“I want to be alone.”
You’ll never be lonely when you’ve got a prominent array of stars adorning the screen right in front of you.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer is one of Hollywood’s leading production companies. Famous for being allied with glamour, talent and sophistication, the movie studio succeeded in expanding their tremendous star constellation.
MGM co-founder, Louis B. Mayer was proud of his stellar array of actors that he had in his stable, and often boasted that MGM had more stars than heaven. To capitalize on the genuine artistic ability of the lead players, Mayer constantly thought about uniting his unique breed of dominating talent for a motion picture extravaganza that was guaranteed to propel popularity.
The answer to the star-studded search was Grand Hotel ( 1932 ), a spectacular production that was decked out with glamour, talent, and a galaxy of stars all in one motion picture. Masterfully directed by Edmond Goulding, and produced by Irving Thalberg, the film was based on the 1930 stage play of the same name by William A. Drake, who originally adapted from the 1929 novel by Vicki Baum titled. “Menschen Im Hotel
Even before the film was released, Grand Hotel was an eagerly awaited motion picture on the horizon that was set to deliver fireworks. When the film did hit the cinemas audiences were not disappointed. Instead it turned into a major event that fueled commotion and sent the media into a frenzy. More than eighty years since its release, the lavish premiere which was held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre has become the stuff of legend.
To this day, Grand Hotel is known for being the first film to feature a prominent ensemble cast, and for being the first film to receive the Academy Award for Best Picture without securing nominations in any other category. The way each star is given ample time to shine in their respective roles is something that audiences continue to marvel at. Fortunately, the film was palatable with critics also. Mordaunt Hall from The New York Times stated, “The picture adheres faithfully to the original and while it undoubtedly lacks the life and depth and color of the play, by means of excellent characterizations it keeps the audience on the qui vive.”, while Alfred Rushford Greason from Variety wrote, “The film may not entirely please the theatergoers who were fascinated by its deft stage direction and restrained acting, but it will attract and hold the wider public to which it is now addressed.” He added, “The drama unfolds with a speed that never loses its grip, even for the extreme length of nearly two hours, and there is a captivating pattern of unexpected comedy that runs through it all, always fresh and always pat.”
Each cast member was ascended from the highest magnitude, and were the best that MGM had to offer. Headlining the production was John and Lionel Barrymore who along with their sister Ethel came from the famous acting dynasty known as the Royal Family of Hollywood. Greta Garbo who was dubbed, “the greatest money-making machine ever put on screen” was sure to bring in the profits while Joan Crawford along with the other notable names were revered by audiences and critics alike.
At the time when John Barrymore was approached about starring in Grand Hotel, he was still only a newcomer to MGM. Prior to his tenure at the studio, Barrymore was under contract at Warner Brothers until 1931 when his contract expired. After accepting a $25,000 cut per picture, John joined MGM, where Irving Thalberg immediately cast him alongside his brother Lionel in Arsene Lupin ( 1932 ).
After the success of Arsene Lupin, MGM wanted to capitalize on the films achievements by casting the two Barrymore brothers in Grand Hotel, a story that delves into the dramas that are dominating the lives of a group of individuals staying at a luxurious hotel in Berlin. Casting John Barrymore alongside Greta Garbo was a masterstroke of success. The Swedish actress had worked with Lionel in The Temptress ( 1926 ) and Mata Hari ( 1931 ), but what she really wanted was to act with John, whom she considered to be one of the best things to ever come out of Hollywood. Margot Peters, the author of The House of Barrymore said that the first day of shooting was the meeting of the gods. In order to impress Garbo, Barrymore arrived on the set fifteen minutes early, but when Garbo never appeared, Barrymore was incensed. Incidentally, Garbo had been waiting for John outside the door to escort him onto the set. It was an honor that she wanted to pay the great actor.
