I saw Grand Hotel when I was about 18; I remember not being hugely impressed and I promptly forgot about it. When I revisited it a couple of weeks ago, it actually took about three hours to watch it, because I kept being interrupted. I think me and this film have been fated to not get on from the start.
The action takes place across a 24 hour period (roughly), in which a series of characters find themselves in a hotel in Berlin. There’s a playboy baron, played by John Barrymore, who is not what he initially seems; a dying man, determined to live out his last days in style after living a careful life (played by Barrymore’s older brother Lionel, best known to modern audiences for his turn in It’s a Wonderful Life); a prima donna ballerina with crippling stage fright, played by Greta Garbo (and the original source for her famous catchphrase); a bully-boy business executive played by the notorious belligerent Wallace Beery; and a seductive stenographer, played to (early) type by Joan Crawford. There’s crime, a death, fights and at least someone gets something resembling a happy ending.
It’s definitely a bit of a weird film. It feels quite ‘bitty’, more that the studio was interested in having a film stuffed full of famous actors (it was the first film to have such a star powered ensemble cast), rather than much of a plot. I mean, that’s not to say that there isn’t a plot there- there is, sort of- but so many characters make it hard to really get any of the threads to feel more than superficial.
Joan Crawford, as the unfortunately named Flaemmchen, is the best thing about this film (although I’d say Lionel Barrymore plays his nervy, dying man to pathetic perfection). She exudes sexiness in a time just before the Hays’ Code came along and ruined all the fun in Hollywood. She’s unapologetic in her sensuality and she knows what she’s doing. She knows damn well that she’s in control of the men in the room- although there’s a scene in which she shows extraordinary kindness, too. It’s amazing to watch; I can’t actually think of an a modern actress who has the same kind of presence on screen, and only a few actresses ever who were able to come close- Rita Hayworth, maybe? Others were undeniably sexy, but there’s just something about Crawford that I can’t really put my finger on.
And we need to talk about Garbo. In the You Must Remember This podcast (listen, if you haven’t), Karina Longworth recommends that those wanting to watch a Garbo film for the first time try something else. I’ve never seen another Garbo film, but I get what she means- the world’s most famous Swede (before ABBA and Ikea, anyway) is not brilliant. In fact, at times, she’s perfectly hammy. In fact, there are scenes where she’s hammier than a ham and gammon sandwich served in a bacon factory. I do understand why, though- she’s playing a pampered, spoilt ballerina and she shares many scenes with John Barrymore, more used to a New York stage than being in front of a camera. But, oh, by modern standards, it’s hard to watch.
In short, this is a good place to start if you want to get a feel for 1930s films- it looks amazing and there are key stars in it. But if you want to watch a good film, I’d maybe put this about fifth on your list…
NEXT FILM ON THE PLAYLIST: Of Human Bondage (1934), starring Bette Davis and Leslie Howard.