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Five different characters staying at the luxury hotel over the course of two nights intersect in unexpected ways. Linked together by varying forms of desperation, the characters include Grusinskaya, a fading suicidal ballerina; the charming and destitute Baron Von Gaigern who plans to rob Grusinskaya of some valuable pearls; Mr. Preysing, the ruthless industrialist whose entire future rides on a business merger that may not go through; Kringelein, a meek, terminally ill accountant who intends to blow his life savings living his last days in style; and Flaemmchen, an ambitious stenographer willing to do more than just take dictation to get ahead. All of their lives will change during their brief stay, some for the better, some for worse.
Director: Edmund Goulding
Writer: William A. Drake (adapted from the novel Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum)
Producer: Paul Bern
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Editing: Blanche Sewell
Cast: Greta Garbo (Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (Baron Von Gaigern), Joan Crawford (Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (Otto Kringelein), Lewis Stone (Doctor Otternschlag), Jean Hersholt (Senf, the porter).
Why GRAND HOTEL is Essential
The multiple intersecting storylines featuring different characters in Grand Hotel was a revelation in how to tell a cinematic story and had a huge influence on how films were made after its release in 1932.
Production Head Irving Thalberg's idea to use all of MGM's greatest star power in the same film was a revolutionary idea. With the film's publicity boasting "the greatest cast ever assembled," Grand Hotel delivered all of the studio's top talent at the same time. It was a calculated gamble that paid off and soon became a common format for big budget studio pictures. It was Hollywood's first all-star film. Grand Hotel was a risk that turned into a huge hit for MGM. Its success gave a boost to the careers of all involved, and helped MGM survive an economic depression.
Grand Hotel was influential in contributing to the ongoing myth of the Great Garbo, remembered forever as talented and beautiful as well as complex, elusive, and aloof. Her Grand Hotel character Grusinskaya's oft repeated "I want to be alone" line became synonymous with the actress herself and contributed to her mysterious image that followed her throughout her life.
This is the only film in which Greta Garbo and John Barrymore ever starred together. As two of the greatest actors and stars ever to grace the silver screen, seeing them play off of each other is a rare and delightful treat.
Joan Crawford's role as the ambitious stenographer Flaemmchen in Grand Hotel was responsible for giving her career a big boost as she moved towards A-list stardom as a leading lady. Having successfully transitioned to sound film, this part gave her the chance to hold her own against some of Hollywood's heaviest hitters, including Garbo, one of her idols.
by Andrea Passafiume
Grand Hotel (1932)
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
Grand Hotel (1932)
Principal photography on Grand Hotel commenced in December 1931 soon after the New York stage play closed. There was a great deal of publicity surrounding the production with excitement building over what promised to be a star-studded box office event.
Much ado was made in the press about the numerous big stars in the cast and how there was sure to be a tumultuous clash of egos. Some journalists referred to this as the "Battle of the Stars," as if they were trying to deliberately egg on the perceived animosity to create a more exciting story.
The more peaceful reality was that the actors were all extremely professional and did their utmost to accommodate and respect each other and allow everyone a chance to shine. It also didn't hurt that director Edmund Goulding lived up to his reputation as a diplomatic handler of big personalities.
MGM studio brass wondered how their top female star Greta Garbo would get along with John Barrymore in their many scenes together. They were both big personalities, and she had her well-known peculiar quirks. As luck would have it, there was no need to worry as the two hit it off from the beginning. On the very first day of filming together, Garbo reportedly greeted Barrymore warmly by saying, "This is a great day for me. How I have looked forward to working with John Barrymore!" Barrymore supposedly was won over immediately. "My wife and I think you are the loveliest woman in the world," he replied.
By all accounts Garbo and Barrymore worked extremely well together and were quite generous to each other as actors. Garbo typically didn't socialize much when she was working and kept to herself, but she made an exception in Barrymore's case as she regularly enjoyed talking with him during their down time. Years later Barrymore described Garbo as "a fine lady and a fine actress." Garbo described him as "one of the very few who had the divine madness without which a great artist cannot work or live."
Greta Garbo was true to her sometimes aloof and temperamental reputation in other ways, however. Most notably, she detested having any outsiders watching her at work while she was filming and had no qualms about having people removed from the set, no matter who they were. "...it would have been the same if it had been Jesus Christ," said co-star Lionel Barrymore according to Mark A. Vieira's 2005 biography Greta Garbo: A Cinematic Legacy. "She didn't do it to be snotty. She was frightened. She was like a cat that went under the bed when a stranger came into the room." Director Edmund Goulding agreed. "In the studios she is nervous," he said according to the 1995 Barry Paris book Garbo. "Rather like a racehorse at the post--actually trembling, hating onlookers. At the first click of the camera, she starts literally pouring forth Garbo into the lens."
26-year-old Joan Crawford tackled her own meaty role of Flaemmchen with her characteristic gusto and confidently held her own with the rest of the more established cast. Crawford was always in awe of the mighty Garbo's presence and eager to talk to her idol, but since the film never called for their characters to be in the same room at the same time, there was little chance of the two spending much time together. Crawford was also too intimidated to ever directly approach Garbo, who coolly kept her distance. One day, however, Crawford was surprised when Garbo spoke to her first. It was an experience that Crawford called "thrilling" when Garbo stopped her on the stairs at MGM and said, "We're in the same picture. How sad I am that we haven't one scene together." It was a story that Crawford proudly told many times throughout her career, the thrill of that moment always evident. In later years Crawford described Grand Hotel as "a grand film, a grand experience in my life. I'm so proud. I was thrilled when I heard I was going to be doing it. I only wanted to be worthy."