By 1932, Greta Garbo was a distinguished star whose popularity continued to soar. Her enigmatic beauty and mysterious screen presence kept her in high demand and were a remarkable asset to any motion picture. Irving Thalberg was well aware of the success that Garbo’s previous films had generated and wanted her for the role of Grusinkaya, the disillusioned ballerina in Grand Hotel. The result of the casting was memorable, and the vision of Grusinkaya will forever be etched in the hearts of millions worldwide.
Legendary actress Joan Crawford catapulted to super-stardom after being cast in the role of Flaemmchen, the stenographer to Wallace Beery’s General Director, Preysing. Initially, Crawford was reluctant to take on the part, fearing that her presence would be eclipsed by her powerhouse co-stars, but Joan proved that she was more than capable of holding her own against her fellow players. In the years that followed the films success, Crawford always stated that filming Grand Hotel was one of the happiest experiences of her early career.
The films fourth billed star was Wallace Beery whose career triumphed a year earlier after starring alongside Marie Dressler in Min and Bill ( 1931 ). Prior to attaining critical acclaim with Min and Bill and Grand Hotel, Beerie was one of Hollywood’s top grossing stars and had been in the acting business since the early days of silent cinema.
In 1939, a deluge of stars were heavily campaigning for a role in the cinematic masterpiece, Gone Wind The Wind, but in 1932 almost every star in Hollywood wanted to be involved with Grand Hotel. Initially the role of Otto Kringelein was assigned to Buster Keaton, but due to unforeseen circumstances, Keaton was forced to drop out, and the part was given to Lionel Barrymore. Marlene Dietrich and Marie Dressler were pushing for character parts and even offered to lend their services for free, though unfortunately both stars were deemed unsuitable and Paramount was not willing to loan Dietrich out to MGM. Among other stars that wanted to be included in the picture were Clark Gable and Douglas Fairbanks Jr who petitioned for the role of Baron Felix von Geigern, but John Barrymore was already cast as the Baron.
Nobody was happier than Joan Crawford to be cast alongside MGM’s finest constellation of stars in a top budget film that was set to thrill the nation. Crawford who hailed from an impoverished background and who had endured a childhood of neglect and abuse, really had to fight her way to the top of the ladder. For her role in Grand Hotel, MGM paid her $60,000, which was a lot more than what John Barrymore was receiving, but $8,000 less than Garbo’s salary. Crawford didn’t care about the amount she was earning. She was euphoric to be starring in the same motion picture as Greta Garbo, one actress whom she had always admired, but she was disappointed to find out that she won’t be sharing any scenes with Garbo.
Incidentally, Greta Garbo was closely examining Joan Crawford’s career from the outside. According to many sources, Garbo felt threatened by Crawford’s presence and announced that she would not be sharing any scenes with Joan, and also insisted that she would not be entering the set until Joan had left for the day. Joan Crawford however, had a different story and always recalled how she walked past Garbo’s dressing room each evening and tried to greet her with the pleasantries that seemed to be ignored until one day when Garbo emerged from her dressing room and greeted Joan as she walked past. As the story goes, Garbo warmly put her hands on Joan’s face and said “Oh, I am so sorry we have no scenes together.”
With the success of Grand Hotel, Joan Crawford was put back on the radar. She would go on to receive even higher acclaim and greater recognition. Her next two films, Letty Lynton ( 1932 ) and Rain ( 1932 ) were also among the greatest pictures produced that year, but as much as her popularity escalated, Crawford always maintained that her performance as Flaemmchen opened the doors to an array of opportunities.
Whenever Joan Crawford spoke of her career she profusely reminisced about the making of Grand Hotel. She fondly remembered all her co-stars, but Lionel Barrymore was the one she held in high esteem. The veteran actor had taken Crawford into his protective care, and made sure that she was fully being catered for. Joan later recalled, “Every single day Mr. Lionel Barrymore would say something nice to me. He’d say, “How are you, baby?. I never saw you look so beautiful, or he’d tell me that I had acted better than any other day that week. I know he didn’t mean it, but it was nice to hear.”
