Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Grand Hotel (1932) * * *

(opening lines)
Dr. Otternschlag: Grand Hotel. People come and go. Nothing ever happens.

Lewis Stone's totally unaware opening statement turns out to be ironic during the few days in which the story unfolds, because everything seems to be happening at the hotel, from romance to robbery to an accidental death.

The flimsy plot concerns a group of characters staying at the posh Grand Hotel in Berlin. Initially we hear their stories by phone calls. There is the lonely Russian ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), who is at the end of her rope emotionally, on the verge of a nervous breakdown and seeing the end of her career approaching. The suave Baron Feliz von Geigern (John Barrymore) is not quite what he seems. He intends to steal an expensive set of pearls belonging to Grusinskaya and enters her suite while she is gone. Although he is not a thief at heart, the people he owes money have threatened his life, making it imperative that he steal the jewels.

After he finds the pearls, he is unable to get out of the ballerina's suite before she returns and so hides behind a curtain. When she enters, her depression overcomes her and she decides to end her life. He reveals himself, and explains his presence to stop her suicide attempt by telling her how he worships and loves her. He remains in her room all night and they fall in love, which starts a love triangle with stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford) which comes to an abrupt end in an interesting plot twist. This part of the plot was very controversial in 1932 since the sexual act was implied, and the scene was almost edited out by censors.

Grusinskaya: I want to be alone. I think I have never been so tired in my life. Who are you?
Baron von Geigern: Someone who could love you, that's all. Someone who's forgotten everything else but you.
Grusinskaya: You could love me?
Baron von Geigern: I've never seen anything in my life as beautiful as you are.
Grusinskaya: Can you imagine a hundred girls in the ballet school, each thinking she would become the most famous dancer in all the world? I was ambitious then. We were drilled like little soldiers. No rest, no stopping. I was little, slim, but hard as a diamond. Then I became famous and--But why am I telling you all this? Last night, I didn't know you at all. Who are you, really?
Baron von Geigern: What?
Grusinskaya: I don't even know your name.
Baron von Geigern: (laughs) I am Felix Benvenuto Freihern von Geigern. My mother called me "Flix".
Grusinskaya: No! Flix! Oh, that's sweet. And how do you live? And what kind of a person are you?
Baron Felix von Geigern: I'm a prodigal son, the black sheep of a white flock. I shall die on the gallows.

Baron von Geigern: (looking down from the sixth-floor balcony over the front desk) You know, I've often wondered what'd happen to that old porter if somebody jumped on him from here.
Flaemmchen: I'm sure I don't know. Why don't you try it and find out?

Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a terminally ill bookkeeper dying from an unspecified disease, though he does not appear to be ill. He decides to spend his savings on a few days of luxury in the hotel. Barrymore takes Kringelein from a sad, tentative man to a more adventurous character who shows unexpected courage. Even though he knows that death awaits him, another twist of fate gives Kringelein a new zest for life. By coincidence, the boorish owner of the factory he works in, General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery) is also in the hotel, to try to clinch a deal to save his business.

The interaction between Preysing and Klingelein is an interesting one as Preysing finds that money cannot buy everything. Preysing is the only lead actor with a German accent, and the bullying and ruthless industrialist employs sluttish stenographer Flaemmchen on whom he has designs. She will do almost anything to get ahead and is torn by Preysing's offer of advancement in exchange for her being "nice to him" and her love for Baron Geigern. Her fate, as the others, changes dramatically while a guest at the Grand Hotel. It is interesting to see a youthful Joan Crawford play such a subdued and rather passive character. Senf the porter (Jean Hersholt) worries about his pregnant wife, and world-weary Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), with one side of his face disfigured in the Great War, waits in the lobby for messages. Other minor characters come and go.

Preysing: I don't know much about women. I've been married for 28 years, you know.
Flaemmchen: (to Preysing after he asks her to call him by his first name) You know I always say that nothing should be left hanging over. And names are like that. Suppose I met you next year and said, "How do you do Mr. Preysing?" And you said, "That's the young lady who was my secretary in Manchester." That's all quite propper. But supposing I saw you and yelled "Hi baby. Remember Manchester." (he laughs) Yeah, and you were with your wife. How would you like that?

