Every month on the first Friday, three of my friends and fellow blog writers and I take it in turns to choose one Classic Hollywood star. We then each choose a film of theirs to review and we call it “Four for Friday”. This month it’s a little late, being the third Friday in May, but our star is actually a trio of stars, the three Barrymore siblings! As I’ve never seen anything with Ethel, I’ve chosen Grand Hotel (1932) to at least cover John and Lionel.
Firstly, I’m not going to rehash the plot of Grand Hotel because there really isn’t one. Well at least there isn’t just one. It’s made up of many little vignette stories in a film that was designed to be the first motion picture ever to feature more than two major stars. It was to be the very first “All Star Cast!” and MGM’s pride and joy!
Put simply, it follows the respective dramas of the various inhabitants of Berlin’s most luxurious Grand Hotel.
Funnily enough, my first experience with Grand Hotel (1932) was a rather anticlimactic one. I was right in the middle of my Joan Crawford kick and I was attempting to track down anything and everything she had ever appeared in, as is usually the case with me when I find myself obsessing over an actor. So I watched the film but I felt kind of lost afterwards. Had I enjoyed it or not? I wasn’t sure. Do you ever come out of a movie wondering this? For me, it’s much worse than disliking a film because it’s like being left in Limbo. Completely unsettling.
I gave it another chance though and I am so, SO incredibly glad that I did as I’ve now seen it countless times and I absolutely worship it! It’s one of the most apparently effortless films I’ve ever seen as it seems to just breeze in and out of each scene as if it were waltzing across a dance floor without a care in the world! It knows it’s good so why should it worry about “trying”? It doesn’t need to. It has that incredible array of top MGM stars to back it up.
Upon my first watch, I had only seen Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939) which was another disappointing experience for me at the time (what was WRONG with me?!) as I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t think she was beautiful but how was I to know that for Ninotchka Garbo was “frump-ified” and I now believe that that film was a terrible introduction to the Great Actress as I didn’t understand her method or how she worked. Perhaps I needed to know a little more about her before I watched Ninotchka to understand it’s humour better. But I digress…
After viewing Grand Hotel for a second time and having seen Garbo in a few more films, I was absolutely blown away by her beauty! And not just her appearance which is utterly sublime but her performance. I have come to believe that there is a great difference between the terms “melodrama” and “melodramatic” and for some, more ignorant people (and I mean it in it’s true sense, not derogatorily) Garbo may seem “melodramatic” (over-the-top) but in truth, she is one of the most beautifully subtle actresses to ever grace the screen. Her method is all her own and truly unique and in Grand Hotel as the long-suffering Russian prima ballerina Grusinskaya she is absolutely superb! She is melodrama at it’s finest and I am always left in complete in awe after her divine performance!
As for Joan Crawford, some say that she stole the film from Garbo and I can see how they may think that but I disagree. Crawford plays the “little stenographer” Flaemmchen and while she is delightful, when Garbo is happy, she instantly lights up the screen! But… this being said, Crawford is also adorable and her playful flirtations with the Baron (John Barrymore) are some of the most memorable scenes in the film. It’s also quite possibly the most natural acting that audiences had seen from Crawford by this time which is impressive knowing how much she wanted to do a good job and hold her own with the already established “Great Stars” of MGM.
John Barrymore’s performance in Grand Hotel is perhaps the comic relief of the film and it is utterly charming. He is handsome, mischievous and down right sexy at times as the penniless jewel thief Baron von Geigen and it is easy to understand how Grusinskaya could fall in love with him. His execution is also understated as his character, like Garbo’s, is also long-suffering and he makes light-hearted jokes to cover his pain.
John Barrymore’s real-life brother Lionel Barrymore is also a major character in the film as he plays Otto Kringelein, a working-class man who is dying and plans to spend his last days in luxury at the famous Grand Hotel. His efforts to spend his hard earned life savings on his own happiness for a change are both heartwarming and heartbreaking as we feel for him deeply in a poignant issue that is still so relevant today. Work-life balance.
Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt make up the rest of the all-star cast but they all play smaller roles compared to the two Barrymores, Garbo and Crawford.
The characters’ stories weave in and out of each other as the characters themselves weave in and out of each other’s lives and this format, as well as the film itself, are metaphors for life and how grateful and observant we choose to be in it.
The most poignant line in the film, and one that is goose bump-inducing if you understand it’s meaning, comes from Doctor Otternschlag, played by Lewis Stone, a disfigured WW1 veteran and permanent resident of the Grand Hotel. Most of his time is spent loitering in the lobby and observing the people as they pass and at the end of the film he states, despondently…
“The Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”
We, as audience members, are left to ponder. After all that we have witnessed, after all of the drama that has happened in the Grand Hotel…. do we really believe this observation?
A rhetorical question if ever there was one!