Grand Hotel: From the Depths of the Depression

There is perhaps no greater shaper of the economic course of the United States throughout the 20th, or American, Century as The Great Depression. Kicked off in late 1929 due to a catastrophic tumbling of the stock market, the Depression rocked the world over, forced millions out of work and radically changed the attitudes of many Americans. With the election of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, and the subsequent passage of the New Deal in 1933, American began a slow recovery from a downturn that didn’t really end until the advent of World War II from 1941 to 1945.

 

But prior to this recovery, the circumstances for America thanks to Herbert Hoover’s disastrous actions (including the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act)  were not only bad, but dire. Twenty-five percent unemployment, a 33 percent decrease in manufacturing and crippling deflation put the people, the country, and the world at large in a horrible situation. In Germany, for example, the Depression resulted in 30 percent unemployment by 1932 and I firmly believe that the state of the German economy was the primary, if not the only reason that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933.

 

In the early going of the Depression, it’s reasonable to assume that the American populace was cynical about their future. When looking at Hollywood during that time, it’s pretty evident to see that cynicism reflected. Sixty to 80 million Americans still attended the moving pictures every week throughout the 1930s and Hollywood made sure to put our films that reflected the views of the majority of Americans during that time. Enter Grand Hotel, the Edmund Goulding-directed fifth winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 1931/1932 Academy Awards. We haven’t gone back this far since we looked at The Broadway Melody in 1927/1928, years before the Depression.

 

Sure, we’ve seen other films from the 1930s (It Happened One Night, You Can’t Take it With You, The Life of Emile Zola, Gone with the Wind) but we haven’t seen a film like this yet. In fact, I’d never seen a film from the pit of the Great Depression.

 

Grand Hotel is the only Best Picture winner to take the award after being nominated for Best Picture and nothing else. Yet, the performances of the actors and the cinematography didn’t really matter to The Academy at the time. What mattered was what the film represented, how it reflected an American cynicism, and the morals taught by it. At times, the film is a stereotypical old film, with a brutal depiction of sexual harassment against women to a hilarious quick-witted quips. At others, it’s a deadly serious examination of wealth, violence, lust, and greed.

 

Now for the rest of the movie.

 

Plot

Grand Hotel takes place at the Grand Hotel, a stately, upscale hotel in Berlin, Germany (the same Germany with a 30 percent unemployment at the time) and it features a deep cast including Greta Garbo (Grusinskaya, the ballet dancer), John Barrymore (Baron Felix von Geigern, the broke baron and gambler), Joan Crawford (the stenographer Flaemmchen), Wallace Beery (General Director Preysing, the mogul), and Lionel Barrymore (whom we saw in You Can’t Take it With You; he plays the dying former accountant Otto Kringelein).

 

The movie begins with the various goings on at the hotel, laying the foundation for a very complicated plot. This is not an easy or simple plot to summarize, so hang with me. The ballerina, Grusinskaya, is the chief celebrity at the hotel, the Baron is broke and scrapes by gambling, Flaemmchen keeps notes for Preysing, who is in the hotel to close a business deal, and Kringelein is dying from an unnamed disease and he hopes to spend his last days living his best life.

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Through all their interactions with each other, soon each person’s lives, their own threads, become entangled with each other into one very strong narrative yarn.

 

Along the way, we feel love and warmth, with heartbreak and despair. Each of the characters in this story has a flaw, yet each one stands for something with conviction, though not all of their stances are good ones. This is a thick and detailed plot that needs all of the film’s 112 minutes to unfold. And it’s not until the end when you realize how good it actually was, how the foundation laid helps to give each of us a catharsis that the movie spends its time coaxing out of us. 1.

 

Writing/Dialogue

William A. Drake penned the screenplay for Grand Hotel and it is based off the 1929 German book Menschen im Hotel by Vicki Baum.

 

Like I said before the film is written like any typical early Hollywood movie, full of funny quips and flirtatious insults. The writing is at times similar to It Happened One Night and at others to The Life of Emile Zola.

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But Drake recognizes the challenge with a story like this and he takes an interesting, but well-done approach to introduce each character and lay the basis for the complex story. Rather than introducing them over time (see Stephen King’s incredible novel Under the Dome), Drake chooses to set the stage with each character in the middle of a conversation in the hotel’s various phone booths.

 

But perhaps the most interesting feature of the dialogue his how the characters speak. When most people, including me, think of films from the 1930s and 1940s, they tend to think of a particular, and somewhat peculiar accent that the actors use. This is called the Mid-Atlantic accent, and it’s a mixing of American and English accents. It’s not a native accent to either America or England, but instead it was taught to members of the upper class and theatrical performers at the time. To hear more of it, watch this video from How Stuff Works explaining the accent. Grand Hotel features little Mid-Atlantic accent that I could pick up on. Instead, the speakers spoke normally, or with German accents. This could be due to the film’s setting in German, rather than America. 1.

