Grand Hotel (1932)

Grade: 66

"Grand Hotel" is an early talkie, one of the first to feature an 'all-star' cast. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and has been considered a classic ever since. Except for Greta Garbo's camping, the performances are good, especially by Lionel Barrymore and Wallace Beery. Seen today, however, the story and script seems a bit melodramatic, and the characters too narrowly defined.

Based on the novel "Menschen" by Vicki Baum, the story takes place in a luxurious Berlin Hotel that teems with staff and guests. Garbo, who was an enormously popular actress at the time, gets first billing as a famed but egocentric ballerina. Wallowing in self-pity, her suicide attempt is aborted by John Barrymore, a Baron who has turned to hotel thievery to repay his gambling debts.

The Baron is the central character around which the others revolve. He befriends terminally ill bookkeeper Lionel Barrymore, who has withdrawn his life savings for a final fling. Lionel's employer is disagreeable, beefy Wallace Beery, who is attempting a liason with young stenographer Joan Crawford.

Garbo, while beautiful, gives a campy performance of her affected ballerina character. Her arm gestures, long pauses, and the tight close-ups on her face are reminiscent of the silent era. She delivers her famous line "I Vant to be alone" on three occasions.

John Barrymore coasts through his role, as the outwardly placid and pleasant aristocrat who is in fact desperate for funds as his life has been threatened by mobsters. He also manages to smoke about a pack of cigarettes during the movie. Beery's character subtly changes from stiff autocrat, burdened by business troubles, to belligerent tyrant, bullying the Barrymores and nearly scoring with Crawford (who has promised to be 'very nice' to him). At no point is his character sympathetic, even early in the film when he professes to be a family man and an ethical businessman. However, this unsympathetic portrayal suits the film well.

Lionel Barrymore gives the best performance as the mousey bookkeeper, finally able to tell off his boss and assume a gregarious, benevolent disposition. He tries to pack a lifetime of hedonism into a single day, knowing that it could be his last. His character is the most sympathetic, more so than his brother's, since his troubles are not of his own making.

"Grand Hotel" was remade as "Weekend at the Waldorf" in 1945, and later became a Broadway musical.