Simply the Best: The Strange Legacy of 1932’s Grand Hotel

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Simply the Best: The Strange Legacy of 1932&#8217;s <i>Grand Hotel</i>

“People come, people go, nothing ever happens.” Those are the final words Grand Hotel leaves us with. The 1932 MGM film won Best Picture at the fifth Academy Awards and since then has found itself nestled into pseudo-obscurity. An ensemble cast of characters, intersecting stories and then a swift end. The film’s most notable aspect is its one strange honor: Being the only Best Picture winner to not be nominated in any other category. The film came, the film went and no fuss was ever made. But 90 years after its Best Picture win, it’s time Grand Hotel got its due. Its win was not a fluke, it was an acknowledgement of how Grand Hotel broke open how a film can work. Grand Hotel featured the first star-studded cast to ever grace the silver screen. The biggest names in Hollywood all crammed into one picture, an exhibition of celebrity itself. The Academy in 1932 understood what we have forgotten: Grand Hotel changed everything.

Grand Hotel is an adaptation of the play of the same name, both written by William A. Drake. MGM hired prolific screenwriter and director Edmund Goulding to direct, best known for directing 1947’s Nightmare Alley. Based on Vicki Baum’s German novel People in the Hotel, the film features the intersecting stories of a group of visitors to the Berlin Grand Hotel in classic portmanteau style. A sullen ballerina (Greta Garbo), a lovelorn conman (John Barrymore), an industrial General Director (Wallace Beery), a stenographer (Joan Crawford), a dying accountant (Lionel Barrymore), with a doctor (Lewis Stone) and the hotel’s porter (Jean Hersholt) rounding out the cast.

Once the technological spectacle of filmmaking passed, stars were the next aspect of movies the public latched onto. As early as 1909, there were calls to know more about the actors seen on the screen. Richard deCordova writes “the emergence of the star system can… best be seen as the emergence of knowledge.” People relied on their knowledge of who these performers were, and the exact types of characters they embodied. A star that continually brought in high box office receipts was the best bet for a studio’s success. But Grand Hotel came to be in the wake of the greatest shakeup to cinema since its inception: The arrival of the talkie.

Grand Hotel was made only four years after The Jazz Singer became the first feature with sound and “talkies” quickly became the main goal of most major studios. MGM was the slowest to switch, afraid its contracted actors wouldn’t be able to survive the transition. MGM was king when it came to talent, using the slogan “more stars than there are in heaven” to market its impressive roster. MGM’s first major sound film was 1929’s The Hollywood Revue, an exhibition of its best performers, and a decisive message that the studio would embrace sound by relying on their brightest stars. Plotless musical revues came into fashion with the advent of sound, spawning such franchises as the Broadway Melody films that began in 1929 that launched an entire genre. But The Hollywood Revue was notable in its sheer star power—MGM was going to use its biggest asset to its advantage.

It’s hard to imagine how all-star Grand Hotel’s cast was in 1932. The year the film was released, Greta Garbo was the highest paid talent in Hollywood. Wallace Beery won the Academy Award for Best Actor that same year and would be the highest paid actor for years to come (Grand Hotel was one of the last times he didn’t receive top billing). Lionel and John Barrymore were members of the most prolific acting family in history, performing in the same movie for the first time. Joan Crawford had made herself the defining star of the flapper era. Lewis Stone, with a miniscule part, had been nominated for an Academy Award three years prior. And Jean Hersholt had acted in 100 films prior to Grand Hotel. Castings that never came to be included Clark Gable in Wallace Beery’s role and Buster Keaton in Lionel Barrymore’s. It was about as star-studded as the sky could allow.

Grand Hotel relied heavily on the personas of its stars. Garbo, best known for her sullen and soulful characters, plays a sullen and soulful ballerina. John Barrymore is charming and Lionel is eccentric. Beery’s character is domineering and commands his screen presence. And Crawford is, of course, a smart, sophisticated, career-focused woman with a quick wit that hides an inner softness. Grand Hotel was designed as an exhibition, a highlight reel of the characters each actor could play in their sleep.

