Grand Hotel (1932, Edmund Goulding)
What does Greta Garbo’s stunted ballerina, chirping “I want to be alone!” at every opportunity, have to do with smooth-talking jewel thief John Barrymore, sassy stenographer Joan Crawford, horny businessman Wallace Beery, long-suffering and ill-fated blue collar Lionel Barrymore, or war-damaged cantankerous doctor Lewis Stone? Nothing, except that they are all checked into “Berlin’s” opulent, high-class Grand Hotel, where it’s wistfully stated that people come and go and nothing ever happens — the perfect Hollywood microcosm, or so MGM thought, constructing it as the backdrop to this astoundingly thin parade-of-stars vehicle that’s essentially an anthology film. It proved massively successful and did permanent damage to the studios’ ideal of the Prestige Picture and the Movie Star alike, its influence palpable for decades to come. There is, indeed, no better or quicker example of what it was Irving Thalberg’s MGM really did in the ’30s — something remarkably reductive of the art of cinema but also surprisingly complex beyond any notion of mere escapism.
Today, Grand Hotel is presumably best known as the film Jack Lemmon attempts to watch on television during an early scene of The Apartment; he’s tantalized by the outlandish cast list, but the opening is repeatedly preempted by a commercial. Disappointed, he shuts off the TV. Sadly, he might have had the same reaction if he’d stuck with it — with the exception of touchingly wounded Lionel Barrymore and all-business Crawford, none of the A-list performers are turning in great work here. Why would they, in a non-story that democratically favors no one? Garbo is horrendous as the fallen glamour queen with eager to please Tweedle-Dees and Dums floating all around her; she sells neither her meaningless depression nor her spontaneous romantic pining for John Barrymore’s down-on-luck Baron von Gaigern. The younger Barrymore is equally catastrophic as the Baron, a sort of proto-David Niven role that he plays as more of a proto-John Cleese, or a farcical robotic variation on Cleese whose limbs don’t actually work. Barrymore’s lurching melodrama and Garbo’s ridiculous self-pity are a lethal combination — their screen time together is torture.
Much of this is redeemed by the other major intertwining tale, that of Lionel’s Mr. Kringelein, a downtrodden gentleman who has recently learned he has just a few months to live and intends to live out his days in great extravagance at the hotel. Struggling to make friends and drink and gamble his way through his sorrows, he ultimately finds his pessimism about life itself confirmed but also genuine companionship in Crawford. We’ve neglected to mention Beery (as Kringelein’s boss) struggling through a conniving business meeting about a potential merger, which he bluffs his way through, shortly before trying to sleep with his stenographer and pummeling the Baron to death! All the characters grieve in the last act except the Baron’s new lover Garbo, who made plans to meet him on a train and even could’ve paid for his tickets, but pride or something prevented him from complying so he tried to steal the cash anyway. Though all these plot strands share a few characters and overarching events, none of them come across as feeling resolved; a great many details are introduced and never really addressed or paid off, to such an extent that it’s hard to tell throughout the film what you’re really supposed to be caring about.
And like most of blessed populist Thalberg’s productions, Grand Hotel struggles with a cinematic style bordering on total anonymity, here courtesy of longtime MGM contractor Edmund Goulding, churned out as on a shiny assembly line with vastly expensive and phony-looking set designs and an overall air of total seclusion from reality. In most MGM films, especially those that were driven by big stars and thus scored big with audiences, the seams are everywhere — the signs of compromise and argument behind the camera about just how to make this bit of chocolate cake most massively appealing to the broadest possible audience ironically end up making the thing seem poorly thought out. Grand Hotel‘s disjointed, barely interlocking style is one of the harsher examples; the pieces simply don’t fit.
Wait a moment, though. Something else is going on here. Three years into the Great Depression, Thalberg and Goulding and cohorts have crafted what amounts to an extended rant against capitalism that gets shushed before it can come to its point. Watch for the way money, vast sums of it sitting around, motivates everything: the Baron’s criminal behavior and subsequent falling in love, the stenographer’s willingness to sleep with an employer that disgusts her, said employer’s determination to lie his way to a big contract, and of course poor Lionel Barrymore’s crawling around on a carpet in search of his pocketbook, without which he’s fully aware he’d have nothing. Meanwhile, the sole principal character who seems to have plenty of money — Garbo — is morbidly depressed until someone tries to rob her. It’s all a bit simple-minded, but Thalberg was smart to weave such a cynical undercurrent into a film meant to satiate an audience hit hard by the economic terrors of the time. One wonders how those audiences reacted in 1932 to the admittedly totally unexpected and dramatically resonant death of the Baron, a devastating turnaround in the narrative that changes the entire tone of the movie. It isn’t handled with the greatest delicacy — Garbo is never told of her lover’s death, hence there’s no sense of closure and her last scenes appear anticlimactic — and its relation to the film’s muddled thesis is scant, but it’s bolder and darker than you expect a movie like this to be.
Grand Hotel was sourced from a novel (and Broadway play) by Vicki Baum, who’d worked as a hotel maid in one of Berlin’s plushest spots; given the movie’s overall silliness, it sounds odd to claim that it almost certainly elevated its source material, but it really does go someplace beyond just an examination of the dull comings and goings of the rich. The setting is odd — MGM’s studio feels like MGM’s studio, not at all like Berlin — but does lend a retroactive sense of foreboding, even if we know that this movie is really about America: its hopes, dreams, excesses, its culture. We loved our trash then as much as we do now, and we can only hope that there’s some outside chance that the trash of our time will someday be as strangely alluring as this trash is. But we doubt it.