This is the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing classic film review segment I’m writing in NZ vintage lifestyle magazine Glory Days. It’s a really cool mag, so be sure to check it out here.
Just the fifth recipient of the Academy Award for Best Picture, Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel is, like so many early classics, a template setting picture in a number of ways. The entwining of stories from several characters is wonderfully engaging yet also deliberately trivial, a simple slice of life from a single floor in the opulent, cavernous Grand Hotel in Berlin.
Following an effortless but undeniably effective set up, John Barrymore charms as the dapper Baron Felix von Gaigern, a shadowy con man intent on relieving melodramatic ballet dancer Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) of her jewels in the hope of paying off an old debt. Meanwhile, the leering General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) vies for the affections of his beautiful stenographer (Joan Crawford) while trying to salvage a troubled business deal, and all are somehow drawn together by the doomed optimism of the hopeless Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore).
Every member of the all-star cast brings just the right tone to their characters. John Barrymore delivers a dashing, confident performance right up until he is thunderstruck by love for the first time in his life, and Garbo shows desperate vulnerability and a prima donna’s desire for fame and affection sharply contrasting her own intensely private life. A very young Joan Crawford plays Flaemmchen as a classic cinematic tomboy so common to Classical Hollywood, adorable and accessible in equal measure, and Lionel Barrymore serves as comic relief with work regularly bordering on slapstick.
It is a somewhat hackneyed film criticism trope to refer to location as an extra character in a given film, but Grand Hotel’s titular location is an early example of how a filmmaker can use their backdrop to subtly flesh out a particular thematic aspect of the picture. Goulding uses expansive establishing shots and sweeping pans to emphasise the labyrinthine nature of the hotel before narrowing his gaze to just one small portion. He also gives much attention to the lobby’s revolving door, returning to the image again and again and driving home the key piece of the puzzle in Grand Hotel, a place where, as one character notes in the film’s bookending monologues, “People come, people go, nothing ever happens.”
The joys of decoding the dialogue don’t end there, given that Grand Hotel falls right in the early days of the strict censorship of the Hays’ Motion Picture Production Code. The first meeting of John Barrymore and Crawford crackles with thinly veiled desire, and the lustful euphemisms of Beery are as hilarious as they are loathsome.
As is often the case when reaching back far into cinema history, Grand Hotel might seem familiar to many first-time viewers due to its influence. For those of us who appreciate the past and hunger for experience of the origins of style however, the film is an absolute treat, offering romance, wonderfully drawn characters, and more than a few surprising turns.