Capsule/Summary****½Grand Hotel plucked five “name above the title” actors from MGM’s stable of “More stars than there are in Heaven” and placed them in the same movie. This was a radical idea in 1932 and it payed off in box office success and an Oscar for Best Picture (although it curiously did not receive a single nomination in any other category). Despite the formula getting a little dusty with age and familiarity from the many films that have been produced from its template over the ensuing years, the film still gets by on its star power and well-paced melodrama that effectively keeps several balls in the air as characters cross each other’s paths through the film’s intertwining plot lines. It is presented on Blu-ray disc with a high-definition transfer and lossless audio that demonstrate modest but noticeable improvements in their representation of limited source material over the SD DVD predecessor. Extras, including a brief making of featurette, some vintage shorts, and promotional materials, are carried over from the previous DVD with the addition of an informative and well-researched commentary from film scholars Jeffrey Vance and Mark A. Vieira.
Director: Edmund Goulding
Starring: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone
| Studio: Warner Bros. |
Film Length: 112 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Subtitles: English SDH, French, German SDH, Italian SDH, Spanish (Castillan), Spanish (Latin), Korean
Release Date: January 8, 2013
The FilmEdmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel follows four (or so) interlocking stories over the course of a couple of days at Berlin’s luxurious Grand Hotel. Lionel Barrymore plays Otto Kringelein, a man who has just received a terminal diagnosis and is determined to spend his last days basking in the hotel’s decadent luxury despite his demonstrable lack of skill in the art of debauchery. Wallace Beery plays Preysing, the son of the president of the company for which Kringelein worked nearly his whole life as a low level bookkeeper. Preysing is in the hotel to close a merger deal that could make or break his family’s company. John Barrymore plays Baron von Geiger (usually referred to as “The Baron”), a frequent guest of the Hotel who has a title with little material wealth to go with it and a few dark secrets. Greta Garbo plays aging Russian ballet star Grusinskaya, who is waning in popularity and battling depression. Joan Crawford plays Flaemmchen, a worldly stenographer assigned to assist Preysing. Preysing’s rapidly south-spiraling business dealings and The Baron’s increasingly desperate attempts to improve his financial situation drive the characters together and apart in dramatic, comic, and tragic ways that establish the Hotel as a (super-glamorous) metaphor for the transient nature of life itself.
1932’s Grand Hotel is the acknowledged grandaddy of all of the multi-star overlapping-plot portmanteau movies and plays that would follow it. In the spirit of Hollywood pitch reductionism, the phrase “Grand Hotel on a ...” would come to describe films that applied the flexible formula to settings such as department stores, cruise ships, airliners, burning buildings, and any number of other environments. In the theater world, Neil Simon made something of a cottage industry of the formula with his trilogy of "...Suite” plays produced between 1968 and 1995.
MGM wonder-boy Irving Thalberg recognized the potential popular appeal of the soapy drama and glamour inherent to Vicki Baum’s Menschen im Hotel source novel, and secured the rights to both a stage adaptation, which proved to be a big hit on Broadway in 1930, and the subsequent MGM screen adaptation in 1932. For the film adaptation, Thalberg upped the appeal ante even further by pushing for the novel concept of placing five “name above the title” stars in the same movie. Prior to this, big name stars tended to be treated like a precious resource with no more than one or (on rare occasions) two per picture. While the sheer novelty of the idea all but guaranteed success, it also aligned with the circumstances of Depression era audiences that were looking for value for money in their increasingly dwindling discretionary entertainment resources.
For fans of the golden age of “talking pictures”, the gimmick of seeing Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and two out of three Barrymores all in the same film, still works. For modern audiences less conversant in the ins and outs of “who was who” in Hollywood circa 1932, there is still plenty of fun to be had. Garbo’s “I want to be alone” line works as much to define her character in the film as it does to on the meta level to define her movie star persona. Her early scenes in full-on depressed unmanageable diva mode are a bit over the top, but once she crosses paths with The Baron, movie star chemistry takes over and makes everything right again. For his part, John Barrymore’s on-screen charisma burns brightly enough to smooth out (and, as necessary, to steamroll over) some of the more ludicrous plot and character contrivances inclusive of the meet
Crawford hits the right worldly tone (consistent with her evolving “savvy shopgirl” persona) to sell the idea that she is neither surprised nor particularly upset about a brush-off she receives from The Baron after a pretty heavy flirtation just hours earlier. Lionel Barrymore is adorable as the nothing left to lose former wage slave who seems to get more satisfaction from an opportunity to give his former executive Preysing a piece of his mind than from any of the worldly delights the Hotel and its denizens have to offer him. Beery’s character arc as Preysing probably worked as straight melodrama for contemporaneous audiences, but may seem more like campy fun for modern day viewers. He is established as an arrogant self-described square dealer, but when the pressure surrounding the merger causes him to crack and tell a lie, he commences a head-spinningly fast downward spiral from business corruption to sexual philandering to something even more transgressive that would constitute a huge spoiler if revealed here.
