Sunday, October 31, 2010

It Takes A While To Get Going, But Grand Hotel Is Actually Remarkably Satisfying.

The Good: Interesting characters, Some great acting, Moments of direction, DVD bonus features
The Bad: PACING is WAY off, One too many characters.
The Basics: Despite a problematically slow beginning, Grand Hotel becomes a wonderful character study that develops several people in conflict over the course of a weekend in Berlin.

I have a real thing for Modernist nihilism and when I find a film that presents it well, I tend to be quite enthusiastic about it. After all, one of my all-time favorite films is Magnolia (click here for my review of that!) so when I sat down to Grand Hotel without any preconceptions, I was actually quite excited to realize there were some parallels with Magnolia. Like the contemporary work, the 1932 Grand Hotel included a lot of characters and the setting provides for random collisions between them.

As is my usual disclaimer when I review a film based upon another work, this review is a review of Grand Hotel, the 1932 film, not the novel or the stage play. While Grand Hotel is based upon a play based upon a novel, I've neither read the book or play or seen a stage production performed. Still, it is very easy to see this film as a stage play on film because of how visually sedate the movie is. Even so, director Edmund Goulding keeps the film interesting because the characters are almost always moving and the film does not have bad cuts or awkward framing issues like so many other early films.

The doctor at the Grand Hotel in Berlin notes that nothing happens at the hotel on a weekend when the famous Russian dancer Grusinskaya is staying at the hotel. While the depressed dancer is sequestered in advance of her shows - which are not at all selling out - a German businessman, Preysing, works desperately to insure a merger with another company goes through. Preysing employs the stenographer, Flaemmchen, who has spent some time flirting with the Baron and also avoiding his advances. But the setting for trouble is set when the terminally ill Kringelein checks in. A former accountant for Preysing, he is dismayed to see his employer living it up while he himself is in his last days.

The Baron, though, is not all that he seems to be. He owes a large sum of money to some shady operatives and he works as a catburgler within the hotel. However, while trying to rob the dancer, he witnesses her preparing to kill herself and he reveals himself to her. The two spend the night awake, talking, and falling in love. Still, pressure is put on the Baron to come up with the money. While Kringelein tries to enjoy his last days, the Baron sees an alternate way to come up with the money, but will he have the heart to steal from the dying man, even if it means losing the affection of Flaemmchen?

It is only after forty-five minutes that I even began to care about the answer to that question. Grand Hotel has an almost impossibly-long setup and the generally aimless quality of the introductions of the characters does not endear them to the viewer. Indeed, from the way the movie begins with plot exposition masquerading as character with the primary characters talking on the telephone to important people outside the hotel, one would assume the porter would have the same weight in the film as Preysing or the Baron. Instead, though, the porter is a distraction at the beginning and end and helps to provide a general sense that there is a world outside the Grand Hotel.

The movie takes a shift, though, through the Baron and Kringelein. Kringelein is a generally likable guy whose desperation to connect with anyone in any way in his last days is wrenching to watch. Kringelein instantly attracted me with his open despising of capitalism. Kringelein is as much a socialist metaphor as he is a viable character in his railings against the working conditions at Preysing's firm. He asks the Humanist questions about why Preysing has more inherent value than he does and he rightly challenges Preysing for Flaemmchen's affections. When Kringelein appears to be exactly what he appears to, the film becomes instantly interesting to anyone with a love of sociology because he is challenging the capitalist norm and presenting a deliciously liberal viewpoint.

Conversely, the movie becomes interesting when the Baron is both not what he initially appears to be and exactly what the viewer hopes he might be. The Baron first appears on screen as a snob with a small dog demanding a bellhop to take it for a long walk, but then softens into a flirtatious character who befriends Kringelein. When he is revealed as a catburgler he piques the viewer's interest again (as does director Goulding with some very ambitious shots of the Baron leaping from balcony to the outer wall of the hotel to the next balcony!) and when he turns out to be a decent guy who is willing to put his debts aside for the love of a woman, the movie is truly charming. I waited pretty much the entire film for the Baron to make another turn that was more self-serving, but he becomes exactly what we hope he might, establishing the cliche (metaphorically) of the "hooker with a heart of gold" for other works.

I am not a huge fan of old movies, but the cast of Grand Hotel is quite extraordinary. While Greta Garbo makes good use of her few scenes as the dancer, John Barrymore rules the film as the Baron. Barrymore has a great ability to emote with his eyes and to carry scenes with his sidelong glances and smooth delivery of his lines. He is exactly as charming as his character is supposed to be and his performance carries the depth of the character without the role ever seeming fractured or unlike himself. He and Joan Crawford (Flaemmchen) have great on-screen chemistry and their scenes are wonderfully steamy. Even so, Barrymore sells the unlikely change of heart with the Baron falling for Grusinskaya perfectly.

Wallace Beery and Lewis Stone turn in wonderful performances as Preysing and the Doctor, respectfully, with Beery pulling off a great bluff as Preysing that experienced cinephiles might see through, but are likely to enjoy just as much. Lionel Barrymore draws the eye in virtually every scene he is in, though, as Kringelein. Lionel Barrymore has a plaintive wail and an excited delivery that he plays between when his character is not making an emotional outburst. He holds his own against Beery and creates a pitiable and pleasant character throughout.

The film has the feel of a play and the viewer has to pay attention to many different characters, but for those who stick with it, the character study pays off. Things DO happen at the Grand Hotel, but the viewer just needs to hang in long enough for them to begin and then conclude. While I worried that Grand Hotel might be so nihilistic as to ultimately not have a strong end, I was wrong and while there is the sense that this is just one weekend at the Grand Hotel, it becomes pretty much the only weekend we care about. The characters dominate and they are memorable and it is easy to see why this movie is considered a classic.

On DVD, Grand Hotel comes with a documentary on the making of the film. As well, there is a short that leads into the movie, a newsreel that played before this film when it originally was in theaters. The movie trailers for Grand Hotel and the 1945 Week-end At The Waldorf are on the disc as well. The documentary it thorough enough that it makes up for the lack of a commentary track and the bonus features bounce the otherwise slow film up.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here! Please check it out!]

For other period pieces, please check out my reviews of:
L.A. Confidential
Wall Street


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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