 

Sound

There was no composed score for Grand Hotel. Instead, the movie features limited classical music references. Otherwise, the movie is largely silent in terms of music.

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Additionally, there are little sound effects as the movie was recorded using microphone on-set, rather than dubbing of voices and sound effects in post-production. This is similar to other films of the the time, and it’s exactly what I expected. No complaints here. Therefore, the category gets full marks. 1.

 

Set Design

Grand Hotel was shot, like many other films of the day, primarily on soundstages on a Hollywood studio lot. This film happened to be shot at MGM Studios. The movie takes place exclusively in the Grand Hotel.

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From a set perspective, the world of Grand Hotel is both simple and compelling. Even though the movie was produced on a soundstage, the sets are large and, well, grand, but sparse on the details. And yet, the largess of the settings helped me to suspend the notions of realism. The sets conveyed a sense of largeness, making this feel more like a movie set, rather than a smaller theatre set. 1.

 

Cinematography

William H. Daniels was the director of photography for Grand Hotel.

 

From the moment the film begins, we’re confronted with motion by the camera. There are few static shots. The opening shot, in fact, is full of motion, showing an overhead shot of the very busy telephone switchboard in the hotel, while the camera trucks to the right over the heads of the operators.

 

Throughout Grand Hotel, we’re treated to TONS of movement from the camera. From tracking shots to pulls and pushes, to beautiful crane shots of the hotel’s various rooms, Grand Hotel keeps up engaged. This is a far cry from earlier films, like The Broadway Melody that features only static shots with everything happening in front of a camera.

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Additionally, Grand Hotel features a great variety of short choppy shots mixed with longer shots. I was a particular fan of the long shots in the hotel lobby. The lobby is shown to be very busy and chaotic. Carefully timed camera movements as well as perfectly paced blocking helped to demonstrate a great sense of set direction.

 

The cinematography is not all great though. There are several continuity errors throughout the film, due mostly to editing. However, I will give Grand Hotel a pass in this area. At that time, editing was done by a handful of low-paid workers (women, mostly) who literally cut the films into their final product. That’s not to say that they weren’t capable at all. In fact, some of the women editors were incredible. But the emphasis on editing was not the same as it is today. 1.

 

Acting

Like I mentioned above, Grand Hotel features a wide array of characters and actors in it’s very complicated story. Yet, none of them were nominated for an Academy Award at the time. But, in thinking about this film’s performances, probably the principle performance is from John Barrymore.

 

Barrymore (who is the brother of actor Lionel Barrymore who played Otto Kringelein in this movie) played Baron Felix von Geigern. The Baron, as he’s known throughout the film, probably has the greatest character arc of any of the players in the movie.

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The Baron has squandered his vast fortune and wanders the halls of the Grand Hotel, playing cards or stealing jewels at every chance he gets. He’s both charming and sympathetic, but also a rapscallion who seems to take pride in his degenerate ways. Early on in the movie, he befriends, and becomes quite fond of, Kringelein, the dying former accountant who used to work for General Director Preysing. Kringelein, a genuinely wonderful human being, brings out the best in the Baron, while the Baron tends to bring out the seedier side of Kringelein.

 

When the Baron comes across Flaemmchen (the stenographer) in the hallway, he’s immediately smitten with her, flirtatiously asking her to get drinks the following evening. The gesture from Flaemmchen is returned in kind and the two appear to be headed toward a love affair. Yet, when the Baron sneaks into the dancer Grusinskaya’s room steal her priceless jewelry, he overhears her speaking of suicide. She’s out of purpose in life and wants to end it, right there. The Baron appears and talks her out of it. The two instantly fall in love, and from there, the Baron tries to maintain a love affair with both women.

 

When Grusinskaya is going to leave Berlin for Vienna, the Baron pledges to go with her, but his pride keeps him from accepting Grusinskaya’s offer to pay for his train tickets. Yet, he’s broke, so he needs money. The Baron resorts to theft of Kringelein’s wallet (which he later returns out of guilt) and he eventually messes with a quick to anger Preysing.

 

When it comes to the Baron, his main downfall is greed. He gets wrapped up and consumed by it. He’s both warm and flawed and he’s a hard character to love and to not love. He gives purpose to Grusinskaya’s life but only after he tries to steal from her. He repents from his past sins and he still commits the same infractions. He’s swallowed up and spit out by fate, meeting a tragic end at the hands of a mad man. 1.

