TCM Pick for February — Pre-Code
Greta Garbo. Joan Crawford. John and Lionel Barrymore. Wallace Beery. Lewis Stone. Jean Hersholt. Who could pass up this star-studded cast? Not me, that’s for sure – and that’s why Grand Hotel (1932), airing on Friday, February 15th, is my TCM pick of the month.
The film takes a look at a few days in the lives of a disparate group of individuals who are staying or working at Berlin’s Grand Hotel, depicting, in this brief snapshot of time, their loves, hopes, fears, ambitions, crimes, and triumphs.
Really, there are so many awesome scenes in this film that it almost doesn’t make sense to try to name a favorite. I’ve settled, though, on the opening scene, in which most of the film’s major characters – and their unique circumstances and personalities – are introduced. In a clever montage, the characters’ personas are revealed as they speak on the hotel’s public telephones – we learn that Senf (Jean Hersholt), the head hotel porter, is anxiously awaiting news on the birth of his child. Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), who is suffering from an unnamed fatal condition, has withdrawn all of his savings from the bank in order to enjoy one last fling. General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), who is Kringelein’s boss, is apprehensive about all-important business merger. Suzette (Rafaela Ottiano), the personal maid to famed prima ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), frets over the ballerina’s tortured emotional state, and Baron Von Geiger (John Barrymore) is desperate for money. At the scene’s end, we see Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), as he sits in a chair in the hotel lobby and ironically observes, “The Grand Hotel – people coming, going. Nothing ever happens.”
I have three:
Flamenchen (Joan Crawford)
The “little stenographess,” Flaemmchen is a delight – flirty and sassy, slightly shallow, materialistic but practical, and a wee bit vain – but with an inner core of compassion and decency, which she demonstrates so touchingly at the film’s end.
Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore)
How could you not fall in love with this awkward, guileless, oh-so-sincere fella? When we first see him, Kringelein is a rather piteous character, clad in ill-fitting clothes and bemoaning his placement in a tiny room near the hotel’s boiler room. But before long, he has befriended a Baron, won thousands at Baccarat, delivered a tongue-lashing to his boss, and danced in public for the first time. The sheer joy he experiences is practically palpable.
Baron von Geigern (John Barrymore)
The Baron was a fascinating mass of contradictions. He could be the iceberg-cold aristocrat, which he demonstrates when addressing the chauffeur who keeps hounding him for money or the outlandishly rude General Preysing. Or the flirtatious, playful, and carefree gent that he was with Flammechen. He was the calculating criminal who stole Kringelein’s wallet – but also the tenderhearted friend who returned it. And he was Grusinskaya’s passionate, desperately love-struck suitor, who risked his very life to be with the one he adored. He was perhaps the most nuanced and multifaceted character in the film.
And three favorite quotes!
“I don’t know much about women. I’ve been married for 28 years, you know.” General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery)
“It’s been so marvelous. For the first time in my life, I’ve gambled and I’ve danced. You gentlemen can laugh, but for the first time in my life, I’ve tasted life!” Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore)
“What do you do in 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. And when you leave, someone occupies your room, lies in your bed. That’s the end.” Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone)
Grand Hotel was based on the 1929 novel by Vicki Baum, entitled Menschen im Hotel and the Broadway play, Grand Hotel, which was financed by MGM. As part of the financing deal, the studio bought the film rights for $35,000. The book was inspired by Baum’s experiences as a chambermaid in two Berlin hotels.
The film was directed by Edmund Goulding, who also helmed such features as Dark Victory (1939), The Old Maid (1939), The Constant Nymph (1943), The Razor’s Edge (1946), and Nightmare Alley (1947). (Speaking of Nightmare Alley, click here to order a copy of the giant, 40-page Dark Pages issue focusing on this great noir!)
Grand Hotel was produced by MGM “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg and Paul Bern, who was found dead just two months after his wedding to blonde bombshell Jean Harlow. (Bern’s death was ruled a suicide, but in recent years, it has been theorized that he was murdered by his common-law wife, Dorothy Millette, who herself committed suicide shortly after Bern’s body was found. Whew!)
Speaking of Irving Thalberg, his wife, actress Norma Shearer, was the first choice for the role of Flaemmchen. Reportedly, she turned the part down after receiving a slew of mail from fans who didn’t want to see her in the part.
Garbo and John Barrymore were wary about working with each other; he’d been told that Garbo was cold and anti-social, and she’d been informed that Barrymore was an egomaniacal poseur. Despite these preconceived notions, the two got along famously. Garbo was so fond of her co-star that she allowed a series of backstage publicity stills to be taken of her with Barrymore.
Greta Garbo initially turned down the role of Grusinskaya because she felt that, at age 27, she was too old to play a prima ballerina.
Wallace Beery also originally balked at playing Preysing, because he felt the part was too unsympathetic. He finally accepted the role on the condition that he would be the only main character to play his part with a German accent.
The Hollywood Reporter originally announced that comedian Buster Keaton would play the role of Otto Kringelein.
Grand Hotel won an Academy Award for Best Picture. It was not nominated for an Oscar in any other category. The other nominees for Best Picture that year were Arrowsmith, Bad Girl, The Champ, Five Star Final, One Hour with You, Shanghai Express, and The Smiling Lieutenant.
This was the sixth film in which Lewis Stone and Greta Garbo both appeared.
During the film’s busy lobby scenes, the actors and actresses wore woolen socks over their shoes to prevent noise.
The film makes it clear that Flaemmchen is prostituting herself to Preysing, but the more openly provocative scenes were cut, including one showing Crawford reclining on the hotel bed and another in which Crawford’s dress is hiked high on her thigh while she and Beery hold onto her garter.
Watch for this goof: after the Baron asks Flaemmchen for a date and they are laughing together, the Baron moves from behind her left shoulder to her right – and then is suddenly behind her left shoulder again. Similarly, in the scene where the Baron is secretly listening to Grusinskaya while she is on the telephone with the ballet master, Pimenov, watch when she says, “I couldn’t go on. I couldn’t!” A second after this, an abrupt edit will show the telephone receiver switch from her left hand to her right.
This isn’t necessarily a goof, but check out the early scene where the Baron introduces Kringelein to Pimenov. Kringelein asks if Pimenov is a baron as well, prompting laughter all around. John Barrymore, as the Baron, is smoking a cigarette during this scene and chokes out an unscripted cough. He even seems to duck a little behind another actor while he gets himself together.
The film’s wardrobe was designed by famed costumer Adrian.
This is the film in which Garbo utters her iconic line, “I want to be alone.” It was listed as number 30 in the American Film Institute’s list of top 100 quotes from U.S. films.
At the film’s premiere at Grauman’s (now Mann’s) Chinese Theatre, Greta Garbo did not appear with the cast – but after the film, Wallace Beery reportedly dressed as Garbo in drag. (The gag was not well-received by the audience.) The star-studded premiere was attended by a variety of Hollywood luminaries, including Edward G. Robinson, Ben Lyon and his wife Bebe Daniels, Lew Ayres and his then-wife Lola Lane, Conrad Nagel (who hosted the event), the comedy team Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey, Walter Huston, Edmund Lowe and his wife Lilyan Tashman, Robert Montgomery, Anita Page, Marlene Dietrich, Anna Q. Nilsson, Jean Harlow, Chester Morris, William Haines, Constance Bennett, Norma Shearer, and Clark Gable.
Don’t miss Grand Hotel, February 15th on TCM. If you’ve seen it, give it a re-watch! And if you haven’t seen it, you simply must. Garbo and Crawford? Barrymore and Barrymore? Come on, now. You know you only owe it to yourself.