While Lionel had taken Joan Crawford under his wing, Garbo was being won over by John Barrymore’s simplicity and selfless generosity. She entrusted him with her inmost secrets, and in return he continuously supported and encouraged her. When John appeared on the set with a hangover, she fed him her specially concocted Irak Punch. This sort of treatment was never given by Garbo, but John Barrymore venerated her, and he became her confidante.
Grand Hotel commenced shooting on December 31st, 1931, which is known as a very important day for Greta Garbo. Her previous film Mata Hari was scheduled for release, and it was also the final day of her MGM contract, but the significance of the day had no affect on Garbo. Since she wasn’t required to start rehearsals for Grand Hotel until early in the new year, and because she refused to be present at the Mati Hari premiere, Garbo and Mercedes de Acosta embarked on a journey to New York, where they stayed in separate rooms at the St Moritz Hotel, and spent most of their evenings attending Broadway shows.
After several negotiations with Louis B. Mayer, Garbo agreed to renew her contract with MGM if the studio was willing to cast her in Queen Christina ( 1933 ) and increase her salary to $300,000 per picture. Mayer happily obliged and made sure that all her future demands be catered for. In the meantime, Greta was expected to return to Hollywood to commence filming her scenes for Grand Hotel on January 4th. As soon as she entered the set, Garbo was introduced to John Barrymore who greeted her with the words, “My wife and I think you are the loveliest person in the world.”. Garbo was elated to receive that sort of treatment from somebody of Barrymore’s stature, and said “This is a great day for me. How I have looked forward to working with John Barrymore.”. Also on the set that day serving as a nuisance to Garbo was Louis B. Mayer and author Vicki Baum, who were hiding in the shadows. From the moment they arrived, Garbo sensed their presence and stopped the camera. Edmond Goulding approached Garbo and told her that Baum was anxious to meet her. Garbo snapped, “She can stay then, and I will go home.”
“Oh, you’re a little stenographess?”
“Yes, I’m a little stenographess.”
“Fascinating. I don’t suppose you’d, uh, take some dictation from me sometime, would you?”
Despite the occasional dilemmas and the altercations between the cast and crew, the filming of Grand Hotel was a smooth ride from beginning to end. A rivaling competition may have erupted on set with Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo, but most of the players were amiable and at their professional best. By February 19th, 1932, all actors had finished their scenes and was ready for the extravagant premiere that was set for April 12th.
Grand Hotel is a fascinating drama that chronicles the chapter of events that occur at the most opulent hotel in Berlin. When a group of individuals from different walks of life check in to the plush dwelling, their lives begin to intersect and each must deal with their respective problems. First we are introduced to Otto Kringelein ( Lionel Barrymore ), a dying accountant who spent his working years slaving away in a textile factory, and wants to spend his final days in luxury. Not long after he arrives at the Grand Hotel, Kringelein is befriended by The Baron Felix von Geigern ( John Barrymore ), a charming gentleman with a heart of gold who had to resort to becoming a jewel thief after squandering his fortune.
The Baron develops a great rapport with most of the guests, especially Grusinkaya ( Greta Garbo ), a disenchanted ballerina whose last few performances have not been reaching the acclaim she yearns for. As a result, Grusinkaya begins having panic attacks and starts missing performances, but when she meets the Baron in her hotel room who is in the process of stealing her pearls, she unexpectedly finds happiness and falls in love with him. Also smitten with the Baron is Flaemmchen ( Joan Crawford ), a penniless stenographer who works for General Director Preysing ( Wallace Beery ), a ruthless industrial magnate who is trying to conclude a business scheme to save his textile company from ruin.
Tensions arise and sparks fly at the Grand Hotel, but all these bizarre occurrences sure make up for those normal mundane days where nothing ever happens. To view the excitement that is taking place within the confines of the hotel, watch the movie to experience the joy and anguish that each guest is enduring.
Grand Hotel is a memorable piece of Hollywood history. Made during the bygone era when the stars possessed a distinctive quality, the film is imbued with talent and gives viewers a glimpse into the early days of cinema when the cast was still fresh out of silent pictures and had recently made the successful transition to sound.
