wanted more excitement and more intrigue, something which I didn’t get until the last fifteen minutes. Even so Grand Hotel is ground breaking in its construction and still looks good after eighty years. It’s not quite was I was expecting but in the scheme of things, there are many worse movies out there.
- Actors Lionel and John Barrymore were brothers and John is Drew Barrymore's grandfather. Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford never appear on screen together to avoid one upstaging the other. Angry at Garbo's insistence at top billing, Crawford played Marlene Dietrich records in between takes as she knew of Garbo's dislike of the singer/actress.
- Wallace Beery is the only actor to perform in a German accent. This was at his own insistence.
- The original Las Vegas MGM Grand was built to resemble the set.