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The Grand Hotel Waltz
by Asa Butcher
2009-01-11 10:11:06
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Grand Hotel
Directed by Edmund Goulding
1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

As the opening bars of Johann Strauß’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” play over the opening scene of the 1932 Best Picture winner Grand Hotel, we are given our first glimpse of a film that has its cast literally waltz around the lobby in some beautifully crafted choreography and the film isn’t even a musical. The hustle bustle of the Grand Hotel is depicted in such an inspired way that the audience finds itself dancing from one character to the next with barely a pause for breath and all seemingly to the rhythm of the waltz.

Grand Hotel, inspired by Vicki Baum and her novel based on her own experiences as a chambermaid, follows the lives of five people during their brief time staying at Berlin’s luxurious Grand Hotel in the early-30s. The film holds the unfortunate record of being the only film to win Best Picture and nothing else, plus it notably brought together the gargantuan egos of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and John Barrymore in what some call the first ‘all-star’ movie.

Greta Garbo stars as Grusinskaya, a lonely prima ballerina who is ready to commit suicide; John Barrymore stars as the Baron, who is also a hotel thief; Joan Crawford stars as Flaemmchen, a stenographer with a rather flexible moral code; Wallace Beery stars as General Director Preysing, who is desperately trying to save his company from bankruptcy; and Lionel Barrymore (John’s brother) stars as Otto Kringelein, Preysing’s clerk who doesn’t have long left to live.

They are a strange group, but as the film unfolds and we learn a little more about each of them we find our sympathies changing and hopes for a happier end switching between them. The paths of some of the characters cross, while others do not - for example, there are no scenes with Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford because the filmmakers wanted to avoid the possibility of one upstaging the other - but John Barrymore's Baron is the one common thread joining them all together.

You can't help but love the tragic hero of the Baron as he stumbles into love and then attempts to find the money to escape his sordid business of hotel thief, but, like all tragic heroes, that is not to be. He is the common thread, but it is his scenes with his older brother Lionel that bring the most joy. Lionel Barrymore's Otto Kringelein has been diagnosed with a fatal illness and is trying to live out his final days in utmost luxury, spending all of his life savings and actually learning how to live, and the Baron is there, not after his money, to be a friend and offering support in his choices.

Of course, it is the pairing of Garbo and Crawford that must have captured the imagination of 1930s' audiences and they don't disappoint. Many critics described Garbo's performance as bring rather 'over the top' as she throws herself into the prima donna ballerina, yet I felt that it established the character very well and actually leant credibility to the role. It was her role in Grand Hotel that led to saying "I want to be alone", which was voted #30 in the AFI's list of 100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes - however, Garbo later commented, "I never said, 'I want to be alone.' I only said, 'I want to be let alone.' There is all the difference."

Ever the Hollywood ego, Joan Crawford was not impressed that Garbo had secured top billing, so she took her revenge through arriving late, which Garbo hated, and playing Marlene Dietrich records between shots, which Garbo also hated. Despite the petty rivalry, Crawford's turn as the stenographer Miss Flaemm - a name that makes the mouth water - is fun to watch, as she flirts with the Baron, succumbs to the Preysing's adulterous advances and finally leaves with Kringelein suggesting that the girl's moral code was rather loose.

Grand Hotel should have at least received a few more Academy Award nominations, but that is something that cannot be altered. You can, however, give the film the time it deserves by seeking it out and discovering for yourself the first 'all-star' movie that has a story told from a hotel's point of view. The film opens and closes with Lewis Stone's Dr. Otternschlag observing "Grand Hotel... always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." It is obvious that the man never watched the film because Berlin's Grand Hotel appears to be the most action-packed place in town.

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Emanuel Paparella2009-01-11 16:20:57
Indeed, sometimes the event or the place are the stars of a movie and to miss that is to think of a movie as aimless where "nothing ever happens." Another movie that won an Oscar and several other nominations in the mid-eighties, "The Mission" is one of the most underrated movies of the century. It failed financially because people failed to realize that the star was not Robert De Niro portraying the slave trader, but slavery itself in the 18th century vis a vis colonizing Europeans and Christianity. Too bad!

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