Before 'Grand Hotel' premiered in 1932, there was no such thing as an all-star film. Movie moguls couldn't fathom "wasting" the considerable wattage of high-powered (and highly paid) personalities by cramming a bunch of them into a single picture. Better to spread the wealth and maximize returns by keeping the star-to-film ratio low. After all, every movie needed to make money, and too many stars in one film would rob others of the drawing power necessary to turn a profit.
Irving Thalberg, however, saw things differently. Vision defined MGM's "boy wonder" producer, and the young Thalberg believed box office returns could multiply exponentially by the number of stars appearing in a picture if the vehicle was strong enough to support the added weight. And what better property to launch his rash idea than 'Grand Hotel,' an adaptation of Vicki Baum's popular novel about a group of disparate guests at a posh Berlin lodging whose lives gradually intertwine. Romance, skullduggery, light comedy, strange liaisons, and tragedy ensue over the course of the drama, and with a powerhouse cast headlined by Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore, Lewis Stone, and Jean Hersholt, audiences hungrily lapped it up. A new genre was born, one that - when smartly engineered - continues to thrill viewers to this day.
'Grand Hotel' also thrilled the motion picture academy, winning the coveted Best Picture Oscar. (It still remains the only Best Picture victor ever to receive no other nominations.) As directed by Edmund Goulding, the film defined glitz and glamour, and in turn, contributed heavily to the evolution of the slick MGM style, which featured sophisticated stars swathed in sleek costumes and surrounded by impeccable set trimmings. Today, 'Grand Hotel' seems a bit bloated - too big for its britches, if you will - but to Depression-weary film fans, it was the height of escapist fantasy. And it had something for everyone - an aloof Garbo, who here, as an insecure, temperamental ballerina on the brink of self-destruction, coined the famous line that would forever define and haunt her, "I just want to be alone"; a down-to-earth Crawford, who personified the hard-knocks working girl of the day who would do almost anything to get ahead (she plays a "stenographer" who provides after-hours services to her boss); the dashing John Barrymore, a high-class, down-on-his-luck baron desperate to pay off a gambling debt; the macho Beery, a ruthless and manipulative magnate; and the sweet, pitiful Lionel Barrymore, a lonely man with a terminal illness who's determined to go out with a bang, not a whimper.
All the drama transpires behind the closed doors of the luxurious suites, and there's so much of it, it makes the movie's signature line, uttered with deadpan gravity by the hotel's bored, disfigured doctor (Lewis Stone), deliciously ironic: "Grand Hotel. Always the same. People come, people go. Nothing ever happens." Yet what makes this fine film endure is the plot's adult, understated nature. On paper, what transpires might seem melodramatic. Desperation motivates all the characters, and for most, money fuels their frenzy, mirroring the obsession with excess that defined the between-the-wars era, but the action is so elegantly captured and performed with such grace by the esteemed cast, none of it feels contrived.
Credit Goulding and cinematographer William Daniels with making the hotel setting not only posh and visually dazzling, but also a world unto itself, a vital character in a seething drama. Nothing occurs outside its glamorous structure, and as a result, we feel immersed in the heady, high-toned atmosphere, almost as if we are a guest ourselves, a fly on the rarefied walls spying on the elite clientele. A fluid camera enhances the story's flow, accented by spectacular overhead shots of both the hotel's circular atrium lobby and the bank of telephone operators who provide a conduit through which crucial news is delivered to the principals.
Garbo, as always, is breathtakingly beautiful and exquisitely photographed, and her expressiveness and uncanny ability to bare her soul before the camera make us forgive any deficiencies in the dialogue she's forced to recite. Her love scenes with John Barrymore exude a delicate tenderness and sincerity, and though the rest of her performance might seem stylized by today's natural standards (she takes her character's hyper-dramatic nature a shade too far), her greatness is undeniable.
Garbo's mesmerizing presence drives the film, but Crawford surprisingly eclipses her performance, at last brandishing the talent that would win her an Academy Award 13 years later. Like Garbo, Crawford is also gorgeously photographed, her wide eyes rivaling the patented orbs of Bette Davis, but her character possesses a more sweeping emotional arc, and her transformation from a tough, flirtatious ingenue to a sensitive, compassionate woman is striking. Before 'Grand Hotel,' Crawford was a star; after 'Grand Hotel,' she was an actress, and though her subsequent vehicles didn't always live up to her talent, she always strove to rise above them.
