More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Grand Hotel (1932) title card plus shots from the film
Grand Hotel (1932) opening banner

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 (1932) film premier showing crowds outside the theater.
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.

Grand Hotel (1932) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Birth of the Talkies: The Early Films of the Sound Era

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Grand Hotel (1932) title card plus shots from the film

Garbo As Garbo

#3 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

TV screen with the title card of Mata Hari (1931) starring Greta Garbo and Ramon Novarro.
Garbo as Garbo opening card

For Greta Garbo, Anna Christie was only the beginning.  She followed it up with a string of talking hits, and became the most powerful movie star in the world.  Her success at the box office gave her unprecedented power over her contract, her roles, and her co-stars.

It wasn’t just her movies that fascinated her public—it was Garbo herself.

Dubbed the “Swedish Sphinx” by the media, Garbo shunned publicity.  More than shunned—she had absolutely no desire to interact with fans or the press.  She didn’t answer fan mail, rarely gave interviews, and never attended an Oscars event.  It wasn’t just fans—Garbo didn’t really like people. She didn’t attend parties, didn’t socialize with Hollywood regulars, and kept to herself on set.

While there are some current stars who shy away from the spotlight, there is really no modern equivalent to Garbo’s reclusiveness.

And as is the way of the world, her want of privacy made her the most elusive and desirable woman in the world.

While her solitary nature was undoubtedly sincere, the studio heads soon realized that playing hard to get was always a winning strategy for attention when you’re young and beautiful.  Thus, they leaned in and cast her in movie after movie where she played a version of her public persona.

In the three films I watched this week, she plays a series of beautiful, unknowable Ice Queens whose hearts are finally melted by the love of a good man.

Let’s start with Mata Hari, where Garbo plays the real-life World War I exotic dancer and spy who is ultimately executed by a French firing squad.  We are introduced to Mata Hari as she is dancing seductively on the stage for a group of soldiers.  While watching, I couldn’t help but think how this same scene has echoed throughout movie history. A powerful woman using her sexuality to seduce and destroy men.  Most recently, we see a version of this scene in Hustlers, when Jennifer Lopez’s character is introduced doing an extremely athletic strip tease.  (Even if you didn’t see the film, you got a taste of it during this year’s Superbowl Halftime Show.  Huge sporting events…remember those?)

Garbo as Mata Hari uses and discards men, until she falls in love with a soldier whose purity cuts through her cynicism and pierces her heart.  

But as Mata Hari’s boss reminds her, “A spy in love is a tool that has outlived its usefulness.”

Mata Hari’s love for her soldier ultimately has disastrous consequences for them both.

In Queen Christina, Garbo plays another historical figure:  Queen Christina of Sweden, who took the throne at the age of six and ruled during a long war.

Though Camille is often considered her best performance, Queen Christina was my favorite of the Garbo films.  It is the sad tale of a woman who has more interest in literature, art, and sculpture than war.  Queen Christina longs to escape her endless duties and impulsively dresses as a boy and takes off for a few days.

She meets a man, Antonino, who first believes her to be a man.  He soon discovers she is a woman and they share a passionate night together.  He is a Spanish Ambassador, and does not know he has spent the night with the Queen he is on a diplomatic mission to meet.

In one of my favorite old movie scenes, after they spend the night together, Queen Christina knows (as he does not) that they can never be together.  She walks around the room, longingly touching the desk and the walls. She lays on the bed and puts her head on the pillow. Then she gets up, studies the painting on the wall and finally presses her face into the bed post.

“What are you doing?” Antonio asks, amused.

“I have been memorizing this room,” she says.  “In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”

After she returns to her palace and Antonio learns of her true identity, they cannot deny their love.  But as Queen, Christina is not free to follow her heart. Her people desire her to marry her cousin Charles, a war hero, and to continue fighting for the glory of Sweden.

But Christina is tired of war and duty.  She longs for peace and love.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown, indeed.

In a scene that truly shocked me, instead of doing her duty, Christina abdicates her throne and dramatically places her crown on Charles’ head, giving up her kingdom for Antonio.

For love.

And if that doesn’t melt your heart, you probably aren’t going to enjoy this series.  The Golden Age of Hollywood is nothing if not melodramatic.

Finally, I watched Camille, Garbo’s last great film.  Garbo plays Marguerite Gautier, a woman who hides her frail health, poverty, and desire for love as she charms and laughs her way through society on the arms of rich men.

(Old movies can be tricky for modern audiences.  We’re used to having everything spelled out for us, and they’re often quite subtle.  I was about three quarters of the way through the movie before I understood Marguerite was a courtesan—a prostitute with wealthy clients—and not just a woman who had pulled herself up by her bootstraps.)

Armand Duval sees through Marguerite’s masks and the two fall deeply in love.  But the circumstances of her position in society make it impossible for his family to accept her, and she sacrifices her love for him at great personal cost.

