Thursday, April 26, 2012

Grand Hotel at 80

Greta Garbo and John Barrymore
in the divine Grand Hotel

Though your correspondent is an avid film buff (one might say a rabid film buff), I also must acknowledge that cinematic masterpieces are few and far between.  But during the Golden Age of American Cinema (roughly the silent era through about 1947), most of the greatest American movies were made.  The secrets of many arts are sometimes lost (ask any serious painter trying to recreate the now forgotten techniques of the classic Academic manner), and as a result we sometimes look at a work of art and marvel, how did they do that?

These thoughts crossed my mind as I remembered that Grand Hotel, one of the greatest American movies, was released 80 years ago this month.  To my readers who consider Chariots of Fire to be an “old movie,” Grand Hotel must seem positively ancient. However, anyone who seeks out Grand Hotel will be delighted by the deft storytelling, the intricate and adult plot and fabulous performances that are as fresh today as they were 80 years ago.

Based on a 1929 novel by Vicki Baum, Grand Hotel was the first of a new type of motion picture – a multistory film based on a central location.  The Grand Hotel of Berlin, where the action takes place, is virtually a character in the film, and the detailed and artful photography gives a wonderfully solidity to the Art Deco setting.  (Indeed, there is only one exterior shot in the film, when we watch the corpse of one of the main characters carted away.)

In short, ballet-dancer Gursinskaya (Greta Garbo) has burned out, and entertains thoughts of suicide.  Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore) is a penniless aristocrat turned hotel thief with eyes for Gursinskaya’s pearls.  Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a bookkeeper with a terminal illness spending his last few dollars at the Grand Hotel so he could die in high style.  His former boss, General Director Preysing (Wallace Berry) is also staying at the hotel, making a shady business deal.  Joan Crawford, in what is simply the best performance of her career, is Flaemmchen, a stenographer employed by Preysing, who may soon need to be a kept woman in order to make ends meet.

The action is watched by Lewis Stone, as hotel physician Dr. Otternschlag, a man whose face was horribly scarred in the Great War.  Stone is seldom directly involved in any of the action, and his distance keeps him from connecting to the human drama evolving all around him.  In fact, he closes the film with, “Grand Hotel.  Always the same.  People come.  People go.  Nothing ever happens.”

Grand Hotel was directed by Edmund Goulding (1891-1959), and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.  Amazingly, it is the only Best Picture winner not to be nominated for other major awards (Best Actor, etc), a fact that astonishes me to this day.  Goulding was the megaphone behind The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dark Victory (1939) and Nightmare Alley (1947), great movies all and highly recommended.

The real treat of Grand Hotel is watching some of the finest actors in the history of the movies at the top of their form.  One of the great paradoxes, to my mind, is that the name John Barrymore (1882-1942) is now, to some, shorthand for over-the-top acting.  A look at any of his films (particularly his early sound films, like Dinner at Eight, Svengali and Moby Dick) would give lie to that impression, particularly his stellar performance in Grand Hotel.  Barrymore here is 50 years old, and very soon time and chronic alcoholism will take its toll, transforming this extraordinarily handsome man into an aged relic almost overnight. Barrymore was also one of those great rarities: a deft character actor with the looks and physique of a leading man.  His performance here is one of great charm and pathos, and the chemistry between him and both Garbo and Crawford is simply astonishing. 

Joan Crawford (1905-1977) is often a conundrum to contemporary viewers.  One of the challenges is that her name, visage and reputation have suffered irreparable damage at the hands of Faye Dunaway with the risible Mommie Dearest (1981).  Another challenge is that Crawford’s career was so multiform and diverse that it’s nearly impossible to comfortably encompass her persona.  There are the wonderful, multi-dimensional parts she enjoyed at MGM in the 1930s, her hard-bitten victim pictures in the 1940s at Warner Brothers, her character parts in the 1950s, and her horror films of the 1960s.  What gets lost in all of this is that each iteration of Crawford is wonderful.  In Grand Hotel Crawford has a deeply affecting vulnerability, mixing both sentiment and cynicism.  Her interplay with John Barrymore is genuinely sexy, and her exchanges with Lionel Barrymore filled with sympathy.  It is, to my mind, the finest performance in a career rich with great star turns.

Lionel Barrymore (1878-1954) lacked both the good looks and glamour of his brother, John.  This ability to inhabit everyman roles have led some to mistakenly believe that he is the superior actor of the two, but a quick look at their films together gives the lie to that impression.  Though Lionel’s Kringelein is not a bad performance, it is filled with all the fussy hamminess that John is frequently accused of.  He also plays the role in such a subservient, mincing key that one sometimes sympathizes with Wallace Beery and we long to take a fist to him.

But perhaps the most mythic performance in the film is that of Greta Garbo (1905-1990).  Garbo’s performance here is pure alchemy.  Though often in repose, she is completely believable as a ballerina, as a figure of movement.  And her glacial beauty and subtly expressive eyes render her both remote and human.  There is something of the goddess about Garbo, but a wounded, introspective goddess.  The role of Grusinskaya played to Garbo’s natural tendency towards melancholy and her despair seems all too palpable.  Her moments with John Barrymore are galvanizing – mostly because each performer gives to the other.  In some marvelous way, the efficacy of their performances relies on the reaction of the other.  Garbo was deeply touched by Barrymore the man, and had hoped to work with him again – sadly it never happened.

Readers interested in Garbo could do no better than finding a copy of the magisterial Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis by film historian and biographer Charles Affron.  It is a wonderful book using frame blow-ups from various films to detail the technique of the three stars.  The section on Garbo is liberally illustrated with frame blow-ups from Grand Hotel, and it’s almost possible to capture the very moments in which she achieves her greatest effects.  This book is highly recommended to any serious cineaste.

Grand Hotel was indeed lightning captured in a bottle, and its magic has never been successfully resurrected.  MGM tried again with a 1945 remake, Week-End at the Waldorf.  But MGM’s salad days were over and Waldorf is surprisingly limp.  It was adapted for the off-Broadway stage as a disco musical in the 1970s (an experience from which your correspondent is still trying to recover), and later, a large-scale Broadway musical in 1989.  The show, though a Tony Award winner, was really a rather sad affair, memorable mostly for the stage business of people pushing chairs around the stage.  Or, as one wag said, “Grand Hotel.  People come.  People go.  People move furniture.”

Grand Hotel is available on DVD and through Netflix.  It is a film not to be missed.

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