Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
Release Date(s)1932 (January 8, 2013)
Studio(s)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Home Video)
“Velvet stairs, easy chairs, perfumed air gently blowing… Chandeliers, light appears, burning bright, crystal glowing… People come, people go, wave of life overflowing… Come begin, in old Berlin, you’re in the Grand Hotel!” That’s how composer-lyricist Maury Yeston began the 1989 Broadway musical Grand Hotel, and he perfectly summed up the elegance and mystique of the fictional place that had captivated fans since Vicki Baum first published her novel Menschen im Hotel (People in a Hotel) in 1929. It wasn’t long before Baum adapted her novel into a stage play in Germany, and again not long before it was translated for American audiences. The New York production led to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s star-studded, Academy Award-winning 1932 film version entitled Grand Hotel, which has recently been released for the first time on Blu-ray by Warner Home Video.
When someone nostalgically laments the lack of glamour and allure in modern-day Hollywood, chances are that person is thinking of a motion picture like director Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel. Producer Irving Thalberg’s notion to cast not just one bankable star but a number of them in one film was a landmark one for the cinema. As for Grand Hotel itself, it not only yielded the hit Broadway musical (which began life in 1958 as At The Grand, some thirty-plus years before making it to New York) but a whole sub-genre of movies in which characters interact, and lives overlap, in unexpected ways in one setting. And the bustling, vast setting of Grand Hotel, an opulent deco palace, was every bit as glamorous as the stars playing on it: Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery and Lionel Barrymore.
William A. Drake’s screenplay (based on his Thalberg-financed stage play of Baum’s novel) recounted the stories of five guests over a two-day period at Berlin’s Grand Hotel, at the height of that city’s decadence. Grusinskaya (Garbo) is an emotionally fragile ballerina. Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a meek, terminally ill bookkeeper determined to see how the other half lives and make his short life “a gay one.” Baron Felix von Gaigern (John Barrymore) is part of that “other half,” but has fallen on hard times and has resorted to thievery at the Grand Hotel. Young stenographer Flaemmchen (Crawford) comes to the Grand Hotel with hopes of one day becoming a movie star. Industrial magnate Preysing (Beery) is Kringelein’s ruthless and cruel employer. Before the film reaches its final moments, each character’s life is irrevocably altered. The hotel’s doctor ironically comments in the famous final line: “The Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens.”
John Barrymore cuts a dashing figure as the Baron, igniting sparks with Crawford’s Flaemmchen (“I don’t suppose you’d take some dictation for me sometime – would you?”) and Garbo’s Grusinskaya (“I’ve never seen anything in my life as beautiful as you are… Oh, please, let me stay.”) The only 27 year old Garbo’s despairing, tired and reclusive ballerina’s “I want to be alone” response, of course, became one of the most immortal lines in all of cinema, and the steamy sequences with her and Barrymore are imbued with great intimacy, especially considering the era. Crawford’s scenes, too, pushed the envelope, so much that the actress actually feared that cuts would be made. John’s brother Lionel Barrymore has some of the most touching and humorous moments in the film as he discovers the pleasures of inebriation, gambling and most famously, dancing. Flaemmchen’s awkward dance with Kringelein (“For the first time in my life, I’m happy!”) remains affecting, as does his confrontation with Beery as the heavy, Preysing. This dramatic sequence underlines the transformative power of the hotel. Indeed, very few scenes and shots take place outside of its walls or far from its revolving door entrance. The revolving door, too, is as significant as the doctor’s repeated assertions that nothing ever changes. Even as the plot turns dark and we find a deeply-rooted desperation fueling many of the characters, there’s a certain air of nature and inevitability to it all. When Grusinskaya makes her final exit from the movie with a note of hope, we know that her relative peace is destined to be shattered. But then a birth serves as a positive balance. Kringelein has another unwittingly poignant line near the end: “There’s a grand hotel everywhere in the world,” he tells Flaemmchen as they prepare to embark to another destination. Possibilities are still in the air, as life – with its births, deaths, tragedies and joys – merely goes on in microcosms like the Grand Hotel.
The new Blu-ray has a clean, if soft, image. The film was shot by William H. Daniels, who superbly lit the film for black-and-white and designed his work to be projected on a large screen. Naturally Grand Hotel loses something even on the largest of television sets, but thankfully a good, natural grain pattern remains even if the picture quality isn’t optimal. Sound is less pleasing, with a noticeable hiss throughout the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono audio track. Dialogue and score are both decently represented, though, and the latter primarily consists of adapted classical themes from the likes of Rachmaninoff and Strauss. (Sometimes you’ll wish the “hotel band” would stop playing.) English SDH subtitles are included.
All of the extras from Warner’s 2005 DVD edition have been carried over, and are presented in standard definition on the BD. There are no new special features here. That said, the assortment of features is a solid one. Jeffrey Vance and Mark A. Vieira offer a commentary track, and further background on the film is provided via the 12-minute featurette Checking Out: Grand Hotel. Narrated by Tom Kane, it economically recounts the journey from page to stage to screen with some interesting tidbits, such as most of the actors’ reluctance to take on their parts or the fact that the film cost a then-staggering $700,000.00, or $80 million in 2004 dollars. Special emphasis is also placed on Garbo’s role in the film and her famous “I want to be alone.” In addition to Checking Out, you’ll find a fun newsreel chronicling the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre and a minute-long theatre announcement promoting the pre-film stage show there. Another valuable extra is the 1933 Vitaphone spoof Nothing Ever Happens, a musical parody with characters such as Prizering, Scramchen and Waistline. Trailers are present both for Grand Hotel and Metro’s 1945 remake Week-End at the Waldorf.
Doubtless you’ll want to spend a couple of hours in the ritzy, glamorous company of the Barrymores, Crawford, Beery and even the solitary Garbo with Warner’s BD of Grand Hotel.
- Joe Marchese