But Grand Hotel is not a lazy composition. The film remarkably assembles the best actors that transitioned from silent films to sound. The influence of silent film acting is very apparent, the main cast relying heavily on the histrionic acting style, using dramatic movements to convey thoughts without words. Lionel Barrymore scours his hotel room for his wallet, crawling around every corner, crying out his same desperate pleas. Garbo lounges and moves like she’s in molasses, but springs to life when she finds love. Crawford gives the best vocal performance of the cast, giving textured readings to her no-nonsense lines. In her last scenes, when she’s overcome with sorrow and hope, that softness she’s always been capable of glows as bright as it ever did.

The story structure of Grand Hotel is its most noteworthy element beside its talent. The intersecting character tapestry was not an original invention, but Grand Hotel became the most high-profile example on film at the time. It’s a story told in small moments, mimicking the literal revolving door of the hotel. Its scenes exist as dioramas of moments lost in a busy place, the story’s roots as a play shining through. Grand Hotel is also a pre-Hays Code film, allowing it more leeway when it comes to depicting more risque moral behavior. Characters gamble, affairs are being had, prostitution is heavily implied, and John Barrymore’s death is surprisingly violent. Goulding’s direction works in service of his performers and their intersecting moments. Occasional shots are noteworthy—like panning over the heads of the telephone operators as they connect calls or a tracking shot of guests approaching the front desk—but mostly the camera exists merely as a frame in which to view the tableau.

The 1932 reviews for Grand Hotel tell the story of a film deserving to go down in history. Variety described the movie as “the most impressive aggregation so far of strictly Bradstreet screen names.” (Bradstreet being a data analytics company that would chart the top box office stars.) It’s a crowd pleaser on every level, one that “doesn’t lean over backward on the artistic side” with “sure-fire human appeal.” And while compliments are given to Drake’s writing, the review contends that “this group of stars make the play something of a screen epic in a season of mediocre celluloid footage.” Variety’s short-lived female-oriented review section The Woman’s Angle even gives the film the go-ahead for the ladies, writing that it’s a “film that no well informed fannette can afford to miss.” The New York Daily News called it “superb.” Film Daily said it’s “One of the classiest moving picture affairs you’ve seen in a long time.” Glowing reviews in The New Yorker and The New York Times followed. Variety passionately recommended the film “even for the extreme length of nearly two hours.” At an hour and 56 minutes Grand Hotel pushed the barriers for how long a film could be, but length doesn’t matter. Grand Hotel is not just a film, it’s an event to be witnessed.

With glowing admiration, MGM pulls out all the stops for its premiere at the Chinese Theater. The event was a “mecca for the elite of Hollywood.” The front desk from the film was recreated and attendees signed the lobby guest book as they arrived. Promotional materials sent out ahead hyped up the day to the highest degree. One read “Famous dates in American History: February 22, 1732 Washington’s Birthday, February 12, 1809 Lincoln’s Birthday, November 11, 1918 Armistice Day, April 12, 1932 The opening of Grand Hotel.” A subheading describes the page as “not an advertisement, but merely to record a great event.”

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MGM leaned into the historic aspect of Grand Hotel’s existence. While hyperbole is definitely present in the advertisement (despite the image declaring otherwise), MGM was not unfounded in its declaration of Grand Hotel’s importance. The film was a monument to all the studio had been trying to achieve and a marker for the state of the industry.

Let’s return to the fifth Academy Awards. Speeches have been axed in the name of simplicity, the show is being broadcast on radio, and Conrad Nagel is master of ceremonies. Grand Hotel is declared Best Picture and surely the audience and people of the world are in shock that the film with only one nomination is taking home the top honors?

Not at all. Funnily enough, the film’s win was overshadowed by other events. Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde beat the favored Wallace Beery in The Champ for Best Actor by one vote, which 1932 rules counted as a tie. MGM was outraged at March’s upset and already murmurs were afoot that the ballot counting system would be redone next year (the next ceremony would not end up taking place until 1934). Variety reported that besides this incident, “there were few surprises,” including Grand Hotel’s win.

