GRAND HOTEL, glossy, classic all-star MGM fun from 1932, took that year’s Best Picture Oscar. It managed this without a single nomination in any other category, a coup no other movie has escaped with since. Sleek and smartly done in every respect, it was a hit with critics and earned its hefty $750,000 price tag back five times over. *
Whiz kid genius Irving Thalberg recognized the potential of Viennese novelist Vicki Baum’s 1929 bestseller “Menshen im Hotel” (“People at the Hotel”), which she based on her experiences as a maid in famed Berlin luxury lodgings. Financing it first as a Broadway play to test it out, after that stage show was a year-long hit, the Metro wunderkind put together the first All-Star Cast event for the 112-minute cinema booking, directed by the underrated Edmund Goulding.
The simple but ingenious template has five guests and their stories inter-relating in vignettes of humor, romance and tragedy at Berlin’s plushest retreat. A reclusive, fading ballerina (Greta Garbo) is courted by a world-weary yet charming Baron (John Barrymore) who is also broke and a reluctant jewel thief. A ruthless business magnate (Wallace Beery), there to close a deal, hopes to clinch another more personal one with his desperate temp stenographer (Joan Crawford), while one of his longtime employees (Lionel Barrymore), disgruntled and ill, seeks to go out in a splurge, spending his last days in pampered style.
All of the leads had degrees of trepidation over their casting, but egos were mostly petted and unruffled as the chosen director was adept at calming their nerves. Garbo, 27, remains a matter of taste, but she does utter her famous “I want to be alone”. John, 50, gets some intimate moments to show why he was so renowned in the day; brother Lionel, 54, is tasked to ham it up for pathos. Crawford, 26, really shines—after 38 parts over seven years in the business, this showy role moved her up in stature. Beery, 47, fresh off his Oscar win for The Champ, gets the bad guy assignment, and shades it quite well, including sporting a decent German accent (the others don’t bother). Also on tap: Lewis Stone, Jean Hersholt and Robert McWade. Art director Cedric Gibbons did a marvelous job on the sets.
86 years on, some of the script-forced quick-dramatics and love gushy mush come off as antiquated kitsch, but the pure entertainment factor holds up admirably. The stars shine.
* As movies learned to talk, the Academy Awards were still learning to walk: not counting the short subjects prizes, there were only nine categories that year. As for grosses, always subject to swinging speculation, Wikipedia (wonderguessia?) says it came in #2 for ’32, with a worldwide take of $2,594,000. A 1944 sum-up of leading moneymakers since the silent days had it placing 29th in a list of 59 all-timers, at $2,250,000. Cogerson lists it as 11th for the year. At any rate, it was a smash, and watching many, many years later, you can readily see why.