The video version of this review (which was created in October 2014) can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8wQ9UfGSwyI
Note: This review was largely rewritten in October 2014 because I didn’t like the original review very much.
Do you know which movies are the hardest to review? It’s not the really horrible Twilights or the Birdemics. No, those have their pains and difficulties, but they’re fairly easy to write about. The reviews that I and at least some other reviewers that I read struggle through the most are the middle of the road films. I’m not talking about movies with an even number of good things and bad things. I’m referring to the pictures that leave you with nothing, neither good nor bad. The movies that are just sort of there. Despite being a Hollywood classic containing some interesting stories with a cast of Golden Age stars, Grand Hotel (1933) is one of those movies I like to label as meh. There are a few notable aspects but mostly I walked away cold.
Grand Hotel is based on the 1930 play by writer William A. Drake, who also helped pen the screenplay. The play was an adaption of the 1929 book of the same name by Austrian writer Vicki Baum. The movie would later be remade into the 1945 film Weekend at the Waldorf and into a hit 1989 stage musical. At the fifth Academy Awards ceremony, Grand Hotel was the last Best Picture winner (as of 2014) to not receive nominations in any other category besides Best Picture.
The movie is what I would consider the first ensemble movie of the Best Picture winners. It follows five people who are staying at the famous Grand Hotel in Berlin. One character is a ruthless business man (played by Wallace Beery) trying to complete a crucial deal, another is Beery’s new stenographer (played by Joan Crawford) who aspires to be an actress and might be willing to offer Beery’s character more than stenography work for his support, a man (Lionel Barrymore) is dying from an unknown illness and is living his life to the fullest before the end, and a Baron (John Barrymore) – whose fortune is gone – is planning on stealing a pearl necklace from a depressed Russian ballet dancer (played interestingly enough by the very Swedish Greta Garbo). All the stories never intersect at the same time but there is always an overlap between characters (and the script is good enough) that the transitioning back and forth between the stories is never jarring.
It was common practice at that time to only cast one or two of your big moneymakers. The thought was that having so many huge stars in one movie would make the costs so high that the film would never make its money back. MGM said ‘screw it’ and cast five of its best. Grand Hotel ended up garnering rave reviews and was one of the biggest grosses in MGM history. This was all despite of the fact that certain member of the cast, like Crawford and Garbo and Berry and Garbo, didn’t get along. Thankfully, John and Garbo appeared to have gotten on very well, one claim saying he was so excited at the prospect of working with Garbo that he signed a three-picture deal with MGM. The success of Grand Hotel paved the way for future all-star ensemble productions that are still made to this day. But let’s get back to the film proper.
Grand Hotel is opulent. It’s characteristic of Hollywood’s lavish productions of the 20s and 30s. Its hotel set, made to allow for 360 degree camera moves, is fabulous and changed the way Hollywood made sets. The glorious black-and-white cinematography is also beautiful. The whole production reeks of Hollywood’s old methods of creating glamor with wonderful behind-the-scenes talent and on-camera personalities, one of the latter (Garbo) being among the greatest stars in history.
Garbo is the most well-known part of this movie, but she is just one of many Golden Age actors who appear in it. And, to be honest, she isn’t even the best part. I liked her story. Her career is on the wain, her character has lost her passion for dancing, and she doesn’t know where she belongs in the world anymore. She locks herself away from others and is truly alone physically and emotionally. That is until the Baron, who was in the process of steeling the necklace, reveals himself in order to stop her from committing suicide. They start talking and she not only finds someone to confide in but a lover, as well. Together they reinvigorate their lives and bring each other hope.
I liked the presentation of her depression. She’s experiencing a setback in her life and career, but instead of fighting through it or doing something about it she gets stuck in an endless loop of despair where she beats herself up about what her life has become, which just makes her depression even worse. This is so typical of what some, including myself, have experienced that it lends an authenticity and weight to her scenes. Garbo doesn’t do it for me in the role, though. She’s not terrible, but I wasn’t wowed by her performance and thought she could be a touch melodramatic.
I found myself drawn more to the characters portrayed by the two Barrymores. Lionel’s part is funny and entertaining but still heart breaking and relateable. He feels like he’s been mistreated his whole life due to his terrible job working for Berry’s character and that he hasn’t truly begun to live until he begins to die. A lot of us have probably felt oppressed or thought we hadn’t lived life to its fullest, and Lionel Barrymore represents the desire to change all that impeccably well.
Lionel also elevates the other members of the cast he interacts with. The characters portrayed by Lionel and his brother develop a great friendship where both want the best for the other, the Baron even convincing Crawford’s character (who has feeling’s for the Baron) to spend more time with Lionel’s due to the latter being sad and lonely. John has a multifaceted role. The Baron is clearly a good man who is considerate of others and what they’re going through and wants to help them in any way that he can. You feel for the Baron even though he’s stealing from others to get himself out of his own problems. For whatever reason, I was still bored by his part. All his scenes with Lionel are great and made him instantly interesting. The strong friendship that grows between Crawford and Lionel also made me care about a woman who’s story wasn’t doing much for me. This might lie in the fact that many of Crawford’s scenes were cut due to their sexually provocative material being too much for certain censor boards of the time (which is exactly what Crawford feared would happen) and down to the studio not wanting the her to upstage Garbo.
What this film excels at is presenting these five broken people who are unhappy with their lives but who are shown a glimmer of hope. Although not everyone’s story ends happily, the film demonstrates that within every tragedy there is a silver lining and that people can positively effect the lives of others if they are only willing to help. This is still a relevant theme today in a world where many people think the human race is no good and selfish.
Beyond that, there isn’t much to say. It may sound like I’m recommending this, but I’m not. I’m not not recommending it either. Like I said, the movie is just sort of there. It’s not a pure ‘meh’ film since I did like aspects of it, and maybe I would like it more if I saw it a second time. As is, I didn’t care about Berry’s business deal, about Crawford’s aspirations, or about the reasons behind John’s life of crime. It’s an emblem of classic Hollywood, what with its cast and its sense of old fashioned glamor, but those aspects and its wonderful themes don’t put it ahead of many other Best Picture winners I’ve reviewed. To the film’s credit, even with its sometimes dark, gloomy subject matter, it has rays of light shining through it and demonstrates there is always hope, even if your life seems over, which counts for something.