|| Print ||
|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 03 January 2011 00:00|
The 1931-32 Academy Awards ceremony was held on November 18, 1932 in the Ambassador Hotel. Local Los Angeles radio had covered the three previous ceremonies, but the fifth annual Academy Awards marked the first year the event was broadcast across America - a testimony to how quickly the five year old ceremony had established itself as an institution of national interest.
The previous year's Best Picture winner, Cimaron, has aged extremely poorly, but the '30-31 winner, Grand Hotel, remains a sparkling jewel in the crown of Hollywood's early Golden Age. The Ocean's Eleven of its day, Grand Hotel is a crowd pleaser, jam packed full of Hollywood stars from the early sound era. (At the time, MGM's slogan was 'More Stars than in Heaven!')
Grand Hotel's screenplay was written by William A. Drake and Béla Balázs. It's an adaptation of Drake's successful Broadway play of the same name. The Broadway play was commissioned by MGM producer Irving Thalberg after he purchased the rights to the successful German stage play, which the Broadway play was based upon. The German play was adapted from the novel Meschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel) by Vicki Baum, who spent six weeks working in a hotel as research for the book.
Despite its convoluted origins, Grand Hotel earned its place in cinematic history not only by taking home the '31-32 Best Picture Oscar but also by being one of the first narratives in sound cinema to interweave multiple stories and characters into a cohesive and masterful movie. The film was such a success that 'Grand Hotel theme' became a colloquial term used to describe any movie in which a number of unique characters and narratives intermingle, sometimes unknowingly.
In addition to featuring a successful and innovative narrative approach, the film was also seen as an artistic achievement for its art deco-inspired production design. The scenes set in the titular hotel's main lobby featured a round desk that could be shot from all sides, allowing the film to break free from its theatrical origins and impacting the way sets were designed henceforth.
It is the film's cast that truly makes Grant Hotel such a classic. Greta Garbo plays a depressed prima donna ballerina, John Barrymore a broke baron, Lionel Barrymore a dying man, Wallace Beery a businessman, and Joan Crawford a naughty secretary. All turn in memorable performances. Grand Hotel is, for example, the film in which Greta Garbo utters the now legendary line, "I want to be alone," thereby launching her into superstardom. But for this critic's money, it's all about the young, cold, and mesmerizingly beautiful Joan Crawford.
In discussing Grand Hotel in Guide for the Film Fanatic, Danny Pearly describes how Crawford was "never more appealing" and notes that she "glows . . . as Hollywood stars once did." Pearly is describing the magical presence that certain actors have on screen. It's not just about acting chops, it's about the camera loving you, about having that 'glow,' that incredible black and white magic that removes an actress from reality and places her into that sphere of aesthetics where she becomes a work of art just by existing on screen. Even while walking around the background of scenes, smoking cigarettes, and looking bored, Crawford is completely captivating. In an interview years later, Crawford reminisced, "They told me I wouldn't be able to hold my own with the big boys, against Garbo and the Barrymores. But I proved otherwise." Boy, did she!
When Grand Hotel was shot in 1932, Crawford was a star on the rise. Hired by MGM for $75 a week in 1924, by the mid-30's she was one of the highest paid women in America and the reigning box office queen. A modern flapper party-girl turned sultry, serious actress, Crawford married into Hollywood royalty with her 1929 wedding to the son of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks. Crawford's career and personal life would go on to have more ups and downs and twists and turns than your average Hollywood melodrama, but her undeniable screen presence shines throughout Grand Hotel.
There is power to Crawford's performance, feeding from a barely concealed sexuality, but there is a deep sadness to it as well. In fact, all of Grand Hotel's characters are profoundly unhappy people. Set in Germany, between two world wars, there is a, perhaps unavoidable, modernist sensibility to the film. If Cimaron was about building the modern city, Grand Hotel is about how difficult it is to find happiness in that modern world.
The film opens and closes with the same refrain, "Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." Of course, a huge number of things do happen in between, but the point of the refrain is not irony. It is, rather, an expression of just how disconnected the characters are from one another. Despite existing in the same building together, they are unable to connect with one another. Garbo and Crawford, for example, never appear on screen together at any point in the entire film.
Everyone is lost, and nothing goes as it is supposed to. The big business merger doesn't happen, the heist goes wrong, true love does not prevail . . . there is ineffectuality to everyone in the film. While it is Crawford's character that literally prostitutes herself, all of the characters debase themselves for money over course of the film.
When Barrymore's character asks, "How do you know there will be a Grand Hotel in Paris?" Crawford replies, "There is a Grand Hotel everywhere," because the hotel is not a specific place. The hotel is everywhere. Regardless of their station in life (CEO or secretary), no matter where the characters go, they will fail to connect with one another and will continue to be forced to whore themselves to the modern way of life. It is the sad message from a beautiful film.
Three years ago, Grand Hotel was rightfully selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant. It has stood the test of time and will continue to do so for years to come.
First film to win Best Picture without a single other nomination.
Tags: best picture, cinema, grand hotel, greta garbo, jest, joan crawford, oscars project, you showed them