“Grand Hotel…always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”
Grand Hotel took home the Best Picture Oscar for MGM in 1933, beating another MGM release, The Champ, as well as Samuel Goldwyn’s Arrowsmith, Fox’s Bad Girl, First National’s Five Star Final, and three films from Paramount—One Hour With You, The Smiling Lieutenant, and Shanghai Express, the only movie to out-earn Grand Hotel at the box office that year. Both films feature an ensemble cast in a story set primarily in a single setting, but while Shanghai Express has a fabulous cast headlined by Marlene Dietrich at the height of her pre-Code magnificence, Grand Hotel‘s ensemble is all-star, a concept Irving Thalberg invented for this movie.
In Cedric Gibbons’ opulent Art Deco settings, Adrian’s stunning costumes, William Daniels’ glamorous cinematography, Edmund Goulding’s sure-handed, sophisticated direction, a clever script (adapted from MGM’s successful Broadway adaptation of Vicki Baum’s novel), and first-rate performances by its stellar cast, Grand Hotel is one of those films that displays the glories of the studio system, bringing together top talents in all areas of production, all excellently coordinated by those in charge of the project. It’s funny, romantic, tragic, camp, and always entertaining. It’s also very much a pre-Code movie, despite its plush trappings. But if you want to go a little deeper to enrich your viewing experience, here is a primer on its making, which is a pretty good story itself.
Origins, development, the producer
Menschen im Hotel was German writer Vicki Baum’s tenth novel, an instant sensation when it was serialized in Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, so popular that enraged readers wrote to protest the death of one of the characters. It was immediately adapted for the Berlin stage, the production directed by Max Reinhardt (many of whose actors went on to illustrious Hollywood careers). MGM bought the rights for $35,000 and then had another theatrical adaptation written for a Broadway production to test the material. This was an Irving Thalberg project, and Thalberg would use a similar method four years later with the Marx Brothers’ before shooting their first MGM feature, A Night at the Opera, sending the brothers and other cast members out on the road to perform scenes from the script in front of live audiences.The show was a success, resulting in a $55,000 profit, so MGM was $20K to the good before the movie was even produced.
MGM’s creative chief, Irving Thalberg, was extremely enthusiastic about Grand Hotel. It was his pet project in the early ’30s, and he lavished time and care on it. Since Thalberg had to oversee all MGM productions he made producer Paul Bern his supervising producer/point man to handle day-to-day production issues. Bern is sadly most remembered for his death a few months after marrying Jean Harlow later in 1932.
Though Garbo and Crawford were locks for the leading ladies, MGM whispered rumors all over town about possible casting for the male roles, including the possibility of Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Edmund Lowe, Ramon Novarro, and best of all John Gilbert (heavily lobbied for by Garbo) as Baron von Gaigern, a gambler, failed jewel thief, and Garbo’s lover. Mayer, however, wasn’t having it, and John Barrymore got the part. He was fresh from playing a more successful aristocratic jewel thief in Arsene Lupin, in which he had for the first time shared the screen with his older brother, Lionel. Pairing the two again made good sense. Preysing, the incompetent industrialist, bully, snob, and hypocrite, was perhaps to be played by (again) Gable, or Warner Baxter, or Jean Herholt, who would end up in the smaller role of Senf, the porter half-crazed with worry about his wife, who is giving birth in a clinic while he works. Director Edmund Goulding had wanted to cast Buster Keaton as Senf, but he did not prevail, and years later he remembered how awful it was to call Keaton with the bad news, for which Keaton thanked him, followed by a silence, then hung up. In the end it was Wallace Beery, riding high on Min and Bill and The Big House, who played Preysing. He would almost reprise the role in MGM’s followup all-star movie, Dinner at Eight, in 1933: Dan Packard, the vulgar, ruthless tycoon, is Preysing’s American cousin. And the indispensable Lewis Stone, an MGM mainstay, completed the ensemble of principals as melancholic Doctor Otternschlag, the WWI veteran with half his face shot off, Grand Hotel‘s Greek chorus. It is Otternschlag whose utterance (see quote at top) is both prologue and epilogue to Grand Hotel’s several stories as well as the many others that take place behind closed doors, which we do not witness.
