Oscar: Best Picture–Grand Hotel

grand_hotel_posterBased on Vicki Baum’s novel (and play), adapted to the screen by William A. Drake, “Grand Hotel” was an MGM prestige production, winning the 1931-2 Best Picture. “Grand Hotel” features an all-star cast, demonstrating that MGM had indeed “more stars than there are in heaven.”

Seen from the present’s perspective, “Grand Hotel” still serves as an example for a type of film that “Hollywood does not make anymore.”

There were at least five star performances, each exhibiting his or her particular screen persona, though best of all were Greta Garbo, as the fading dancer, and John Barrymore, as the declining nobleman. Their scenes together were the strongest in the film, and some of Garbo’s lines, such as “I want to be alone,” became identified with her screen image.

Also good are Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen, the determined secretary; Wallace Beery, as Preysing, her brutish-abusive tycoon-employer; and Lionel Barrymore, as a pathetic dying man named Otto Kringelein

However, the movie as a whole lacks dramatic coherence, and continuity; it’s too much of a patch work. Each star has two or three “big scenes,” which are replete with message-speeches about the value of life (and death), the transient nature of love. Take Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore), who says to Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore), “A short life and a gay one. That’s my creed.”

grand_hotel_5In several acts, the movie crosses the line between well-acted melodrama and sheer pathos. Thus, Lionel Barrymore tells General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery): “You can’t discharge me! I’m my own master for the first time in my life. You can’t discharge me! I’m sick! I’m going to die. You understand/ I’m going to die, and nobody can do anything to me anymore. Nothing can happen to me anymore. Before I can be discharged, I’ll be dead.” And he does.

A layer of cynicism prevails over the melodramatic proceedings, expressed in the speeches given by Dr. Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), who acts as sort of an Emcee: “What do you do in the Grand Hotel? Eat. Sleep. Loaf around. Flirt a little. Dance a little. A hundred doors leading to one hall, and no one knows anything about the person next to them. And when you leave, someone occupies your room, lies in your bed, and that’s the end.

grand_hotel_4_crawfordThe movie concludes on a bitter note, when Gruskinskaya, unaware of the baron’s death, departs the hotel with her staff, believing they are going to meet later. The first and last words belong to Dr. Otternschalg: “Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come. People go. Nothing ever happens.”

Detailed Plot:

Doctor Otternschlag (Lewis Stone), a vet of World War I and a resident of the Grand Hotel in Berlin, wryly observes, “People come and go. Nothing ever happens.,” What follows proves the opposite, that a great many melodramas do happen, mostly behind closed doors.

Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore), who squandered his fortune and supports himself as a card player and jewel thief, befriends Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore, his rela-life brother), a timid accountant who, having discovered he is dying, has decided to spend his remaining days living luxuriously

grand_hotel_3_crawfordNonetheless, audiences did not mind the stiffness of the dialogue and staginess of the production (Baum’s novel was done as a play), for they turned “Grand Hotel” into the top money-making movie of the year. Reviews for this early sound film were excellent, too. The Motion Picture Herald wrote: “As drama, as comedy, as character portrayal, I rank ‘Grand Hotel’ with the few first-class entertainments on stage or screen. So perfect, so vivid, so well done is this picture that I was not picture-conscious at all. It created an illusion of absolute reality.

Kringelein’s former employer, the crass industrialist General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), is at the hotel to close a deal, and he hires stenographer Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford). She aspires to be an actress and shows Preysing magazine photos for which she posed, implying she is willing to offer more if he is willing to help advance her career.

Garbo, despite her big frame and wide shoulders, plays delicate Russian ballerina Grusinskaya, whose career is in decline and seems to be on the verge of nervous breakdown. When the Baron is in her room to steal her jewelry, he overhears her as she talks to herself in despair about wanting to end it all, holding pills in her hand. He comes out of hiding to prevent her from suicide, and Grusinskaya becomes intrigued, seduced by his looks and his natural charm. The following morning, a repentant Baron returns Grusinskaya’s jewels, and she forgives him, even inviting him to accompany her to Vienna.

grand_hotel_2_garboThe Baron joins Kringelein and Flaemmchen at the hotel bar, and she cajoles the ailing man into dancing with her. Preysing interrupts them and imperiously demands she join him. Irritated by his former employer’s coarse behavior, Kringelein tells him what he thinks of him. Surprised by his uncharacteristic audacity, Preysing attacks Kringelein.  Desperate for money to pay his way out of crime, he and Kringelein play a card game and Kringelein wins. Intoxicated, he drops his wallet, the Baron stashes it in his jacket pocket. However, after Kringelein begins to frantically search for it, the Baron pretends to have suddenly discovered the wallet and returns it to him.

Preysing must travel to London, and he asks Flaemmchen to accompany him. Later, Preysing sees the shadow of the Baron rifling through his belongings. He confronts the Baron, and in a struggle kills him with the telephone. Flaemmchen tells Kringelein, who summons the police and Preysing is arrested.

Grusinskaya departs for the train station, expecting to find the Baron there. Meanwhile, Kringelein offers to take Flaemmchen to Paris to find cure for his illness.

grand_hotel_1The film ends symmetrically, reprising the first scene.  As the guests leave, Doctor Otternschlag once again observes, “Grand Hotel. People come and go. Nothing ever happens.”

Oscar Context:

“Grand Hotel” competed against seven other movies for Best Picture, including John Ford’s “Arrowsmith,” King Vidor’s “The Champ,” “One Hour with You,” co-directed by George Cukor and Ernst Lubitsch, and Josef Von Sternberg’s “Shanghai Express.

Strangely, none of the star players of “Grand Hotel, or even its director, Edmund Goulding, was Oscar-nominated. The movie is one of the three Oscar-winners to have received only one award. At present, the tendency is for a few films get a large number of nominations and awards, but in the 1930s and 1940s, the votes were spread among a larger number of pictures.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Best Picture, produced by Irving Thalberg .

Grand Hotel” was nominated for only one Oscar, Best Picture. It vied for the Best Picture Oscar with seven other films: “Arrowsmith,” which received the largest number of nominations (4), “Bad Girl” (3), “The Champ” (also 4), “Five Star Final,” “One Hour With You,” “Shanghai Express,” and “The Smiling Lieutenant.

Once again, Paramount dominated with three of the eight nominees. MGM had two: the winner and “The Champ.”


Greta Garbo as Grusinskaya, the dancer

John Barrymore as the Baron Felix von Gaigern

Joan Crawford as Flaemmchen, the stenographer

Wallace Beery as General Director Preysing

Lionel Barrymore as Otto Kringelein

Lewis Stone as Dr Otternschlag

Jean Hersholt as Senf, the porter

Robert McWade as Meierheim

Purnell Pratt as Zinnowitz

Ferdinand Gottschalk as Pimenov

Rafaela Ottiano as Suzette

Morgan Wallace as the chauffeur

Tully Marshall as Gerstenkorn

Frank Conroy as Rohna

Murray Kinnell as Schweimann

Edwin Maxwell as Dr Waitz