"Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens."
I think most people hear that line, spoken at the beginning and again at the end of the Oscar-winning movie Grand Hotel and assume it's meant ironically, that we've just seen the tragic collision of five desperate people—a has-been ballerina who wants to be alone, a bankrupt aristocrat turned unwilling jewel thief, a haughty plutocrat with a failing business, a secretary willing to turn tricks for a new frock, and a dying nebbish who wants to see what he's been missing—and we know that in fact a lot happens at the Grand Hotel.
But maybe if he'd said the same thing differently—"There's nothing new under the sun"—we'd appreciate what he's really driving at.
That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done.
So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say,
"See this, it is new"?
Already it has existed for ages
Which were before us.
That's the Preacher, by the way, writing in the Book of Ecclesiastes and for those of you who remember their Old Testament, you know Ecclesiastes is one of the most morose and fatalistic works of literature ever written, a meditation on the futility of, well, everything, that makes Kafka feel whimsical by comparison.
Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. ... One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.
It's telling that the character who speaks the famous last lines of Grand Hotel is a war veteran (Lewis Stone) who lost the right side of his face to a grenade. For him, Berlin's Grand Hotel is not so much a residence as a sort of limbo where he waits to pass from this world into the next, and while he waits, he watches, he and the generation of men buried under the poppy fields of France. He and they wait, they watch and they pass silent judgment on these five desperate people who have so much and savor it so little.
To pay a debt owed to vicious gamblers, "The Baron" (John Barrymore) intends to steal a strand of priceless pearls from the Russian ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo) but falls in love with her instead. In the next room, factory owner Preysing (Wallace Beery) schemes to hold on to his failing business by telling a whopping lie, while his secretary (Joan Crawford) hopes to leverage some nice clothes and a little rent money out of him before giving her lovely body to her piggish boss; frankly, she'd rather be with the Baron. And clinging to them all, hoping to partake of the crumbs from their table, is Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), an invisible little bookkeeper who has just received a death sentence from his doctor.
The faintly ludicrous story—"too melodramatic," Katie says—was first a novel, Vicki Baum's German-language Menschen im Hotel, then William Drake's Broadway play, and sometimes it creaks with the contrivances of the source material. But Grand Hotel was perhaps the first movie ever to boast an all-star cast, and boy genius producer Irving Thalberg determined that it be as glitzy and glamourous as the MGM movie machine could make it. It still works as a time capsule of that era's star power.
Thalberg always conceived of the story as a showcase for Greta Garbo, MGM's biggest star. Director Edmund Goulding suggested Buster Keaton for the part of the dying nebbish; Thalberg wanted rising star Clark Gable for the Baron. Louis B. Mayer vetoed both ideas. He wanted to sign John Barrymore to a long-term contract and with John's brother Lionel already working for MGM, thought by casting the one he could entice the other. Thalberg cast Joan Crawford, another MGM contract player and veteran of many shopgirl roles, to balance the increasingly esoteric Garbo. And with a lot of arm-twisting, he got the popular Beery to consent to play the unpleasant Preysing.
The resulting clash of personalities may have made for an unhappy set—with Crawford blasting out Bing Crosby records in her dressing room, Beery taking constant lunch breaks, and Garbo sitting silently in a corner—but audiences ate it up, turning Grand Hotel into one of the year's biggest hits. It won the Oscar for best picture despite receiving no other nominations.
Still, the all-star cast, while selling tickets, actually works against the cohesiveness of the movie as a whole. These five great actors have five very different styles and it's the rare viewer who responds to each of them equally. Leslie Halliwell cites John Barrymore, Daniel Eagan prefers Wallace Beery, Danny Peary likes Joan Crawford and TV Guide praises Lionel Barrymore. (The only one they all seem to agree on, perhaps a little unfairly, is Greta Garbo—"Revival house audiences laugh today at ... her permanently furrowed brow," says TV Guide—which is unfortunate since this may be the film most fans first see her in. If you don't know her work, I recommend you start with the more accessible Flesh and the Devil, Camille or Ninotchka then branch out from there.)
The character and storyline you focus on may depend on which actor's style you're most comfortable with. Personally, I find myself drawn to Lionel Barrymore's Otto Kringelein and his interaction with the Baron (uncharacteristically underplayed by brother John).
After a lifetime of anonymous devotion to a heartless corporation, Kringelein learns he has a terminal illness. With no family to look after him and no heirs to the nest egg he's been scrimping his whole life to save, Kringelein determines to spend every last dime on a spree at the best hotel in Berlin, the Grand Hotel of the movie's title. But Kringelein is a cringing mouse of a man, and the habits of a lifetime prove difficult to break. He wants to live but has no idea how.
Enter the Baron who despite the gulf between their social standing takes Kringelein under his wing. Kringelein gives the viewer a rooting interest among these otherwise self-absorbed and self-destructive characters, and the interaction between him and the Baron lends Grand Hotel a poignancy it would otherwise lack. Writing for the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall said after the film's premiere that "Mr. Barrymore brings out every possible note of this sensitive person" and that "[i]f ever an actor got under the skin of a character Mr. Barrymore does here."
Barrymore's Kringelein becomes a rumination on what it means to be alive and it's ironic that he's so busy trying to make up for lost time—"living," he calls it (gambling, dancing, pouring champagne down his throat)—he doesn't notice the life-and-death predicament of his one true friend, the Baron. Not until Kringelein abandons his self-absorption does he begin to live. The great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa would later mine this same theme to great effect in the 1952 movie Ikiru.
Let's face it. Grand Hotel is a pretty depressing movie. Despite the glamourous stars and Cedric Gibbons's fabulous art Deco sets, it has more in common with Kafka than Astaire and Rogers, and when it's all said and done, the film turns out to be something of a cold bottle of champagne served lovingly to a cockroach. It did, however, set the pattern for a whole series of potboilers from Stagecoach to Airport about a diverse group of strangers having a bad day.
And it did give us what is arguably the best performance of Lionel Barrymore's long career.
Barrymore, by the way, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1878, the eldest sibling of an acting dynasty that included John and sister and future Oscar-winner Ethel. He began acting on Broadway in his early twenties and made his first movie in 1911, the first of more than two hundred films.
Barrymore won an Academy Award for acting in 1931's A Free Soul and was nominated as a director for the Gloria Swanson vehicle Madame X, but he's best known, in America at least, for his role as George Bailey's nemesis, Mr. Potter, in the Frank Capra Christmas classic, It's A Wonderful Life.
Crippling arthritis confined Barrymore to a wheelchair in 1937 but didn't derail his career; he played key roles in such films as Key Largo, You Can't Take It With You, Dinner At Eight and Captains Courageous, and portrayed the recurring character Dr. Leonard B. Gillespie in fifteen movies.
"I've got a lot of ham in me," Barrymore once admitted. A lot of talent, too.
He died of a heart attack in 1954. He was seventy-six.