Otto Kringelein: Mr. Preysing, I am not taking orders from you here.
Preysing: What is this insolence? Please go away.
Otto Kringelein: You think you have free license to be insulting? Believe me, you have not. You think you're superior, but you're quite an ordinary man. Even if you did marry money, and people like me have got to slave for you for 320 marks a month!
Preysing: Will you go away, please! You are annoying!
Flaemmchen: Mr. Preysing, please!
Otto Kringelein: You don't like to see me enjoying myself. When a man's working himself to death, that's what he's paid for. You don't care if a man can live on his wages or not.
Preysing: You have a very regular scale of wages, and there's the sick fund for you.
Otto Kringelein: (sarcastically) Oh, what a scale, and what a fund. When I was sick for four weeks, you wrote me a letter, telling me I'd be discharged if I was sick any longer. Did you write me that letter, or did you not?
Preysing: I have no idea of the letters that I write, Mr. Kringelein. I know that you're here in the Grand Hotel, living like a lord. You are probably an embezzler.
Otto Kringelein: An embezzler?
Preysing: Yes, an embezzler!
Otto Kringelein: You will take that back, right here in the presence of this young lady! Who do you think you're talking to? You think I'm dirt? Well, if I'm dirt, you're a lot dirtier, Mr. Industrial Magnate Preysing!
Preysing: You're discharged! Get out!
Flaemmchen: You can't do that to him...
Preysing: Oh, I don't know the man. I don't know what he wants. I never saw him before.
Otto Kringelein: I know you! I've kept your books for you and I know all about you! If one of your employees was half as stupid in a small way as you are in a big way...
Preysing: (lunges for Kringelein) What do you mean? (He tries to strangle him. When several people break them up, he finally lets go.) You're discharged! You're discharged, you hear?
Otto Kringelein: Wait! You can't discharge me. I am my own master for the first time in my life. You can't discharge me. I'm sick. I'm going to die, you understand? I'm going to die, and nobody can do anything to me anymore. Nothing can happen to me anymore. Before I can be discharged, I'll be dead! (laughs)

(last lines)
Dr. Otternschlag: Grand Hotel. People come and go. Nothing ever happens.

GRAND HOTEL is a 1932 MGM Pre-Code art deco movie produced soon after the end of the silent film era. It is the prototype for the all-star ensemble film and an excellent example of the rich and glamorous escapist entertainment produced during the Depression. It was one of the first Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movies to feature an all-star cast, and is essentially a star vehicle. It's plot exists merely as a device to get star faces on the screen, particularly that of Greta Garbo. The studio put the finest and most popular talent at its disposal into this movie with spectacular results. They flaunt MGM’s famous motto "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven." This Academy Award winner for Best Picture is a sweeping soap opera about the guests at the Grand Hotel. Several plots intertwine, but mostly it's about movie stars. Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and both Barrymore brothers head up the cast. Garbo is luminous as Grusinskaya, the neurotic and famous-but-slipping dancer who "vonts to be alone." John Barrymore is a cat burglar with blue blood and a heart of gold, and Lionel Barrymore happily caroms off him as Mr. Kringelein, a dying man who wants to live out the time he has left with the rich. This multi-faceted film has suspense, murder, a love triangle, tragedy and comedy.

Joan Crawford is perhaps the biggest surprise of the movie. As Flaemmchen, a young career girl trying to decide between secretary and tart, she is uncharacteristically funny, vivacious, and downright bubbly. Along the way we discover that money, fame, and titles don't guarantee happiness, and being a jewel thief doesn't necessarily make you a bad person. The nicest touch is the hint that other, minor plots swirl around the edges of the film, suggesting that we've only seen a small chapter of the hotel's story. GRAND HOTEL is a great deal of fun and an excellent chance to see some famous faces in their prime. Interaction of the characters forms the meat of the story. The plot device of the film bringing together several unrelated characters into one setting was popular and effective enough that it was re-used in other films and became known as "the Grand Hotel formula". This "all-star" scenario was perhaps most successfully replicated the following year in MGM's own DINNER AT EIGHT (1933).

The cast also includes: Robert McWade (Meierheim), Purnell Pratt (Zinnowitz), Ferdinand Gottschalk (Pimenov), Rafaela Ottiano (Suzette), Morgan Wallace (Chauffeur), Tully Marshall (Gerstenkorn), Frank Conroy (Rohna), Murray Kinnell (Schweimann), Edwin Maxwell (Dr. Waitz), Joan Barclay (Young Girl in Lobby), Max Barwyn (Hotel Guest / Gambler), Mary Carlisle (Mrs. Hoffman - Young Honeymooner), John Davidson (Hotel Manager), Herbert Evans (Clerk), Edmund Goulding (Cameo Appearance), Sherry Hall (Hotel Guest), Allen Jenkins (Hotel meat packer), Robert Lees (Bellboy), Eric Mayne (Gambler), Philo McCullough (Hotel Guest / Gambler), Sam McDaniel (Bartender), Greta Meyer (Housekeeper in Room 174), Sarah Padden (Chambermaid in Room 174), Lee Phelps (Hotel Guest), Bodil Rosing (Nurse helping old lady into elevator), Dick Rush (Gendarme), Rolfe Sedan (Hotel Guest in Bar), Leo White (Hotel Porter), and Florence Wix (Hotel Guest). William Axt and Charles Maxwell are the uncredited composers of the absent incidental music. Béla Balázs and William A. Drake wrote the screenplay based on Drake's stage play derived from Vicki Baum's novel and play "Menschen im Hotel". Edmund Goulding directed.

The art deco sets by Cedric Gibbons are quite impressive, and give the feel of a 1932 modern hotel with opulence and luxury. GRAND HOTEL was very well shot by William Daniels, with some luminous photography. The film was a smash hit with a budget of $700,000, and it grossed $1,235,000 (USA) with a further $1,359,000 elsewhere in the world. Later on the rentals of the VHS release totaled $2,594,000, giving a total gross of $5,118,000. With inflation considered, by 2008 the movie had grossed $79,948,689.

