Note: This Week in the Box is a year-long series where Sam works through the entire Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection box set. To find reviews of the other films in the series and see the complete list, click here.
Grand Hotel is the oldest film in this box and I would be shocked if it were the worst. Directed by Edmund Goulding and starring an ensemble cast including, among others, Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and Lionel Barrymore, Grand Hotel is a sweeping epic slice of life.
That particular mash-up of genres– before those were even defined cinematic genres to mash up– is a result of the combination of the scale and the time frame: there are half a dozen main characters who all have defined, often overlapping objectives, who we observe over approximately two days of their lives while they stay at the titular hotel. In a way, it’s five different characters’ individual slice-of-life movies woven into one glorious tapestry. Russian ballerina Grusinskaya (Garbo)’s anxiety is waxing as her career wanes; it’s all her manager can do to get her on stage every night. The Baron von Geigern (John Barrymore) has less than pure motives for his time in other peoples’ rooms and is apparently kept afloat through theivery and card games. Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is very ill and intends to spend the time remaining finally living the high life, though he manages to stay at the same hotel as his former boss, Director Preysing (Beery), who is conducting some very important meetings about a series of mergers his company is involved in. Preysing hires a stenographer, Flaemmchen (Crawford), who flirts with the Baron while waiting for her client, before the Baron falls in love with Grusinskaya, for whom he is driven to raise a certain sum of money, which he fails to do by playing cards with Kringelein and so on– as only the briefest of examples of the various interconnections and non-connections between these characters and more.
What is more interesting than the simple plot machinations– though those are indeed very interesting, and often not so simple– are the larger themes that pervade the movie. While the saying might be “Nothing is certain but death and taxes,” the version we see in Grand Hotel is that nothing is certain but death and money, or the lack of it.
A phone call at the very beginning of the movie alludes to a baby that is not yet born, but whose birth may be announced at any minute. It ruins nothing to say that that baby is indeed born at the end (off screen), but in the intervening time talk of death permeates almost every scene. Throughout Grand Hotel, death works its way into even casual conversation: several people declare unrelated topics “matters of life and death,” a character beseeches another that their life is in the other’s hands, and even the flowers lauded on Grusinskaya’s successful performance “make [the character] think of funerals.” The structure of movie itself is cyclical, as hotel life tends to be– guests check in, they stay, things happen, guests check out, and new ones take their place in a pattern not unlike that of life itself. The characters are not flirting with death, but rather probing, exploring. At a key moment, following an actual death, a character remarks “It can’t be so hard to die.”
Obviously, what matters most is what we do with the intervening time, whether that’s a hotel stay or an entire lifetime on earth, and in this particular instance much of that seems to be concerned with money. Money enough to stay in the hotel, money enough to make a living, money lost and money illicitly earned. And just like Real Life(TM), whether you have money or not doesn’t directly correspond to whethe you’re happy. If you have enough money it’s great, but if you have enough because you only expect to live another couple months, it’s not so great. If you lose out on the opportunity for big money it’s worth going after, even if you have to spend some smaller money to get there. And, occasionally, it might be worth it to exchange a little bit of your time–if you know what I mean– for money. Or it might not.
Grand Hotel is, well, just that: a grand movie indeed set in just the one hotel. The lobby scene at the very beginning of the movie is a thing of splendor- seeing all the hustle and bustle of a busy hotel lobby, while the camera neatly follows each of our protagonists (or antagonists) in turn as they move through the crowd. Things are complicated without ever being difficult to follow, a tricky feat to pull off indeed.
This is a delightful movie and a pleasure to kick off this series. If you have a hankering for watching a lovely movie that gives you more than meets the eye, you could do a lot worse than Grand Hotel.