More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#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.”

Garbo wants, as always, 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.

John Barrymore to Joan Crawford: “Are you reducing?”

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.

Grand Hotel Premiere

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.

The King of Hollywood

#4 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

If you were a baseball player in the 1930’s, you wanted to play for the New York Yankees.  And if you were an actor or an actress, you wanted to work for MGM.

Both the Yankees and MGM had all the money, all the power, and most importantly, all the stars.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was the first to perfect what is now called the star system.  

In this system, the studios identified young actors and actresses with potential and signed them to long term contracts in which the studios had near total control of their career.  

MGM was looking for more than talent, more than beauty.  They were looking for blank canvases on which they could paint, raw clay that they could mold.

They wanted to make stars.

The studio managed their parts and their personal lives.  Actresses were required to always appear in public smartly dressed and in full makeup—no tabloid photographs in yoga pants with a Big Gulp.  Affairs and assorted bad behavior were covered up. Fake dates were set up to encourage the press to speculate on potential pairings.

Twitter would’ve been strictly off-limits.

Think Taylor Swift and her carefully cultivated reinventions—from curly-haired teenager singing her diary, to constantly jilted lover (did she really date all those boys?), to squad goals feminist pushing back against The Man.

Each MGM star had a designated persona—Garbo the ice queen, Jean Harlow the blonde sexpot, Jimmy Stewart the everyman.

And then you had Clark Gable.  Dubbed The King of Hollywood, Clark Gable was the finest leading man to ever grace the silver screen.  By the end of his life, he’d made more than sixty movies over nearly forty years. And if that wasn’t enough, he put his career on hold to serve in the Air Force during World War II and fly active combat missions.  Hollywood would never be the same without him.  

He was debonair, with a rakish grin and a glint in his eyes.  He oozed sex, charm, and charisma.  

All of which were on full display in the 1935 Best Picture Academy Award winner Mutiny On The Bounty.  And I couldn’t help but also notice the devilishly handsome lock of hair that is always perfectly out of place.

Another fascinating true story, Mutiny is a tale of adventure as the British Navy starts a two-year voyage to the West Indies on the HMS Bounty under the leadership of William Bligh, a brilliant but cruel captain.

Gable plays Lieutenant Fletcher Christian, who enforces Bligh’s strict discipline on the sailors with compassion and good humor.

The crew, several of whom have been unwillingly pressed into service via a British Law that allows the captain to effectively kidnap British subjects and force them into the Navy, are filled with unease when Captain Bligh orders the flogging of a sailor, and insists the punishment continue even after the soldier is dead.

Captain Bligh imposes increasingly severe punishments for minor rule infractions, and the crew—Christian included—are relieved when they drop anchor in Tahiti and are granted furloughs.

After a taste of freedom, the men chafe even more beneath Captain Bligh’s thumb.

The movie’s tension increases with each unjustified punishment.  The Captain has men flogged, he orders them on dangerous unnecessary tasks, he cuts their water rations to prioritize the precious plants he is hauling as cargo.

We know the men will turn on Captain Bligh—the mutiny is in the title of the film.  The question is which straw will break Christian’s back—for the men will not mutiny without his leadership.  

When Christian finds one of Bligh’s men kicking the starved and shackled prisoners for asking for water, he’s had enough.  

In a tear of rage, he changes the fate of every man on the ship when he raises his fist in the air and bellows, “Bligh, you’ve given your last command on this ship! We’ll be men again if we hang for it!”  

And make no mistake, they will hang for it.

A British Navy Captain must be obeyed, regardless of his cruelty.

But only if he lives to tell the tale.

Christian casts Bligh and a handful of his supporters adrift on a small boat with barely enough water to survive.  It’s tantamount to murder as they are 3,500 miles from any port.

But they can never go home, and Christian knows that if Captain Bligh finds a way to survive, he and the other mutineers will indeed hang, “from the highest yardarm in the British Fleet.”

In the third and most thrilling act of the film, Bligh fights to survive so that he may one day have his vengeance, as Christian and the mutineers look for a place where Bligh and the British Navy can never find them.

If you want to find out if the King of Hollywood can outrun one of the most persistent and ruthless villains in film history, you’ll have to watch this 1935 Best Picture winner and find out for yourself.