Despite the star-studded cast and the multiple plot lines, each character is given their opportunity to shine. Greta Garbo received top billing, but her time on screen was rather limited. Garbo first appears about twenty minutes into the film, and is seen in her suite with Rafaela Ottiano. In the years that have proceeded, many critics have complained about Garbo’s performance, and stated that she appeared too actressy, but regardless of what other reviewers said, Greta Garbo’s rather flamboyant approach to her role was necessary. Grusinkaya is a high strung ballerina who is losing her grip on her career and talent. She’s lost all hope of building a bigger audience and succeeding in her future endeavors.
Even if a person is not familiar with Grand Hotel or Garbo’s repertoire of films, they may recognize Garbo’s famous line, “I want to be alone.”. After uttering these words in the film, Greta Garbo would long be associated with these words, and it sort of became her trademark.
John Barrymore is perfectly cast as the Baron, a suave gentleman whose kindness makes him a popular resident at the hotel. To the other guests he embodies the spirit of generosity and amiability, but what they don’t know is that he is hiding a dark secret. Behind close doors, he’s facing a severe financial crisis, and to repay his debts he must steal an exquisite pearl necklace from Grusinkaya, but she ends up stealing his heart instead.
As always, John Barrymore is the films most prominent asset. He is the only one who had the power to rescue Grusinkaya from despair, and for most part of the movie he remains her pillar of strength. It’s not just Grusinkaya however, who relies on the Baron for support. A few other guests consider him to be their tower of comfort, especially Otto Kringelein who forms a great friendship with the Baron.
It’s a real treat watching the Barrymore brothers steal the scenery from one another, and this is not their only pairing. The two were previously cast in Arsene Lupin ( 1932 ), and they would go on to appear in Rasputin and the Empress ( 1932 ), where they would be joined by sister Ethel, Dinner At Eight ( 1933 ) and Night Flight ( 1933 ). All of their screen pairings gives viewers a glimpse into the window of their genius, but Grand Hotel really encapsulates their brotherly chemistry and the magic that both John and Lionel possessed.
One of the films major highlights is Joan Crawford in the role of Flaemmchen, a determined but flirtatious stenographer who is hired to work for General Director Preysing. Grand Hotel is the best of Crawford’s earlier works. Before being cast as Flaemmchen, Crawford was mainly seen in pictures that didn’t really give her a chance to explore her talents, but here, Joan exudes that certain star quality, and is sensational. As Flaemmchen, Joan clings to the hope of becoming an actress, but in all Pre-Code style, she is willing to offer Preysing more if he advances her career.
Wallace Beery is also worthy of recognition, but his character is easy to detest. General Director Preysing is an industrialist with a capricious personality. His mercurial attitude is off-putting to the other guests, and he is never seen engaging himself in a pleasant conversation with anyone. For most part of the film his too busy trying to negotiate a pivotal business deal, and he’s got Flaemmchen to assist him with the typewriting duties. It’s also interesting to note that Preysing was once Kringeleins boss. This bit of information paints a clear picture of what his character is like. As his employee, Kringelein was treated like dirt. He spent years slaving away in his textile factory, and was usually only given menial duties.
In addition to the five major characters, there are two other cast members whose presence helps evoke the excitement that the film creates. Lewis Stone plays Doctor Otternschlag, a disfigured veteran of World War 1, who shuts his self away from the outside world and lives permanently at the Grand Hotel due to his facial injuries caused from the war. During his time at the hotel, Doctor Otternschlag has witnessed a myriad of people checking in, staying briefly and then departing for home or their next destination that his become accustomed to the whole procedure. At the start of the film he observes, “People coming, going. Nothing ever happens.” – This time however his statement is proved wrong – A multitude of adventuress scenarios transpire.