Here is Fortune magazine on Irving Thalberg’s arrival at his office:
He enters—a small, finely-made Jew of about thirty-three, changeable as the chameleon industry in which he labors. He is five and one-half feet tall, and weighs 122 pounds after a good night’s sleep. This lightness, in calm moments, is all feline grace and poise. In frantic moments he appears as a pale and flimsy bag of bones held together by concealed bits of string and the furious ambitiou to make the best movies in the world. He seat himself, in his moderne, beaverboard office, at a massive, shiny desk, in front of a Dictograph which looks like a small pipe organ and partially hides a row of medicine bottles. Before him are huge boxes of cigarettes, which he never opens, and plates of apples and dates into which he sometimes dips a transparent hand. Squirming with nervous fervor in the midst of his elaborate apparatus, he speaks with a curiously calm, soft voice as if his words were a sort of poetry. He describes parabolas with one hand and scratches his knee with the other. Rising, he paces his office with stooped shoulders and hands clasped behind him. This reflective promenading he learned from Carl Laemmle, Sr., who discovered Irving Thalberg when, recently released from a Brooklyn high school, he was an office boy in the Broadway shop of Universal Pictures.
Edmund Goulding’s name isn’t one of the better-remembered directors of his era, but he was a fine director who left us some memorable films including Dark Victory (1939), The Constant Nymph (1943), Nightmare Alley (1947), and The Razor’s Edge (1946). He was also a standard-bearer for an extravagant lifestyle, famous for his lavish parties/orgies, his bisexuality, his heroic alcohol and drug consumption, and his kind, gentle nature. Thalberg tapped him for Grand Hotel partly because Goulding had previously worked with both Garbo and Crawford, and both actresses would need strong support, a director they could trust. Also, Thalberg felt Goulding had the proper combination of artistic ideas, the authority to bring in a large, complex project on time and within budget, and the personal relationships with Grand Hotel’s leading ladies necessary to coax from them their very best performances.
Here is Mark Alan Vieira on Goulding and Grand Hotel, from Sin in Soft Focus:
Edmund Goulding, who directed the film, was probably one of the “perverts” [Joseph] Breen mentioned. “Eddie” was too careless to cover his indiscreet drinking, drug-taking, and homosexuality, and too absent-minded to remember the dazzling ideas he devised, so Thalberg had them transcribed. This excerpt is from the murder scene: “Flaemmchen looks this way and that. After all, it is Flaemmchen and not Lillian Gish running across the ice in “Wah Down East”—it is Flaemmchen, the Berlin girl. She pauses to try and clear her brain. ‘What the hell is this—what is it?’ The impulse naturally is to scream in alarm. She doesn’t—Flaemmchens don’t.”
Grand Hotel was convincing because of the way it handled its adult themes. During an early story conference, Thalberg told Goulding how to rewrite the scene of the Baron watching Grusinskaya undressing: “When he’s on a sex thing, he’s perfectly within his rights. When he has seen a naked woman, he can suddenly, very honestly, have a sex desire come over him…. Why does a man want one woman and another man [want] another? That’s the kick of it, God damn it!”
Goulding worked closely with Thalberg, Bern, and Vicki Baum on the script.
Matthew Kennedy writes in Edmund Goulding’s Dark Victory: Hollywood’s Genius Bad Boy that
“On the first day of shooting, Eddie strode onto the stage and climbed a sixty-foot steel crane to address his already assembled cast from high above the set. It was an irresistibly dramatic touch that quickly established order. “No one on the set without felt slippers throughout the shooting,” he announced with his strong baritone. “The only voices I want to hear are those of Mr. Stone, the Barrymores, Miss Crawford, and Mr. Hersholt. Miss Garbo will be in the scene but she will not speak. As she passes through the lobby, glance at her. She is a great dancer leaving for the theater. Are you ready? Start your action.”