The film came from the original Austrian novel "Menschen im Hotel" (People in a Hotel), by Vicki Baum. First published in 1929, a play followed. MGM purchased the US rights to the play and had it adapted by William A. Drake and Béla Balázs. The setting of the Grand Hotel is in Berlin however. It was produced by Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern at MGM (both uncredited in the film), and directed by Edmund Goulding. It is the only film to have won the Academy Award for Best Picture without obtaining nominations in any other categories. The award was presented to Irving Thalberg, with no mention of Paul Bern. In addition, Garbo's line "I want to be alone" was voted # 30 in the list of the American Film Iinstitute's "100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes".

"Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." So says Dr. Otternschlag at the beginning and end of the film. In the original novel, this translates as, "There is a strange thing with guests in this hotel. No-one goes out the door in the same way that they came in." The film was remade as WEEK-END AT THE WALDORF (1945) starring Ginger Rogers, and HOTEL BERLIN (1945) starring Faye Emerson.

Time has taken its toll on the concept and lavish treatment of this rather stiff relic. It's a little faded and dated now, but the magic is still there in this first of the portmanteau movies, although it drags slightly in the middle. Similar to DRACULA (1931), there is almost an absence of incidental music, except for the opening and ending of the film. Let's hope Philip Glass isn't commissioned to write a mediocre music score to "fix" this "deficiency". However, The uncredited music score has a little bit of music. There are several Strauss waltzes and one of the themes from Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, the latter used as a theme for the ballerina. The existence of an American bar and jazz lounge in the hotel is an excuse to include some jazz music in the background.

On DVD the film is presented in the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is not 16x9 enhanced. Opening titles are window boxed so that the full aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is displayed. The transfer is reasonably sharp and shadow detail is pretty good. Contrast appears natural and you can see the luminousness of the original nitrate film to an extent. Blacks are not especially dark. The major problem with this transfer is the level of grain apparent. At times it is very distracting, much like the Universal DVD release of FRANKENSTEIN (1931), filmed the previous year. The print used for the transfer was in reasonable condition, but has not been fully restored for this release. There are flecks and some slight scratches, dirt and dust apparent throughout.

There are two consecutive frames with half the image missing at 55:27. The first frame has the bottom half of the frame totally black, the next frame has the top half blacked out. From 73:00 for about a minute, every other frame seems to be vertically stretched slightly, resulting in a shaky effect. There are also a couple of frames missing at 89:41. There are no noticeable film to video artefacts. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand. There is some occasional distortion of the sound, which is undoubtedly in the source material. Being a single channel mono track, there is no surround encoding present. Hiss is present but is not intrusive. The film is presented on an RSDL-formatted disc with the layer change occurring during a fade to black between scenes at 43:36. Subtitles are available in 10 languages. The English subtitles are quite easy to see, being white with black borders, and appear to translate the dialogue accurately.

Themes from the film are played for this static menu. The menu is in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is 16x9 enhanced, which is an odd choice for a 1.33:1 transfer. A short documentary on the background of the film is one of the extras. It was made for this DVD by the Turner group, who own the MGM film library as well the Warners back catalogue, and features brief interviews with Sydney Guilaroff and Maureen O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan talks about Garbo and refers to their one scene together, so she is obviously not talking about GRAND HOTEL. The documentary is interesting enough to watch once, though the pronunciation of narrator Tom Kane is a little annoying. This documentary also asserts that Vicki Baum based the work on her experience as a maid in two Berlin hotels. In fact, she took a job for six weeks in a single hotel in order to research the background for the novel.

"The Hollywood Premiere" (9:22) is a priceless if not very entertaining publicity short of the guests arriving at the premiere of the film at Sid Grauman's Chinese Theatre in 1932. This was obviously an early simulcast with radio, and takes the format of celebrities arriving at a hotel desk outside the theatre and signing in. It's merely an excuse for a parade of stars. Apart from some of the actors from the film, there are appearances from numerous stars of the time: Edward G. Robinson, Lew Ayres, Lola Lane, Clark Gable, Norma Shearer, Edmund Lowe, Ben Lyon, Bebe Daniels, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (then Mr. Joan Crawford) and Robert Montgomery, among many others. Louis B. Mayer gives a short speech. Strangely, this short is window-boxed and presented in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The window boxing is quite significant, and you can use the zoom function on your TV without losing any picture information.

"Nothing Ever Happens" (18:42) is a short musical comedy parody of GRAND HOTEL, complete with songs and a chorus of dancing girls. This was made by the Vitaphone company, a subsidiary of Warners, in 1932. It's quite dull but appropriate as an extra for this DVD, presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with optional subtitles. "Just A Word Of Warning" (1:11) is a short advertising trailer specifically for Grauman's Chinese Theatre, warning customers that the run is about to end: "Get your premium evening tickets for $1.50." The trailer is in good condition and is window-boxed just like the Hollywood Premiere short. The Theatrical Trailer (2:19) is a trailer for a later reissue of GRAND HOTEL, and is in reasonable condition, presented in 1.33:1.

In 2007 GRAND HOTEL was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.

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