Saturday, March 23, 2013

GRAND HOTEL - 1931/1932

I don’t feel like there is a lot to say about “Grand Hotel.” Admittedly, I wasn’t in a movie-going mood when I watched it. But even if I had been, I still think I would have anointed it as being an unremarkable film. The only thing really noteworthy about this feature is the catalog of A-list stars whose names elbow and crowd each other on the marquee.

Directed by Edmund Goulding, “Grand Hotel” won Best Picture in 1931/1932. It holds the distinction of being the only Best Winner champion not to have secured any additional nominations. The film follows an ensemble of characters, holed up in a swanky Berlin hotel, each navigating their own tiny adventure, which ultimately intersects with the tiny adventures of other principle characters. The only problem is that none of these tiny adventures are particularly compelling, even when combined with the tiny adventure of someone else. 

The film is top lined by Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and brothers John and Lionel Barrymore. It’s funny (and maybe a tad sad) that I first became aware of these classic film stars through modern pop culture references. Thanks to the verse in Madonna’s ode to vogue where she name drops a list of legendary figures, I’ve known who Greta Garbo is since at least the early 1990s. Unfortunately, thanks to Faye Dunaway’s campy performance in “Mommy Dearest,” I never looked a wire hanger without thinking about Joan Crawford. Then Lionel and John Barrymore are the great uncle and grandfather of cutie pie Drew Barrymore. So there you have it.

Apart from seeing Lionel Barrymore in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” I had never seen any of the films on these actors’ resumes before. So it was interesting to put a face and performance with these names that I’ve heard referenced in pop culture before. Even if I hadn’t seen “Mommy Dearest,” I think I would have still found Joan Crawford to be intense and unsettling. She has a face full of sharp features, beset by a pair of dark eyes that seem capable of erupting into Maleficent flames. Also, to me, she looks like a woman who collects husbands as a personal hobby. This made her seem miscast as a young, innocent stenographer just trying to do the right thing. However, if given the right role, a darker role, I could imagine Joan Crawford to be quite a blazing force onscreen. 
John Barrymore and Greta Garbo in "Grand Hotel."

As for Greta Garbo, she does have a certain mystique that you quite can’t put your finger on. It’s difficult to label her. Is she a good girl? A hell’s angel? Or somewhere in between? My guess is that she could be convincing as all three, which is alluring because it’s far more interesting to watch someone onscreen who is unpredictable. I think what aids this mercurial quality is that her beauty hovers above any categorical fray. She could be dark and intimidating, if it were called for. But she could also be sweet and approachable, if those were the attributes de jour.

On an unrelated note, in the opening credits it attributed the costumes to “Gowns by Adrian.” This caught my attention because I can’t ever remember such a bold and unique costume design credit. Typically costume designers seem to have their screen credit attributed to a regular moniker, like Colleen Atwood. From a quick Google search, it turns out the Adrian Greenburg’s screen credit became Gowns by Adrian because his signature pieces were the evening gowns he designed for the biggest starlets of the day. Ironically, despite his name, Adrian’s most recognizable design was the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in “The Wizard of Oz.”

For all of its star power, “Grand Hotel” felt, by-and-large, mostly forgettable. I suppose if there are any serious messages or musings on life to be mined from this story; it would simply be that everything is made equal in the end. In the film, as one character dies, another welcomes a new baby. As one character suffers a broken heart, another finds new love. And as one character’s freedoms are taken away, another is given a new lease on life. Not an especially deep insight, I know.

Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford in "Grand Hotel."

Despite the satisfaction of curiosity at having seen such a line-up of screen legends in a film, I don’t feel like this is one hotel that I am going to being checking into again anytime soon. My sense is that all of these stars have made far better films that are much more deserving of a visit. 

Favorite Line: The most famous line from this movie is uttered by Greta Garbo, where she states in tired protest, “I want to be alone.” I don’t quite understand why this line became so famous. From what I can gather, Greta Garbo was elusive with the press and sought to maintain her privacy, leading to speculation that this line was uttered as her personal mantra. However, if you had no idea this line had become noteworthy, it would have come and gone without any notice.

On that note, my favorite line from the movie is delivered by an old WWI veteran who inhabits the hotel and develops keen insights into the behavior of its guests. In dispensing these observations, he says, “What do you do at the Grand Hotel? Eat, sleep, loaf around, flirt a little, dance a little. A hundred doors leading to one hall. No one knows anything about the person next to them. When you leave, someone else occupies your room. Lies in your bed. That’s the end.”

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