Jean Hersholt was cast in the role of Senf, the hotel porter. For somebody of Hersholt’s stature, he is given little to do except fuel himself with anguish and worry over the fate of his heavily pregnant wife. Initially, Edmond Goulding was adamant about casting Buster Keaton as Senf, but Keaton who was also the first choice to play Kringelein was not successful. Instead, Goulding had to deliver the news to Keaton that he was not deemed applicable.
Since it’s initial release, Grand Hotel has followed a triumphant road of success. In 1945, a film titled, Week-End at the Waldorf, starring Ginger Rogers, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, and Van Johnson was released. Although the production was intended as a remake, the plot does not closely mirror that of the original 1932 version. While Grand Hotel relies heavily on the powerful force of its wattage of stars, Week-End at the Waldorf seems to draw extensively on romance and comedy.
Grand Hotel was finally given a more endearing tribute in 1989 when a musical of the same name that was based on the novel, 1929 play and movie opened on Broadway. The play was an immediate hit, and attained five Tony Awards out of twelve nominations. After a total of 1,017 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre and George Gershwin Theatre on Broadway, the show closed to critical acclaim.
The synopsis of the 1989 Broadway production closely echos 1932’s Grand Hotel. The structure of the story is similar, and the characters have the same names and are inflicted with the same problems. Apart from a few contrasting differences the only major distinction are the musical aspects of the play.
More than eighty-six years since its release, Grand Hotel continues to remain a prestige production from Hollywood’s golden age. The film itself epitomizes the fine art of movie making and represents the magic of the silver screen. From Cedric Gibbons masterful art direction and outstanding and plush art deco set design, William H Daniels crisp cinematography, William Axt’s grandiose musical score to the sheer magnetism of the lead players who all work well under Edmond Goulding’s deft directorial abilities, Grand Hotel is an ingenious masterpiece that simply can’t be surpassed.
Greta Garbo was very particular as to how her love scenes with John Barrymore were shot. She requested red front-lighting and required curtains to be placed between the camera and film crew to help set the mood and create the illusion that she and Barrymore were alone. During one take, Garbo got so carried away with the scene that she continued kissing Barrymore for three full minutes after director Edmund Goulding had yelled cut. The bonus smooching footage survives, but was not used in the final cut.
In a package deal, MGM purchased both the stage and film rights of Vicki Baum‘s novel, Menschen im Hotel, for $35,000. The play was a spectacular hit on Broadway, and recouped the studio’s initial investment before a single frame of the film was shot.
In later years Joan Crawford described the movie 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.”
The Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater was one of the film industry’s most spectacular promotional events to date. A reproduction of the film’s iconic circular reception desk was placed outside the venue, and many of the movie stars who attended the showing were asked to sign the ledger at the desk as if they were hotel guests.
John Barrymore famously said to cinematographer William H. Daniels: “I’m 50 years old and I want to look like Jackie Cooper‘s grandson.”
Tickets for the premiere roadshow engagements were as high as $1.50, an extraordinary price for a movie ticket in 1932.
The only Best Picture Oscar winner not to be nominated for any other Academy Awards.
John Barrymore: Born, John Sidney Blyth on February 15th, 1882 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: May 29th, 1942 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 60.
Greta Garbo: Born, Greta Lovisa Gustafsson on September 18th, 1905 in Stockholm, Sweden. Died: April 15th, 1990 in New York. Aged: 84.
Lionel Barrymore: Born, Lionel Herbert Blythe on April 28th, 1878 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Died: November 15th, 1954 in Van Nuys, California. Aged: 76.
Joan Crawford: Born, Lucille Fay LeSueur on March 23rd, 1904, 1905, 1906 or 1908 in San Antonio, Texas. Died: May 10th, 1977 in New York. To this day Joan’s birth year remains a mystery.
Wallace Beery: Born, Wallace Fitzgerald Beery on April 1st, 1885 in Clay County, Missouri. Died: April 15th, 1949 in Beverly Hills, California. Aged: 64.
This post was written for the Broadway Bound Blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Rebecca from Taking Up Room. To view the other articles being exhibited during this event please click here.