Grand Hotel (1932) isn’t a perfect, or even great movie, but it is an interesting one. By most accounts, Grand Hotel was the first movie to have multiple headlining stars, rather than just one or two. Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery all shared the headlines for this film. Directed by Edmund Goulding, Grand Hotel was also one of the earliest films to feature interlocking characters and multiple plot-lines, which combine to create a movie that’s more about place than narrative development. The film depicts a slice-of-life, much like Robert Altman’s Nashville (1977) and many others that followed. Goulding’s film launched an entire genre that is still relevant today. Even contemporary movies like Love, Actually (Richard Curtis, 2000) can directly trace their lineage to this film.
It was actually reading Pauline Kael’s words that encouraged me to seek out this film, despite her oblique criticism of it:
“There is every reason to reject Grand Hotel as an elaborate chunk of artifice; there are no redeeming qualities in Vicki Baum’s excruciating concepts of character and fate, and anyone who goes to see this movie expecting an intelligent script, or even “good acting,” should have his head examined. Most of the players give impossibly bad performances – they chew up the camera. But if you want to see what screen glamour used to be, and what, originally, “stars” were, this is perhaps the best example of all time.”
She’s right; this film is a fabulous example of early classic Hollywood, and a great starting point for anyone who hasn’t seen many movies from this time period. On the other hand, Grand Hotel is also more unique that Kael gives it credit for. And because of the innovative way the story is assembled, it still resonates today.
Setting as character
You could say that the hotel itself is the main character of this film. On any given day, as the narrative tells us, a number of interesting things could be happening inside it. As the old battle-scarred doctor says in the beginning (and end) of the movie, “People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.” The film begins with an overhead shot of the telephone operating girls, routing calls from room to room. From time to time, the narrative returns to this space, which serves as the nerve centre of the establishment. We are introduced to several key characters as they speak on the phone. There are several early sequences that feature a crane shot of the hotel lobby, where the residents move around like ants. This gives the audience the God-like experience of starting from the outside and moving in for a brief look at the intersecting lives of a select few. Within the roughly 24 hour timespan of the film, the following is what viewers happen upon: A dancer (Greta Garbo) is coping with a career on the decline; a sick man (Lionel Barrymore) faces mortality; a businessman (Walter Beery) struggles with money, and a broke baron (John Barrymore) finds he has too much heart to make a successful thief.
All of these characters run into one another in various ways and form relationships, romantic, antagonistic and platonic. As soon as we learn one of the porters is expecting a child, we know someone else will probably die, just to keep the balance. As people come in through the revolving doors, other leave. However obvious the metaphor may be, Grand Hotel isn’t just a slice of life. The goings-on therein represent life itself with all its unfortunate accidents and occasional serendipities. The transient hotel space allows viewers to explore the lives of a group of people who would never encounter each other any other way, which is one of the reasons the formula has been so useful to other filmmakers over the years.
Of all the scenarios, Garbo’s ballet dancer, Grusinskaya, is probably the most memorable. The once famous ballerina is now having trouble filling seats at her performances. All of this is established through conversation; we never see Grusinskaya outside of the hotel, nor any of the other characters. When she refuses to go on stage, the understudy replaces her. She returns to her room, where the Baron happens to be hiding, after a botched attempt at stealing her pearls. They quickly fall in love after the Baron intervenes in her suicide attempt. Interestingly enough, at about 26, Garbo was already nearing the end of her own career, which makes the role seem somewhat portentous. Watching the film knowing how early she retired from stardom, her close-ups are all the more tragic and beautiful, a look back to the beginning of her career in silent film. Watching Garbo in close-up is like being transported back to the silent era. No matter what lines she’s saying, she always speaks more clearly with her face. The way she wrinkles her brow and casts her eyes heavenward is reminiscent of an earlier time.
Garbo and old Hollywood glamour
I have no way of knowing how it felt to watch Garbo and company on the big screen when they were contemporary stars, but it’s thrilling to imagine. Kael’s right that the dialogue itself is nothing exciting, but she’s also right to remind us of the glamorous performances that make this film memorable. The famous stars of the 1930s were different from the stars today. Not that contemporary performers are better or worse – but as the times change, so do the famous. In the classic Hollywood era, stars exuded an unknowable magic. These entities could only be reached in the darkness of the theatre, where their faces glowed with projector light and stretched stories high. Still, audiences probably did feel a certain intimacy with these performers, because from part to part they remained, to some extent, themselves. That’s what the star system was all about. On the other hand, these personas were often heavily constructed by the actors and the studio, making them very much fantastical and unreal.
Without as many tabloids and websites to bring stars down to earth, they remained celestial – especially the women – and their framing emphasised this. Women were illuminated with high lighting that eliminated even their most minor flaws. As a result, a close-up shot of a heroine’s face nearly always appeared youthful and angelic. Garbo excels in close-up, and throughout the movie she is shot is quite differently than any of the other characters. Not surprisingly, the closest framing is reserved for her face alone. No one else gets quite the same treatment, not even the surprisingly warm Crawford in one of her first starring roles.
The Legacy of Grand Hotel
This movie created a formula that would continue to play out over the decades in films as varied as Babel (Alejandro Inarritu, 2006) and Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994). Where a more traditional storyline can be limiting in scope, a narrative with multiple stars and interconnecting narratives allows filmmakers to explore a sense of place or address an overarching theme. Other filmmakers have experimented with this paradigm over the years, leading to evocative pieces of film that explore one specific environment or moment. Robert Altman took certain cues from this film, leading to the creation of masterpieces like Nashville and its somewhat less masterful counterpart, Gosford Park (2001). Even films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia (1999) and Boogie Nights (1997), and Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) could be said to have their roots in this early experiment. Over the years, the hotel has been replaced with alternative situations in new cities and new settings, but each subsequent film utilises a collective of interconnecting story-lines and characters who are basically unremarkable except for the fact that their stories are highlighted for a few hours. While not itself a masterpiece, Grand Hotel is worth seeing because it creates a template of films to come, while providing a glowing example of what they once were.
About the Author
Kate Blair is a writer based in Chicago, IL. She has an MA in Cinema Studies and enjoys covering just about any topic related to film and other visual media. You can find also find her writing at Selective Viewing, a cinema blog.