Eddie was exacting in what he wanted. He frequently assumed actors’ places before the camera and marked the floor with chalk. His white handkerchief came in handy when he wanted to measure heights for camera angles. Then he would act the scenes as he wanted them played, as was his custom. He most often played the woman. Such was the case when he was caught in an embrace with John Barrymore. As they moved closer, Barrymore said, with breathless sincerity, “I love you.” Eddie’s head tilted so that his lips could meet Barrymore’s at any moment. A watching Garbo broke the tension by asking, “Vel, Eddie, vat are you waiting for?” Laughter cooled the scene immediately.
Goulding’s careful preparation paid off in a smooth shoot, truly remarkable given the five stars on a single set, most of them shooting other films at the same time as this one. In the whole 49 days of shooting the press did not report a single problem on the set, and Goulding was justly proud. “When the film began rolling, general peace and calm prevailed on the set,” [Goulding] recalled. “All Hollywood said, screamed, and prophesied that all hell would break loose on the first day of shooting, there would be recasting and a new director assigned. Thank God no temperamental firecrackers exploded.” (per Kennedy)
The art director
Cedric Gibbons’ extraordinary set design for the Grand Hotel were exquisite and vast, sprawling over six of the studio’s largest sound stages. They covered 16,000sf, a massive space that created exactly the world Goulding wanted to create, first for his actors and then for the movie’s audience.
Garbo’s performance is eccentric, and while her melancholy scenes, solo emoting her despair, are not always easy to watch, her scenes with Barrymore are spectacular. Grusinskaya is transformed by love, brought back to life. When she takes Barrymore’s face in her hands, murmurs his mother’s pet name for him, smiles tenderly, and kisses him, you can feel the warmth flooding her body and spirit. Barrymore is perfect in his performance and seems Grusinskaya’s soulmate. Their brief scene on the bed has a real erotic charge, and I wanted the scene to last a little longer.
Crawford’s Flaemmchen is rather strange, at least at first. She comes to the hotel to do some stenographic work (hard as it may be to imagine from the 21st century, people used to hired others to do their typing and other clerical work) for Preysing, and she reports to his room. Finding the door open, she goes in (already weird), then, seeing Preysing through the open bathroom door, just out of the shower, wrapped only in towels, doing some painful-looking stretches, she walks in on him. She acts like this is natural, normal. Preysing is uncomfortable, asks her to please wait outside. She looks like, Okay, whatever, but takes her sweet time leaving the room. What’s up with that? I’m not sure what they’re trying to tell us about Flaemmchen here. If it’s that she’s been around the block a few times, it still seems kind of peculiar. We learn what we need to in her first scene with the Baron, flirting outside Preysing’s room. We learn that she’s not averse to being picked up by the right man, that she can’t support herself on her wages and relies on men friends to buy her the nicer things. She’s a little bit hard, but just a little—she’s a city girl; it’s her way. But as their conversation reveals that the Baron understands her situation but doesn’t look down on her, she falls a little bit in love with him.
Lionel Barrymore’s Kringelein took the longest for me to warm to. On my first viewings, his whininess worked my last nerve. But I have come to admire Kringelein’s open-heartedness, his naivety, his real pleasure in his first taste in his 46 years of pleasure and good things. He is a good soul, a good friend. He would do anything he could to help his friend the Baron. At the beginning of Grand Hotel, Kringelein is exhausted, fretful, but willing to stand up for himself, to insist that they give him a proper room. He hates Preysing, his old boss, who personifies Kringelein’s life as a nebbish, never considered or treated with any respect or kindness. But in the end it is Kringelein who calls Preysing to account, and Kringelein finds companionship with beautiful Flaemmchen, no longer distressed by his mortality but thrilled: “I never thought anything so beautiful would come to me.”
This is part of Hot & Bothered: The Films of 1932 blogathon, hosted by the delightful Theresa at Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Click the links to see more of the excellent entries.