On the technical side, the film’s art direction and cinematography are impressive. Despite seemingly being an intimate dialog driven drama, the film practically demands to be viewed on as large a screen as possible. The overhead shots looking down on the lobby, and the detailed Cedric Gibbons art direction simply do not have the same impact on a small screen that they do on larger projection setups.
The Video***Grand Hotel is presented on Blu-ray disc via a black and white 1080p AVC encoding pillarboxed to a 4:3 ratio consistent with its original theatrical exhibition. It appears that the element(s) used for transfer is(are) a bit softer, grainer, and higher in contrast than some of the best films of its vintage for which source elements close to the negative exist. That being said, this Blu-ray improves over the most recent DVD incarnation of the film in a number of ways. Firstly and most obviously, the extra resolution afforded by the high definition presentation allows for a less filtered image that more naturally resolves the heavy film grain and image detail it contains. Additionally, visible film damage is noticeably reduced and the image quality appears to be more consistent from reel to reel and shot to shot than in the standard definition release.
The Audio***The film’s original audio is presented via an English DTS-HD MA mono track that exposes the inherent limitations of the source element. Range (of both the dynamic and frequency variety) is very limited, and noise reduction artifacts, while not hugely distracting, were more noticeable to my ears than I have grown accustomed to hearing in recent Warner releases of vintage films. Additional Dolby Digital mono dubs of the film are available in French, German, Italian, Spanish (Castillan), and Spanish (Latin)
Special Features ***½Extras are presented in AVC-encoded 4:3 480i video with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio unless otherwise indicated below.
Commentary by Jeffrey Vance and Mark A. Vieira runs the full-length of the film and presents a thoroughly researched overview of the production from the two film scholars who sat together during the recording. They coordinated their research efforts for the track by splitting up topics (such as cast members and key members of the production team) between them. This preparation results in a very informative track with relatively infrequent but natural interplay between the two participants. This is the only newly produced extra for this blu-ray release, and it is a quality addition.
Under the Heading of Behind the Story are the following features:
- Checking Out Grand Hotel (12:21) is a 2004 featurette providing a brief but efficient explanation of the history of the film and its production. Narration is provided by Tom Kane with on-camera comments provided by Actress Maureen O'Sullivan, Key MGM Hair Designer Sydney Guilaroff, and MGM Executive Joseph J. Cohn.
- Hollywood Premiere of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Grand Hotel (9:25) is a vintage one-reel promo hyping up the film's premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater. The neatest gimmick of the premiere is a replica of the circular desk from the Grand Hotel lobby at the entrance with a book where the several celebrity attendees are asked to “register” and exchange banter with emcee Conrad Nagel. It is presented with severe windowboxing.
- Nothing Ever Happens (18:50) is a vintage Vitaphone musical two-reeler from 1933 that spoofs Grand Hotel. Many of the scenes from the film are recreated by actors with similar makeup and costumes to their feature film counterparts. A good chunk of the dialog is delivered in a sing-song rhyme style and the goings on are punctuated with occasional musical set-pieces inclusive of a line of chorus girls who pop-up in different guises such as bellhops, chefs, and barmaids. It is not exactly a work of comic genius, but the mere fact that it was made gives one a sense of the popularity of the film it was spoofing.
- Just a Word of Warning (1:15) is a piece of vintage publicity hype touting the imminent end of Grand Hotel’s engagement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre which apparently included an elaborate live stage prologue featuring Vaudeville star Will Mahoney and 100 live performers. It is presented with severely windowboxed video.
Under the heading of Trailers are the following theatrical promos:
- Grand Hotel (2:27) is the promo for the original film that predictably focuses on the novel concept of the all-star cast.
- Week-End at the Waldorf (1945) (2:42 - 16:9 enhanced 480i video pillarboxed to 4:3) emphasizes its own stars (Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon, Lana Turner, and Van Johnson) who get their names called out via title cards twice during the trailer and once in my parenthetical. Based on the trailer, the film appears to abandon the European setting in favor of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. This is somewhat understandable given that Berlin was not exactly known for its decadently luxurious hotels circa 1945. A number of plot differences also seem to have been devised, most likely to appease the stricter censorship of the era.