#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series
Before 1932, movies usually had only one or two stars to anchor the film and draw an audience.
But MGM—as we’ve discussed and they once boasted—had “more stars than there are in heaven,” so they came up with a simple but brilliant idea—instead of having one or two leads, what if they stuffed a movie full of stars and let them play off one other?
The experiment produced Grand Hotel—the first ensemble film and a precursor to modern films like Ocean’s 11 and Boogie Nights.
MGM pulled out all the stops for Grand Hotel. They started with the grandest sets ever constructed. The lobby was the film’s crown jewel, complete with a circular check-in desk and a dizzying spiral staircase. The entirety of the film takes place inside this luxurious Berlin hotel, temporary home of the rich and famous.
Then they studded the cast with the highest quality stars from their stable.
John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern, an amiable thief who steals a necklace from Greta Garbo’s Grusinskaya, a temperamental Russian ballerina whose inevitable aging is impacting her career.
After disappearing and missing one of her performances without explanation, Grusinskaya shows up at her room and Garbo utters her most famous line:
“I want to be alone.”
The Baron and Grusinskaya ultimately fall in love, but before they do, the Baron engages in some surprisingly sexy flirting with Joan Crawford’s Flaemmchen.
Upon learning she is a stenographer, he asks:
“I don’t suppose you’d take some… dictation from me sometime.”
And yes, he means exactly what your dirty mind thinks he means.
Though Flaemmchen likes the Baron very much, it turns out she is more than just a stenographer for Preysing, a lying and ruthless businessman played by Wallace Berry.
Berry makes Flaemmchen a rather indecent proposal, but as a working girl who can only afford one meal a day, she grudgingly accepts.
Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a poor factory worker who is dying. He decides to spend what time and money he has left in the grandest hotel in the world.
Kringelein befriends both the Baron and Flaemmchen before discovering Presysing’s presence, and denouncing the businessman who has abused Kringelein and all the other workers in his factory.
If you can’t follow all that, suffice it to say that these great actors play off one another brilliantly in scene after scene as their lives intersect in surprising ways.
This was the first film starring both Barrymore brothers. The Barrymores are an acting dynasty. John, Lionel, and their sister Ethel were all actors. Their father and mother, Maurice and Georgia Drew Barrymore, acted on the stage in the late nineteenth century.
Both of John’s children, John Jr. and Diana Barrymore, also became actors.
By the time John Barrymore’s seven-year-old granddaughter Drew showed up in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), she was the fourth generation of actors in the Barrymore family.
But back to Grand Hotel.
Just in case the “greatest cast ever assembled” and gem-filled script weren’t enough, MGM staged a lavish premiere party at Grauman’s Chinese theater. While hoards of fans watched, all of MGM’s stars—whether they were in the film or not—dressed up in their finest and paraded down the carpet.
The studio recreated the film’s circular lobby desk for the premiere and had each star sign a huge hotel register book. Each then gave a sound bite to the press and their adoring public.
Everyone who was anyone was there.
Except Garbo, of course.
It worked. Grand Hotel was an exceptionally good movie, a box office smash and Best Picture Winner. Interestingly, it remains the only Best Picture Winner with no other nominations. All those stars and no acting nominations. Perhaps it makes sense, because they were so good that none shined brighter than the others.
Grand Hotel is my favorite of the films I’ve reported on thus far for this project. It teeters just on the edge—but doesn’t quite make—a “Timeless- Watch It Tonight” rating.
But we’re all still stuck at home and if you’ve blown through Tiger King, you might want to give it a shot.
Want more? Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.