Grand Hotel is not without its flaws. Variety called Joan Crawford’s role as the stenographer “not the most fortunate casting” and felt she was too capable a performer to play such a down-on-her-luck character. Biographer Eve Golden had problems with John Barrymore’s performance, writing in the biography John Gilbert: The Last of the Silent Film Stars that he acts “more like…[Garbo’s] affectionate father than her lover.” Reading through reviews, each person seems to have a different point of contention. The New York Times said the film “lacks the life and depth” of the original play, while John Mosher in The New Yorker disagreed, applauding the direction as revealing the “advantages the screen offers.” Audiences heralded Grand Hotel as the first film to “give Garbo her due” but a modern review criticizes her “surly routine.” The performances went from being must-see in 1932 to being described as “impossibly bad” decades later. It’s agreed upon that Grand Hotel is influential, but the element that keeps it from being beloved is up for debate.

In our current data-driven mindset for awards predictions, we lose track of how the show originally started (besides being a way to subvert union disputes). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hoped to bring prestige and respect to the motion picture industry. The award show was just one metric alongside various educational initiatives. The early ceremonies were about celebrating great achievements in a new medium and Grand Hotel met that requirement more than any other film that year.

Grand Hotel’s win was supposed to cement the film’s place in film history, yet its name hardly sparks a memory. Certain aspects have been remembered; Garbo’s line “I want to be alone” was number 30 on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movie Quotes list in 2007. A successful 1989 musical was produced, taking inspiration from both the original novel and the 1932 film. It’s strange to think a film that sparked such fervor, that was hyped as being a transformative point for the genre, would fade so greatly from the public imagination.

As for Grand Hotel’s stars, most didn’t shine much longer. Garbo, Beery, Hersholtz, Stone and Lionel Barrymore’s careers faded through the 1940s to early ‘50s. John Barrymore died in 1942 after years of declining health and scandals. Only Crawford managed to stay relevant into the latter half of the century, albeit with an unflattering image. Grand Hotel assembled some of the best stars to transition from silent to sound, only for them to disappear as waves of new stars were being made.

Grand Hotel’s greatest legacy will forever be the path it created. Whenever you see a trailer with an onslaught of names at the end, or bear witness to whatever concoction David O. Russell puts together next, Grand Hotel will forever be the first. From Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, to whatever Tom Hooper’s Cats was. Recognizable names, intersecting stories and a cast that makes you go “wait they’re in this too?” Grand Hotel didn’t invent the genre, but it was the first to assemble the pieces into a sensational hit.

Grand Hotel was the burst that showed the power of a cast filled with stars. Writer Blake Goble describes it as “the original Ocean’s Eleven for its star power.” And even with recent star studded ensembles like Don’t Look Up, Amsterdam, Barbie, Babylon and Oppenheimer, it’s hard to imagine a film’s cast creating the same frenzy now as it did with Grand Hotel. The magic of seeing the biggest names in the industry together in one picture just doesn’t impress anymore. It’s not as much about the amount of big names, but studios continue to see the quantity of the most famous performers as a point of pride. Maybe it’s just not the right combination yet. Maybe next time, maybe that story, maybe if it comes out in the right off-season between Marvel movies. It’s the same old formula, but all the ingredients have changed.

“Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go, nothing ever happens.” Stone’s final line is meant to be ironic, we just watched entire stories start and end while the building stayed the same. He has gone numb to the tumult of others’ lives and the impacts they may have, because their stories will always eventually leave the walls of the hotel. All-star casts have become so commonplace that we have gone numb as well, forgetting a time when that was a remarkable feat. And Grand Hotel is remarkable in the place it holds in film history. It was the best 1932 had to offer simply by existing. It was an original during a time when filmmaking was still a new medium ripe for exploration. The people who witnessed its impact may have come and gone, but film history should remember. For 90 years we have seen the way it changed the craft without acknowledging where it started.


Leila Jordan is a writer and former jigsaw puzzle world record holder. To talk about all things movies, TV, and useless trivia you can find her @galaxyleila