“Grace, irony, gravity, timeless loveliness: Greta Garbo is cinema’s most enchanting tragedienne—all in all, its greatest actress.” This is how I described Garbo in a list of the fifty greatest film actors and actresses. Grand Hotel, which won the 1932 Oscar as best picture, gave Garbo her most famous line, the one that capped her iconography and sealed her immortality as probably the greatest, if most elusive movie star ever: “I want to be alone.” Her character is Grusinskaya, the temperamental Russian ballerina whose international career is on the skids, deepening her insecurities and dampening her enthusiasm for life: a potent metaphor for the ravages of the Depression and of the breathless passage of time. Critic Pauline Kael marveled how, at 26, Garbo could project exhaustion so persuasively. Garbo’s Grusinskaya seems all used up. Ah, but then Grusinskaya meets Baron Felix von Gaigern, who has stolen into her hotel suite in order to pilfer her jewels, and she falls impossibly, deeply, unalterably and tragically in love, reviving her spirit, her taste for life. How realistic is it that this woman would fall so hard for a thief? Psychologically, absolutely realistic; for the whole point of Grusinskaya’s transformation is that, having hit rock-bottom with half-empty houses at her performances, she is grabbing onto whatever, and whoever, she can in order to survive. And the Baron is gentlemanly and sweet: John Barrymore, in a fine performance. The impoverished Baron, reduced to theft: he, too, is revived by his and Grusinskaya’s sudden love. The tragedy of the outcome for one is inextricable from the tragedy of the other’s outcome, and Garbo in particular achieves an ecstasy of romantic rapport that anticipates heartbreak—heartbreak that is all the more haunting for occurring offscreen, as we know that the Baron has been shot dead while Grusinskaya sets off to rendezvous with him. (Imagine a Hollywood film today opting for dramatic irony over sentimental extravaganza.) Garbo’s closeups in Grand Hotel are to die for, and when Grusinskaya, the most graceful soul in motion one can imagine, happily glides across the floor of her hotel room the morning after her night with the Baron, Garbo achieves a brilliant, thrilling moment of resurgence.
Grand Hotel is atmospherically directed by Edmund Goulding, who drew upon F. W. Murnau’s German silent The Last Laugh (1924) even to the point of duplicating certain shots. The fine script was adapted by William A. Drake from his own play, which in turn was based on Vicki Baum’s novel Menschen im Hotel. It is set in Berlin, in a luxurious, art-deco Grand Hotel of Hollywood imagination, in the early 1930s, that is to say, between the Great War and the advent of Adolf Hitler, and comprises the intersecting lives of some of the guests and others working at the hotel: different classes, different personalities—but all in one sort of crisis or another. Clumsy, uncouth, immoral, Preysing the industrialist (Wallace Beery, who so loved jazz, on target) is desperate to keep his
father-in-law’s textile factory from unraveling; Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore, ham-fisted and labored, as usual), Preysing’s low-wage accountant, whom Preysing doesn’t recognize, who is dying and blowing his savings on a last holiday; Flaemmschen, Preysing’s stenographer (Joan Crawford, likeable but lacking in depth—and with Garbo in the picture, not the most beautiful woman around), whose marginal economic situation may force her to “accompany” her married employer on a business trip; Senf (Jean Hersholt, serviceable), a member of the hotel staff, who cannot leave work to join his wife as she gives difficult birth to their child, and must worry his way through phone calls to the hospital. The dipsomaniacal hotel doctor, Otternschlag (Lewis Stone, trenchant—if only there had been supporting acting Oscars then!), is a cynical observer of the scene at the hotel: “People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”
It is ironic that he should think this; and, of course, he does so only because he himself is not quite alive anymore. Hideously scarred from the war, Otternschlag is more or less sitting out his remaining time on the stage of Life. Two shadows cross everyone’s life in this film: the Great War; the Depression.
Lean, spare rather than overstuffed, Grand Hotel in splendid fashion introduced the portmanteau genre that Robert Altman would successfully mine beginning several decades later—the zigzagging intersection of various characters’ lives in a single space or locale. Its all-star cast helped make Grand Hotel an important cultural event as well as a popular hit. One more terrific performance needs to be noted: that of Rafaela Ottiano, who so movingly plays Grusinskaya’s loyal, anxious attendant, Suzette. She is superb—bettered only by Garbo here.
So many lousy films have won best picture Oscars (Cimarron, Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Around the World in 80 Days, West Side Story, A Man for All Seasons, The Godfather, Rocky, Amadeus, Out of Africa, Dances With Wolves, Silence of the Lambs, Schindler’s List, Titanic, Million Dollar Baby, ad infinitum, ad nauseum); but every now and then a really good one wins, if only by accident. Grand Hotel sharply portrays a world on the brink of a kind of madness. Subsequent history would add prophecy, then, to the film’s long list of accomplishments.
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