When shooting was completed in mid-February of 1932, MGM promoted the film heavily, its trailer boasting "the greatest cast ever assembled."
by Andrea Passafiume
Grand Hotel (1932)
Greta Garbo's status as a screen legend became official when MGM billed hersolely by her last name in Grand Hotel, the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1932. It was a distinction previously earned by such stagegreats as Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. Beyond her impressivebilling, the film also cemented her image as the most reclusive star of alltime, even giving her the line that would forever be associated with her,"I want to be alone."
Garbo's billing was one of the tools MGM used to induce her to take part inthe screen's first all-star epic. At 27, she thought she was already tooold to convincingly play a prima ballerina. Nor was she pleased whenstudio chief Louis B. Mayer decided not to cast her former co-star andone-time fiancee, John Gilbert, as the jewel thief who breaks into Garbo'shotel suite to rob her and ends up falling in love. Instead, the role wentto John Barrymore, who was so pleased to be working with the Swedish starand his brother Lionel that he gladly signed a three-picture contract withMGM.
Production chief Irving Thalberg had planned Grand Hotel asHollywood's first all-star feature from the moment he read Vicki Baum'snovel about the intertwining fates of five desperate people staying at aposh Berlin hotel. Plans were already underway for a Broadway version, soThalberg got the studio to invest $15,000 in the show in return for filmrights. When it ran for over a year on Broadway, Grand Hotel posteda profit before the cameras even started rolling.
Garbo wasn't the only member of the all-star cast to express reservationsabout the film. Cast as a romantic secretary tempted to sleep her way tothe top, Joan Crawford was afraid she would be lost among the film'shigh-powered stars and also worried that her character's best scenes wouldbe cut by the censors. Thalberg assured her that the scenes would befilmed in good taste (they were later cut in several states) then orderedher to take the role.
Wallace Beery objected too, noting that the role of a villainousbusinessman was too far from the jovial roughnecks he'd played in filmslike The Champ (1931) and Min and Bill (1930): "He doesn't murder women,but he's lower than anybody I've ever played!" Thalberg finally won himover by agreeing to let him use a German accent to distance the characterfrom the roles he normally played.
Most Hollywood insiders predicted the high-powered cast would spend most oftheir time upstaging each other. That was expected when John and LionelBarrymore got together. Their upstaging contest in Arsene Lupin (1932),another film about a glamorous jewel thief, had inspired Thalberg to castthem together in Grand Hotel. But Crawford was having none of it.After watching them pull their tricks in a few scenes, she laid down thelaw: "All right, boys, but don't forget that the American public wouldrather have one look at my back than watch both of your faces for an hour."Beery tried to steal scenes, too, mainly by ad-libbing in an effort tothrow Crawford off. When she complained to director Edmund Goulding, apainstaking craftsman with a strong reputation as a woman's director, heordered Beery to play the role as written.
There was no question of upstaging in Garbo's scenes with John Barrymore.They were so thrilled to be working together that they went out of theirway to help each other. Knowing that Barrymore thought the left side of hisface was more attractive and expressive than the right, she spent her lunchbreak rearranging the furniture in her character's hotel suite to favor his"great profile." When he sensed her insecurity in their love scenes, hewhispered to her repeatedly, "You are the most enticing woman in the world."After the scene was over, she publicly announced, "You have no idea whatit means to me to play opposite so perfect an artist." And even thoughGarbo was notorious for going home as soon as her shots were done, duringGrand Hotel she stayed on the set to talk with Barrymore, doting onhis stories about the theatre. The publicity-shy Swede even agreed to posefor publicity shots with him.
The all-star casting paid off when Grand Hotel opened to gloriousreviews and strong box office, bringing back almost five times its cost inits first year of release. It also became the only film to win the BestPicture Oscar® without earning any other nominations. Many historianshave suggested that feat as a sign of the picture's greatest strength.Thalberg and his cast had created such a seamless piece of entertainmentthat no one element stood out more than any other. MGM tried to makelightning strike twice with a 1945 remake, Weekend at the Waldorf,with Ginger Rogers in the Garbo role, but the film came nowhere near themagic of the original. Decades later, there were two stage musicalversions: a flop called At the Grand in 1958 with musical diva JoanDeiner as the ballerina and the Broadway hit Grand Hotel: TheMusical, starring Liliane Montevecchi, in 1989.
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg
Director: Edmund Goulding
Screenplay: William A. Drake
Based on the play and novel Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum and theAmerican version by Drake
Cinematography: William Daniels
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Score: William Axt, Charles Maxwell
Cast: Greta Garbo (Grusinskaya), John Barrymore (Baron Felix von Geigern), Joan Crawford (Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (General Director Preysing), Lionel Barrymore (Otto Kringelein), Lewis Stone (Dr. Otternschlag), Jean Hersholt (Senf), Rafaela Ottiano (Suzette).
BW-113m. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Frank Miller