All three of these movies end in the tragic death of one of the leads.  So while each Ice Queen is melted by love, she never gets her happy ending.

Greta Garbo’s heart never melted—she never married, never had children, and lived most of her life alone.  She had a romance with her Queen Christina co-star John Gilbert but refused his marriage proposal. 

Garbo retired abruptly in 1941.  She was only thirty-six, and had made twenty-eight successful films.  She spent the rest of her life—nearly fifty more years—without any occupation.  She disguised herself and took long walks in New York City, and spoke in letters discovered after her death of long periods of melancholy.

But she remains an object of public fascination, nearly eighty years after her last film.  Like James Dean, we’re left to mourn all the films she never made. Though unlike Dean it was not death but her own reticence that cut her career painfully short.

It is unclear if she got her happy ending—she did often say she wanted to be alone, so perhaps she did.

But we’ll never stop wondering.

Verdict for Garbo films.  Mata Hari - Had It's Day, But that Day is Done.  Queen Christina - Film Buffs Only, and Camille - Film Buffs Only.

Birth of the Talkies: The Early Films of the Sound Era

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.

February 21, 1930: Garbo Talks!

#2 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

1930:  Crowds outside the Capitol Theatre in New York for the premiere of 'Anna Christie', Swedish born American actress Greta Garbo's first talking picture.  (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)
1930: Crowds outside the Capitol Theatre in New York for the premiere of ‘Anna Christie’, Swedish born American actress Greta Garbo’s first talking picture. (Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images)

Part I: Birth of the Talkies

Anna Christie (1930) opening banner

Today’s movie stars are overexposed.  We see what they ate for breakfast on Instagram, glossy photographs of their multimillion dollar homes in magazines, watch them dance with Ellen and sing in the car with James Corden.  And they talk, and talk, and talk—on talk shows, on social media videos, on Saturday Night Live.  And if you missed them talking the first time, you can always catch clips of it the next day on You Tube.

Close your eyes and imagine it’s 1930.  Greta Garbo is the most recognized actress in America, star of eleven successful films for MGM Studios.

Yet audiences have never heard her speak.

As silent films gave way to early talkies, the new technology made casualties of some of the best actors and actresses of the day.  They faded into obscurity almost overnight, because they could not remember their lines, or they were uncomfortable with the new style of acting, or had accents inscrutable to the American ear.

Greta Garbo’s silent films had printed money hand over fist for MGM, and the studio hesitated to ruin her on-screen mystique by exposing audiences to her Swedish accent.  They didn’t want to lose their cash machine.  They hemmed and hawed, and Garbo made more silent films.

But talkies were here to stay.

So on February 21, 1930, America went to the movies to hear Garbo talk in Anna Christie.

The movie opens on a drunken old Swedish sailor who’s received a letter from the twenty-year old daughter he hasn’t seen in fifteen years.  Believing the sea was no place to raise a girl, he brought her to America and left her with relatives on a Minnesota farm.

A few minutes later, Garbo enters the film.  It’s immediately clear she hasn’t had the wholesome upbringing her father imagined.  Her clothes are shabby and a bit risqué, and she knows her way around a dive bar.

This is not the girl next door.

The director made the audience wait sixteen agonizing minutes before giving them what they came for–Garbo looks at the bar tender and utters the first timeless line in film history:

“Giv me a whisky, ginger ale on the side. And don’t be stingy, baby.”

The accent and the husky delivery only added to her mystery and sent audiences wild.

It would take more than talking pictures to fell Greta Garbo.  

The MGM studio heads must’ve sighed with relief before laughing with delight.  Anna Christie was the top grossing film of 1930.  Despite their worries, a talking Garbo put more money in their pockets than a silent one.

Anna Christie is a faithful adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 play of the same name.  Anna reconnects with her father and falls in love with a sailor.

When Matt proposes marriage, Anna is forced to admit to him and her father that she was raped by a cousin on the farm and has spent the last two years as a prostitute, shattering their vision of her as an innocent even as she finds redemption in the sea and their love.

Anna Christie is really a filmed play.  The shots are long, and the actors don’t move around much, partially because the primitive sound recording equipment picked up background rustling.

The themes of Anna Christie are relevant to modern times—how men often abuse women then blame them for a lack of purity.  It’s enjoyable to watch Garbo transition from cynical prostitute to redeemed woman.  Yet beneath that cool exterior she harbors a simmering rage that occasionally boils over. The movie shines brightest in the third act when Anna lets that rage loose, throwing her past in the faces of the two men who’ve put her on a pedestal, and then breaking apart as she hopes against all experience that they will forgive her past transgressions.

The movie is best enjoyed as a historical artifact, a memory of a time when movies rested squarely on the star’s shoulders, and one woman delivered when the whole world was listening as well as watching.

Anna Christie (1930) Verdict:  Had It's Day, But that Day is Done

Birth of the Talkies: The Early Films of the Sound Era

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in this series, as well as source notes and suggested reading.