Sunday, August 30, 2009

Movie Review: GRAND HOTEL (MGM, 1932)

If Cabaret is the quintessential "Weimar Republic-era movie" produced in Hollywood, then Grand Hotel, the 1932 Best Picture Oscar winner, surely runs it a very close second. Eschewing glitzy decadence and overt political sermonizing for a soberer (albeit more melodramatic) approach, MGM's tale of intersecting lives at Berlin's Grand Hotel features one of the most famous sets (the Art Deco hotel lobby) in movie history and a then-unheard-of approach to casting. Defying the contemporary conventional wisdom that putting too many stars in one movie would amount to overkill, Irving Thalberg and director Edmund Goulding put together the first true "all-star" cast. Even more daring was the decision to do so despite the fact that the featured players had dramatically different acting styles -- Greta Garbo's silents-influenced manic-depressive flouncing; John Barrymore's mannered stage presence; John's brother Lionel's melodramatic whininess; Wallace Beery's alternately overbearing and buffoonish pushiness; and, in arguably the film's best performance, Joan Crawford's breezy likability as a working girl (a struggling stenographer and would-be model, in her case) with a heart of gold and a well-functioning "BS detector." Some character collisions are more successful than others -- the romantic moments between Garbo and Barrymore seem pretty precious and overly studied now -- but every major character is worth watching. The supporting cast (many of whom were minor stars in their own right) are solid all the way, from Lewis Stone as a facially-disfigured, aphorism-spouting "lobby-and-bar cynic" and Jean Hersholt as a genial porter anxiously awaiting the birth of his child, all the way down to Allen "Officer Dibble" Jenkins in an uncredited role as a meat-packer.

In a strange way, the "all-star" Grand Hotel could also be considered a trail-blazer for another kind of film: the disaster movie. The difference here is that the "disaster" -- the Nazis' looming takeover of Germany -- remains under the horizon throughout. The Great Depression is preying on a number of characters' minds: Beery's overstuffed industrialist is desperate to effect a merger with another company and is willing to be dishonest to get it; J. Barrymore's "Baron" has fallen on evil days and is now living as a sneak thief and gambler; bookkeeper L. Barrymore, having been told that he's dying, wants to stick it in the face of his buffoonish employer (Beery, as it happens) and live it up just once before he passes (was this where that deathless cliche of countless movies and cartoons originated, I wonder?); ballerina Garbo's tour is in financial trouble because of the star's moods. Admittedly, apart from L.B.'s travails (which probably resonated with quite a few working stiffs at the time), these problems are hardly a match for standing in a bread line or being kicked off one's farm, but they help raise Hotel above the level of a simple, gilt-edged melodrama. Stone's disfigured doctor character sounds a more sinister note when he refers off-handedly to Germany's having lost the war despite winning battle after battle; Hitler, of course, made "avenging Versailles" one of his major "ranting points." Beery's clumsy attempts to seduce Crawford have it all over the Garbo-Barrymore business insofar as "meaningful sexual byplay" is concerned, but their sheer tawdriness links them to the much more overt "desperate sexuality" of Cabaret. The Thalberg-era MGM was well-known for its escapist polish, but Grand Hotel is certainly aware that a lot is going on outside the hotel lobby, and some of it isn't exactly pretty.

Unfortunately, the Grand Hotel DVD doesn't have a movie commentary, but a few other choice items are included. A brief but good documentary tells the story of the making and casting of the film, and we also get a vintage "studio-doc" of opening night at Grauman's Chinese Theater, where the Hollywood elite were asked to sign a phony "desk register" at the lobby desk, which had been transported to the site for the occasion. It's cheesy but fascinating stuff. Weirdest bauble of all is Nothing Ever Happens, a low-budget short-subject spoof of the movie that features the chunkiest, clumsiest group of dancing girls I've ever witnessed. As for the humor level of the piece, imagine the Marx Brothers on a really bad day.

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