The 5th Academy Awards (1932)
Welcome to our second year of Oscars Fortnight! Just like last year, these next two weeks will consist of reviewing Oscar movies in anticipation of the big night on March 27. Our requirements are basically just that if a film was nominated for Best Picture and we’ve always wanted to see it (but never got around to it), we’ll review it.
The film I’ll be reviewing here is kind of an odd Oscar case, in that it was both a Best Picture nominee and winner, despite not being nominated for any other categories (which has still only happened this one time). The reason for this probably has more to do with there being less Oscar categories in the ceremony’s early years (supporting actor categories weren’t even included yet), though you do have to wonder how this wasn’t at least nominated for Best Art Direction. My main reference for Grand Hotel has always been that it comes up in another Best Picture winner, The Apartment, which features a scene where Jack Lemmon is about to sit down to a TV dinner and watch this star-studded cast before being dissuaded by an overabundance of advertising interrupting the film. Thankfully, this problem didn’t come up watching it on HBO Max.
Not that the idea of what constitutes an ideal “Best Picture winner” was really set in stone by the 5th Academy Awards, but I was still a little surprised that a film as casual and breezy as Grand Hotel has this distinction. It covers a couple of days and nights at a hotel in Berlin, where we’re introduced to a few specific guests as we see how they cross paths during their brief time at the Grand Hotel. These characters include Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore), a down-on-his-luck socialite who has now become a thief, Otto Kringelein, an accountant who is terminally ill (Lionel Barrymore) who’s decided to live it up in his final days, and his former boss Preysing (Wallace Beery), a ruthless industrialist in town to oversee a merger while joined by his unassuming stenographer (Joan Crawford). Then you’ve also got a famous ballerina (Greta Garbo) grappling with her desire to perform, who has an encounter with the Baron in which the two fall madly in love, if just for one night.
While most of the movie consists of charming little encounters between the characters, the film does take a decidedly dark turn toward the end which involves one of the other characters murdering the other. It’s a turn I didn’t entirely see coming and was actually pleased to see, since otherwise the affable nature of the film would’ve been perfectly satisfying, but the ending makes it something deserving of being considered a classic, if not quite a top-tier one. I also have to speculate that the film’s surprisingly bittersweet ending is what lent it enough weight to win Best Picture, though I’m not sure how well-known the plot of William A. Drake’s play that it’s adapting was.
One of the big selling points of Grand Hotel at the time and what makes it a somewhat influential film is that it was one of the first “Big Star Ensemble” movies. However, that novelty has been dulled a bit considering even a classic movie dork like myself was only somewhat familiar with most of these actors. Joan Crawford of course has had the most lasting cultural impact of all the actors in Grand Hotel, while Greta Garbo I only know from Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka and from being a notorious recluse (hence the fittingness of Garbo’s famous line “I want to be alone” in this film). Otherwise, Lionel Barrymore’s career is almost entirely defined by playing Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, while his brother John, despite being one of the great stars of his era, is mostly just known for being a Barrymore. Oh, and I know Jean Hersholt from having that Humanitarian Award named after him, speaking of Oscars.
Still, even if this cast doesn’t feel quite as stacked as it did in 1932, you can at least tell why all of these actors were so beloved in their day. They all inhabit these very specific types of characters, who are a bit on the broad side, though that feels appropriate considering the technical limitations of this early talky allows for the actors to make the scenes lively when the sometimes stiff camerawork can’t. That said, director Edmund Goulding does facilitate a few visually striking moments despite the film being so verbal. One example is when we see the camera revolve around the front desk, capturing different conversations of guests checking into the hotel, which captures the film’s M.O. of being about all these different people from all over the globe converging by chance.
Also, as mentioned earlier, the set that they constructed to make up the interior of the Grand Hotel is just a very cool creation. Despite the fact that it was very clearly made on a soundstage, the vastness of it and its art deco design add one more layer of making the film’s world a little fuller when even the best films of the early ’30s can often feel a little artificial and flat. It’s quite possible that I’m grading this movie on a bit of a curve, since the 30s isn’t my favorite decade of film history due to it being more of a transitional decade born out of the advent of sound. But Grand Hotel is the kind of film where you wouldn’t really know it, since it makes the most of its script, set design, and not-quite-timeless stars.