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The idea for the stellar cinematic classic Grand Hotel began when author Vicki Baum published her international bestselling novel Menschen im Hotel in 1929. Reportedly based on her experiences working in two well-known Berlin hotels, the absorbing story explored a handful of disparate characters whose paths crossed while staying at a luxury hotel at the same time.

One person who always believed that the book had the potential to be turned into a terrific movie was famed MGM Production Head Irving Thalberg. In fact, turning Menshen im Hotel (which loosely translates into People at the Hotel) became a pet project for Thalberg, and he was determined to do it right.

Thalberg purchased the rights to the book in 1930 and worked out a deal in which MGM would help finance a Broadway stage version that also gave the most powerful studio in Hollywood the rights to eventually make a film of it. Presenting the newly translated play Grand Hotel to New York theater audiences was a way to test out the response to it before moving forward with what was sure to be a lavish big budget film production.

When the play Grand Hotel opened on Broadway in November 1930 it was an immediate hit and ran for over a year; audiences responded to the fresh approach to storytelling. Irving Thalberg was always able to see the cinematic possibilities of such a story, and it was an idea that excited him from the get-go. "The swift-moving, episodic character of [this] play will probably serve as a pattern for many films," Thalberg said in an interview. "I don't mean that the exact theme of Grand Hotel will be copied, though this may happen, but that the form and mood will be followed. For instance, we may have such settings as a train, where all the action happens in a journey from one city to another; or action that takes place during the time a boat sails from one harbor and culminates with the end of a trip. The general idea will be that of a drama induced by the chance meeting of a group of conflicting and interesting personalities."

With MGM's film version of Grand Hotel, it wouldn't just be the storytelling that would be revolutionary, but also the casting. Irving Thalberg had the inspired idea to use not just one but nearly all of MGM's biggest movie stars in the film and give them all a chance to shine. He wanted Grand Hotel to be the first all-star cast ever assembled at the same time in a single sophisticated big-budget drama. It was a fresh and original idea, but also a risky one to sink every powerful resource into a single film. The hope was that if the film succeeded, it would help usher in a new form of storytelling for films, give everyone's career a boost, and help keep the studio's bottom line healthy in the midst of a crippling depression that was negatively impacting the box office.

After a screenplay was adapted from Vicki Baum's story by William A. Drake, Thalberg's top order of business was to work with the film's producer Paul Bern to select the perfect ensemble cast. The legendary Greta Garbo was tapped to play the fading Russian ballerina Grusinskaya. Playing the part of an emotionally fragile dancer was something of a departure from her usual strong characters, but she was willing to approach it with gusto and make it her own. Garbo was at the top of her career at that point and was able to wield great power that came with her legendary mystique as MGM's most prized female asset of the time.

One thing that Garbo wanted--and Garbo usually got what she wanted--was for her old lover and dear friend John Gilbert to play opposite her as the Baron von Gaigern. Gilbert, who had once been a top MGM star in silent pictures, was having trouble transitioning to sound, and several mediocre film projects had left his career on a path of sharp decline. Some said that MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who reportedly clashed frequently with Gilbert, was personally trying to sabotage his career.

According to MGM story editor Samuel Marx, the decision on whom to cast as the Baron was not easy. "An immense amount of soul-searching went on in meetings between Thalberg and [Paul] Bern over the actor who was to portray the dissolute gambler, Baron von Gaigern," he said according to Mark A. Vieira's 2005 book Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy. "John Gilbert, struggling with a career that had plummeted with the coming of talkies, told his friends that he was born for it, that many nights of drinking and carousing had been done in the company of Thalberg and Bern. They knew that he could act the part without rehearsal."

While Thalberg was open to the idea of casting Gilbert, he soon began having second thoughts according to Marx due in part to Gilbert's unstable behavior and wild mood swings. Ultimately the part was given to another legendary figure at MGM: John Barrymore, nicknamed "The Great Profile." Gilbert was reportedly crushed by this revelation and Garbo was very disappointed. However, no one could deny that the idea of pairing Garbo and Barrymore together for the very first time was an intriguing one. What would happen on screen when these two gigantic talents worked together? The thought was too good to pass up.

There was serious talk of legendary silent comedian Buster Keaton playing the pivotal role of the dying Kringelein and Clark Gable, an up-and-comer at the time, playing the heartless industrialist Preysing. However, in the end the role of Kringelein went to John Barrymore's accomplished brother Lionel, and that of Preysing went to Wallace Beery. Known primarily for playing loveable benign brutes, Beery was reportedly resistant in the beginning to playing such an unsympathetic character as Preysing. "He doesn't murder women," he reportedly said, "but he's lower than anybody I've ever played." Lewis Stone and Jean Hersholt were also added to play the battle-scarred Dr. Otternschlag and Senf, respectively, the porter who is awaiting the birth of his first child.

Grand Hotel's only other major female role besides Garbo's was MGM's own rising star Joan Crawford in the part of the ambitious stenographer Flaemmchen. Crawford was thrilled at the prospect of working on such a prestigious project with such a distinguished cast. However, she was especially excited to be working in a film with Greta Garbo, one of her few true acting idols. Crawford admired Garbo greatly, and even though their two characters would not have any scenes together, she was happy at the idea of any project that would put them in the same film. With dreams of one day having a career as distinguished as Garbo's, Crawford possessed the poise, confidence and talent that any actress going up against Garbo on the big screen would need, and Flaemmchen would be the most important part in her career up to that point.

With an incredible cast secured for Grand Hotel, Thalberg assigned Edmund Goulding to direct. Not only was Goulding a talented and respected director, but he also had a reputation for being diplomatic and being able to handle egos, conflicts and strong personalities with great diplomacy. With practically all of MGM's top talent together on one soundstage, his work would be cut out for him.

by Andrea Passafiume

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