The two Barrymore brothers and Beery all contribute wonderfully etched portrayals, and though all try their best to monopolize the spotlight, 'Grand Hotel' remains a tightly knit ensemble film that showcases each actor equally. The following year's follow-up, 'Dinner at Eight,' featuring an equally formidable cast (including Beery and both Barrymores), may be more entertaining and accessible, but 'Grand Hotel' is more artistic, more elegant, and more substantive. Like most trail-blazers, it set the standard for all-star films, and few can live up to this exquisitely constructed and executed prototype.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Grand Hotel' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'Grand Hotel' looks appropriately grand on Blu-ray, sporting a lush, sumptuous image that's a slight improvement over the very fine 2005 DVD. A bit crisper, with a more defined and variegated gray scale, this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer doesn't mask the film's advanced age, but rather gives us the best representation possible of an antique movie. At the ripe old age of 81, 'Grand Hotel' exhibits many of the hallmarks of early sound pictures - a thicker layer of grain, soft focus shots, and diffused close-ups. Yet the grain here is well-integrated into the whole, replicating the feel of celluloid; the softness is noticeable, but not jarring or disruptive; and the close-ups are so perfectly lit and composed, what we lose in sharpness, we gain in beauty and the kind of highly stylized glamour that doesn't exist anymore. Some of the shots of Garbo and Crawford are so breathtakingly lovely, they are worthy of elongated freeze frames, thanks to the peerless work of cinematographer William Daniels, Garbo's cameraman of choice.
Blacks are rich and inky, showing up especially well in Crawford's outfit, but the density does contribute to a few instances of crush in dark interior scenes. The white in Garbo's ballet gown is light and lively, and the grays in between exude enough variation to make background details easily discernible. Satins and wools are more dimensional than ever before, and tweed patterns resist shimmering, remaining rock solid throughout. The depth of the signature overhead shots is also striking, and despite the rudimentary fluid camera work, the image stays stable and sharp during panning.
The source material is clean as a whistle, with no nicks, blotches, or vertical lines disrupting the action, and no noise or artifacts could be detected either. While this transfer can't compete with the studio's flagship black-and-white titles, it's nevertheless a superior effort that allows us to experience the grandeur of 'Grand Hotel' the way its creators originally intended.
The DTS-HD Master Audio mono track does the best it can with the material. 'Grand Hotel' was shot only five years after the advent of sound, and the vintage nature of the track is immediately and consistently apparent. A thin layer of hiss is almost always present, and a slight tinny quality pervades the music, especially the string sections, but such imperfections are to be expected. Thankfully, no pops, crackles, or other age related issues afflict this track, which has been nicely restored by Warner technicians.
Dialogue is the star of this film, and it shines through nicely with good clarity. There's no music score per se, but classical selections are employed throughout the movie to enhance various moods, yet they never drown out conversations, even when the actors speak in quieter tones. Sometimes the hustle and bustle of the early lobby scenes renders a few lines unintelligible, but that's a negligible complaint, especially considering the unrefined recording equipment of the day.
The 'Grand Hotel' soundtrack won't win any prizes, but it doesn't drag down this excellent film, which is about all we can ask of it.
In addition to an all-new audio commentary, all the extras from the previous 2005 DVD release of 'Grand Hotel' have been ported over to this Blu-ray edition, and it's a fine package that will excite classics aficionados.
'Grand Hotel' is grand film entertainment. Forget the fact it's eight decades old; this engrossing drama of desperation, romance, redemption, and despair invented the all-star genre and justly earned its Best Picture Academy Award. Oozing glamour and flaunting far more artistry than one might expect, 'Grand Hotel' defines the MGM style and contains a host of memorable performances. At last, Garbo comes to Blu-ray, and though her work in 'Grand Hotel' is not her best, she's a vision for the ages in this film. Warner's 1080p rendering improves upon the previous DVD both visually and aurally, and the addition of an audio commentary enhances the excellent supplemental package. An upgrade isn't essential, but who wouldn't want to see this iconic film in high definition? And if you haven't yet walked through the doors of 'Grand Hotel,' you're in for a treat. Highly recommended.