Better than just a good transcription of the Vicki Baum stage play. A commercial picture of high box office potential, first by assembling the most impressive aggregation so far of strictly Bradstreet screen names, and then by filming the play practically unaltered in form, but played along broader and probably simpler acting lines.
Result is a picture that may not entirely please the theatregoers who were fascinated by its deft stage direction and restrained acting, but it will attract and hold the wider public to which it is now addressed. Picture is of road show quality, probably the first genuine high-scale buy the trade has created in a couple of years, both from the cast names and from the effectiveness of the dramatic presentation.
Considering what it has accomplished in sales value, the picture’s cost probably was not excessive. The screen rights, for one thing, were a bargain: Metro financed the stage production and in return got an option on it at a reported price of $35,000, the best buy in filmdom in many a year. What the star cast cost in salaries will come back promptly, and the production cost outside these items apparently was not greatly above those of an average first-grade release. All of which considerations promise richly in the final checkup on profit margin, the big problem of producers for the last year.
Thing that distinguishes “Grand Hotel” is that it is the first big splurge for a long time that doesn’t lean over backward on the artistic side. It’s basic human appeal can’t go wrong with the screen fans, as was the case in “The Guardsman” and again in “Street Scene,” both notable achievements in studio craftsmanship but not great moneymakers. Here is a picture specifically for the whole theatre, and paced and shaded for the widest possible circulation.
Story is many angled in characters and incidents of sure-fire human appeal. There is the romantic grip of the actress-nobleman lovers; there is the eternally successful element of the triumph of the underdog in the figure of Kringelein, the humble bookkeeper doomed to approaching death and determined to spend his remaining days in a splurge of luxury in the Grand Hotel, and there is the everlasting Cinderella element in the not-so-good stenographer who at last finds a friend and protector in the dying Kringelein.
Given these roles, ordinary players would be good. This group of stars make the play something of a screen epic in a season of mediocre celluloid footage.
First honors again go to Lionel Barrymore for an inspired performance as the soon-to-die bookkeeper, a character drawn with bold outlines and etched in with a multitude of niceties of detail. Shabby, abject and querulous at the start, this Kringelein expands in the exciting adventures of his luxurious surroundings and the companionship of the big city hotel, long the dream of his famished poverty. Barrymore doesn’t lose a mite of the progress in development of the portrait, a performance that goes the gamut of human comedy to half-expressed tragedy.
Garbo gives the role of the dancer something of artificiality, risking a trace of acting swagger, sometimes stagey, but for that reason probably giving it a touch of theatrical vigor that the fans will like. Her clothes are ravishing in the well-known Garbo style, and tricky camera treatment sets her off shrewdly for a romantically compelling performance.
John Barrymore is back where he belongs as the down-at-heel but glamorous baron, going about debonairly in a career of crime but with a heart of gold that will not stoop to small meanness. The role here is devoid of flesh-and-blood reality, but the Barrymore profile makes it an opulent edition of a conventionally polite lover.
There remains the stenographer Miss Flaemmchen, not the most fortunate casting for Joan Crawford, who is rather too capable a type to successfully play the unhappy plaything of fate required of the stenographer, however shrewdly she manages the part. Treatment here departs somewhat from the stage original. For screen purposes this Flaemmchen is naughty, with a degree of discretion that should meet the approval of Will Hays, but, more important, will win the role vastly more sympathy from the femme fans. The familiar Crawford knees are employed with extreme restraint, by the way, and the whole character takes on all in sympathetic appeal that it loses in verity.
Wallace Beery is at home in the part of the German industrialist, a grandiose but pathetic figure in his struggles with business rivals and with his clumsy essay at the gayety and reckless living of the unfamiliar capital.
Grouped around these leading people are a galaxy of solid film names in subordinate parts. Mere bits are allotted to Lewis Stone as the world-weary dr. Otternschlag, Jean Hersholt as the head porter, Tully Marshall as a visiting business man and Ferdinand Gottschalk as the stage star’s manager – all mere bits but cameolike in finish and authority.
Fascinating atmosphere is woven through the story, reflecting the beehive of a fashionable foreign hotel (it’s in Berlin) – its gaiety, sorrow, strivings and just aimless bustle. There are spirited glimpses of a vast hotel switchboard with a jumble of words; the lobby is angled as a huge round well of many levels and the marble floored exchange at the bottom; the crowded bar and dance floor furnish the background for a strong sequence. Nothing is said or done directly to bring out the circumstances of this exciting locale except in the plaint of the bored old doctor: “People coming, people going – always coming and going – and nothing ever happens.”
The drama unfolds with a speed that never loses its grip, even for the extreme length of nearly two hours, and there is a captivating pattern of unexpected comedy that runs through it all, always fresh and always pat.
1931/1932: Outstanding Production (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)