Directing

Edmund Goulding was the director for Grand Hotel. And, while he wasn’t even nominated for Best Director, his film and his creative vision is one that will surely live on in the hall of fame that I may or may not create during the course of this blog.

 

On the surface, Grand Hotel is not the best movie I’ve ever seen but it’s also good in its own right. Produced during the bottom an amazingly extraordinary time in world history, Grand Hotel sticks out to me not because of it’s other merits that I’ve listed above, but because of the complexity of the story and its very relevant themes to the early 1930s.

 

First of all, as I’ve said before, the film details the corrosive powers of greed. But, it’s more than that. The movie reflects a changing attitude about labor and the struggle of people against the greediest among us. This is most evident in some of the numerous heated exchanges between Kringelein and Preysing. Preysing, the mogul who is in the hotel to close a business deal, starts the movie being an honest businessman, but one who is desperate to save the company that has been his life for decades. Kringelein used to be his accountant. While Kringelein honestly labored for decades with low pay, only to see his health crumble before him, Preysing and his company continued to get bigger and richer, becoming a fat cat in his own right. Kringelein’s frustrations between he and Preysing, or the wealth gap between rank-and-file workers and the bosses of the companies that employ them (or let them go at the drop of a hat) is reflective of millions of low-wage workers who found themselves out of work, or faced with jobs that offered such low wages that many families were destined to flirt with starvation and poverty. Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a perfect example of this.

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These exchanges and the overall view of greed in the film show the kind of disdain that Americans most likely had for those with any kind of means during these early dark days of the Depression.

 

Second, the film deals with an idea that we all must face in our own lives: the prospect of our own failures. Each character has their own failures that he or she must contend with throughout this movie. Kringelein’s health is failing him. After all these years of being an honest man with an honest job, he’s scrimped and saved to help take care of himself. And yet, he has to pay for doctors that only tell him he has no hope. He’s dying. He deals with this by choosing to live life to the fullest, paying for the most expensive room, shedding his previous anxieties, and being an all-around happier person.

 

The Baron has squandered his wealth down the drain and now only subsists on a gambling addiction and stealing jewelry. His probably self-induced failure to help manage his money defines him and leads him down a path that no man should go.

 

Grusinskaya has all the wealth and fame that a person could want, but it’s not enough for her. She lives a shallow, superficial life, and has sunk into a very deep depression of her own, refusing to get out of bed and not putting her heart in her performance. The life she lives crushes her spirit and sends her into a pit of suicidal despair.

 

And finally, General Director Preysing is incredibly motivated to save his failing company through mergers. When he fails to do so, according to his plan, at least, Preysing is driven both by guilt and a new-found self doubt that he’s driven to jealousy, deception, and blind rage. His madness consumes him, becoming a despicable man along the way. His humanity, thanks to his greed and fiery passion to save his life’s work, is slowly stripped away until he’s nothing but a threadbare shell of himself, acting out of pure rage.

 

At the end of the day, Goulding shows us that failure is simply part of life, but it’s how we deal with it that defines us. We aren’t perfect as humans, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t learn from our failures. Grand Hotel is an amazing mirror that shines a reflection back to a more cynical side of life. The very personal nature of the film is one that’s not apparent when you see if for the first time, but shows itself after much deep thought. This film gets high marks from me, not because of its technical achievement, but because it’s window into the life of people during a very bleak, and defining, economic period in history. You may not love this film at first, but the depth of its characters, themes, and creative vision is one that should live on for all time. It’s a shame that the movie is often forgotten. This film is an early example of critical filmmaking and I loved it. 1.

 

Bonus Point

I’m going to give a bonus to plot and directing.

 

Final Score: 9/10

 

Oscar Facts

Grand Hotel won the fifth Academy Award for Best Picture on November 18, 1932 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It beat Arrowsmith, Bad Girl, The Champ, Five Star Final, and One Hour With You for Best Picture. The award was accepted by Irving Thalberg, producer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. To this day, it’s the only film to win Best Picture and receive no other nominations.

 

Other winners that night included Frank Borzage winning Best Director for Bad Girl, Fredric March winning Best Actor for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Helen Hayes won Best Actress for The Sin of Madelon Claudet. The ceremony was hosted by Conrad Nagel. Arrowsmith received the most nominations with four, while Bad Girl, and The Champ won the most awards with two each.

 

Next Week

Next week, I’ll review Paul Haggis’s 2005 winner Crash. After that, it’s The Artist, The Sting, Rebecca, The King’s Speech, and A Beautiful Mind.

 

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