Grand Hotel was the first film in history to fully realize the power of the Hollywood star system — the first all-star ensemble Hollywood film. Louis Mayer boasted that MGM had “more stars than in the heavens,” but Grand Hotel was the first film to put actual constellations onscreen.
Greta Garbo, John and Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery: the sheer extravagance of so many stars — along with the luxurious setting of the hotel itself, with its stunning, spectacularly filmed cylindrical art-deco atrium — captivated Depression-era audiences, and set a precedent for the portmanteau genre of anthology storytelling (often revolving around a single location), such as the works of Robert Altman and Neil Simon.
While the storytelling style remains popular today, the melodrama is undeniably dated. Still, for fans of Golden Age Hollywood, it’s fascinating to watch the legendary Garbo and fresh-faced Crawford orbiting in turn around John Barrymore, Beery and Lionel Barrymore jostling over Crawford on the dance floor, and so forth.
Garbo, a fragile Russian ballerina, and John B., a seductive baron and gentleman thief, are the top-billed stars and have the most glamorous storyline, but Crawford and Lionel B. just about steal the film as, respectively, an ambitious stenographer and a mild-mannered accountant with a terminal illness. Beery is entertaining as the ruthless villain, a desperate industrialist on the edge of financial ruin.
Grand Hotel has the dubious distinction of being the only film in history to win Best Picture without a single other nomination. It’s also the film in which Garbo actually utters the immortal words “I want to be alone,” and the hustle and bustle of the jostling storylines are bookended by the famous line, “People come, people go … nothing ever happens.”
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.